Q&A: My 5-year-old is struggling in all his three languages – what to do?

by | Nov 19, 2015 | Challenges, Coaches, Q&A The trilingual+ child, Rita R | 1 comment



I recently found your blog while searching for information about multilingual children. Here’s my story in short: I’m a Romanian married to a Belgian man. Our two kids were born in Romania, where my man lived 12 years. As he learned Romanian himself and never thought he would move back to Belgium, he decided not to speak Dutch to any of them. But as they say, never say never!

We eventually moved to Belgium in 2012, when my daughter was 10 and my son was 2.5 years old. For my daughter there was no problem at all, but the reason I’m writing is my son. When we moved here, his mother language was just setting in place, or let’s say he wasn’t speaking much. I have to say my husband and I have always spoken English to each other.

The moment we moved to Belgium was also the moment my husband started to speak Dutch to our son. And for the first time in his life he started school (kindergarten called here). It was a very difficult year, he was behind everyone in his class. He didn’t understand much, so the teachers suggested he would repeat the first year – which he did. After three years here, I must say he’s still behind all of them. He can’t speak correctly any of the two languages.

I must mention, though we never spoke English to him, he understand most of what we say – and needs to ask more when he hears something interesting. As you know, Romanian and Dutch are two very different languages, with different grammatical structures, so he mostly switch the words in the sentence – which makes it sound strange for the one who listens, not to mention he can use both languages in one sentence.

Above all these, he is struggling with counting, with memorizing abstract words – such as days of the weeks, and numbers. He’s seeing a speech therapist, outside school, since one year now. And she said she thinks there’s a memory issue when it comes to the languages. I’m a bit worried, as I don’t know if his delay had to do with all these three languages or if there’s more to it.

Thanks for reading my message. I could use some advice or at least an opinion.

Have a nice day!


Dear Aurelia,

Thank you for your question and for getting in touch.

If I am correct, your son will be turning six soon. By your description, your son can understand both Romanian and Dutch and most of what you speak in English – so he is well on his way to becoming trilingual. As you do not speak English to him directly, it is natural that he will not speak English himself – he has a receptive knowledge of the language, which he has picked up by listening to you and his father.

Mixing languages at his age is still normal and I would not worry too much about this aspect as such. He is already seeing a speech therapist, so this is great – do you feel he has made improvements since he started his visits? You say that the therapist thinks your son may have a “memory issue when it comes to languages” – has she expanded on this at all? Please do ask her to explain in more detail so you understand exactly what she is referring to and whether she thinks any further investigations are called for. Not saying that there is, but if the therapist thinks there might be an underlying Specific Language Impairment (SLI), then ask for an assessment designed for bilingual children. The important thing to remember about SLI in general is that bilingualism is not the cause of it.

You mention that he was behind everyone in class when he first started school – what is your feeling, do you think this was only due to the language and because he did not understand the instructions? You also write that after three years, you think he is still behind others – have the teachers mentioned this to you? If you are concerned about his general development, I suggest that you discuss this with your family doctor to get peace of mind. Your doctor will be able to decide whether to refer you to a specialist in child development.

I can feel your worry, and the best way to tackle it, is to speak to the professionals who can help you understand the situation and by asking them specific questions about your son’s language and overall development. Be persistent in getting the information you need and do not accept an answer along the lines of “It’s nothing to worry about” unless the comment is followed up by an explanation why you can stop being concerned. As a parent, you have the right to fully understand the situation.

I hope this has helped you a bit – please do let me know how it goes.

Kind regards

Rita Rosenback

Rita Rosenback

Rita is an author, Family Language Coach, blogger and speaker, who was born into a bilingual family on the Swedish-speaking west coast of Finland. After studying languages in Finland and Germany she worked as a university teacher, translator, interpreter and manager of multinational teams. Rita is now a full-time writer and coach and has been living in the U.K. since 1998. Rita is the mother of two grown-up multilingual daughters, who are the inspiration for her book: “Bringing up a Bilingual Child”, an easy-to-read guide for parents, where she navigates the reader across the “Seven Cs of Multilingual Parenting: Communication, Confidence, Commitment, Consistency, Creativity, Culture and Celebration”. Currently English and Swedish are Rita’s main languages, but she instantly switches to Finnish or German or to her Finland-Swedish dialect when the opportunity presents itself (and when push comes to shove, she can communicate in a very basic Punjabi). Rita is the creator and driving force of this website, and she gives talks and holds workshops for parents and teachers on the topic of bilingual children. She also coaches families on how to make the most of their languages and raise their children to become confident speakers of the chosen languages.

1 Comment

  1. Claudia Iavorenciuc

    Dear Aurelia,

    we have a very similar story – we are also coming from Romania and living in the Flemish Belgium, speaking Romanian and English at home and my children following school in Dutch. My son has faced exactly the same type of difficulties you mentioned, he is 11 now and we had quite a tough time understanding where the difficulties come from and what to do about that. Especially difficult to understand as the experience with my daughter who is 13 now has been totally different: she is perfectly fluent in three languages and becoming proficient in the fourth – as you know, starting the 5th grade they also introduce mandatory French classes.

    We went through lots of testing and investigation, confirming indeed the SLI (dysphasie) diagnosis, as Rita mentioned above. It brought some light at least in knowing what it is, however it is much more difficult in actually finding the right track / type of therapy. At least this has given him access to the extra support the schools should give – and allowed for the use of computer in class with particular text-to-speech reading software, which definitely seem to help. Every child is different of course, and SLI can manifest itself in different ways – therefore it is difficult to generalize. In our case the language issue had an impact on the topics as well – maths has been difficult too, as it involves as well lots of specialised language and abstract concept. Reading is fine so far – at least technical reading, however things get much more difficult when reading comprehension is involved. And using lots of images complemented by reading-out-loud or reading software / audio books also helped.

    We can discuss by phone since we’re sharing the same country and possibly even same province:)
    Best wishes! Claudia


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