Tuesday, 3 February 2009

becoming bilingual?

I've been meaning to write a post for a while about the boys and how they are coping with learning a second language. It is obviously a gradual process which means that there is not often an event about which I can write here. Now we have been here for 6 months (6 months!) and the boys have been in nursery for 4, I feel that I can sit back and take stock.

Many people, Bosnian and English, said on our arrival that children are like sponges with language and that they would pick it up no problem and even that they'll be fluent by Christmas. Obviously that is not entirely true. Children do have more of an ear for languages, and they will have a far better accent than we will ever manage, but that doesn't necessarily make the process of learning a new language any easier.

With two very different children, at two different levels of speaking ability, we are finding that we are watching two different routes to learning Bosnian.

Luke joined nursery at 20 months with a few words of English, really only intelligible to his adoring parents. He's quite a robust lad, and after a little trouble settling in has totally adapted to nursery life. His English language has improved enormously over the last few months - as you would expect as a toddler approaches 2. This is a relief to us as we did worry that introducing him to another language would affect his ability to learn English. I talked to his teachers yesterday about how much Bosnian he has learnt. They were unsure. They are pretty sure that he understands them and can certainly follow basic commands in Bosnian. But he doesn't really say anything, although he will mimic back to them what they have just said. He's quite happy to give it a go and enjoys the pleasure with which his attempts to talk Bosnian brings.

Adam, is a different soul. At 3 1/2, is a shy lad. He has never been one to put himself forward or rush to join in. He has always been happier on the outskirts of the group until he knows everyone well. In English he has always been able to express himself pretty well, with a pretty wide vocabulary and full sentences. He found nursery far more difficult to adapt to than Luke. He went from being fully understood and a part of a gang of mates at his old nursery to being the outsider, whom noone understands. It has taken a while but I think he is fully settled there now, but I'm not sure how much he actually enjoys it there. His teachers also say that he understands basic commands in Bosnian, but that he doesn't speak it at all. Not a word. He talks to the other children in English and they talk to him in Bosnian, and they all seem quite happy about that. He is not one to give it a go. Won't speak even words that we know he knows. We don't push him, he can speak or not speak as he wants to. He has also developed his own made up language, full of random sounds. Apparently this is a common path to learning a second language, in theory this means he is practising the sounds of the new language in preparation for the next stage of starting to talk it. We shall see.

That said, I do listen to my two talking between themselves and hear the odd Bosnian word creeping in. Most obviously, like all true toddlers Nemoj! Necu! Ne! (Don't, Won't and No). Also I've heard them say polako, ovdje, gore (careful, here, up) and other such words. Research seems to suggest that they won't really start to talk Bosnian until they have been at nursery for about 6 months, possibly longer.

So, they are learning. It isn't easy for them. And I can't imagine what it must be like to spend 3 hours a day in an environment where I don't understand what is going on. But I think, after nearly 4 months at nursery, they have done the hard part.

And just in case I was worrying that Adam doesn't talk to any of the children at nursery, new evidence proves that he does. We went to the smart supermarket the other day, the Waitrose of Tuzla. Halfway down the coffee aisle, he suddenly stopped and shouted really loudly, and in Bosnian, F**K! He didn't learn that from the teachers.

For anyone interested in looking at some research written by people who are far more qualified than me to talk about this type of stuff some good places to start are here and here.

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