Christian Travelers Guide + hope

A bilingual experiment

One of the reasons we wanted to take our boys abroad at the fairly tender age was to give them an opportunity to learn to speak another language fluently. Admittedly Bosnian (or Serbian or Croatian as they are essentially the same language but with minor differences) is not necessarily the most useful of languages, but research points to evidence that children who can speak more than one language develop an ability to pick up other languages more easily as well as showing a greater tendency to achieve higher standards academically. Besides, how cool would it be to be able to talk to your brother in a language that no one else understands? I used to dream of that sort of thing when I was younger.

So, when we got to Bosnia we enrolled them into a Bosnian speaking nursery. Everyone said that because they were so young it would take them months, at most to pick up a new language. They'll soak it up like a sponge, they said, children always do.

I read the books. As they were going to be having one language at home and a different language outside of home they would be absorbing the language differently to those children who hear two languages at home. They all said it was important that we should only talk to the boys in English, which would help them to keep the two languages separate. As our Bosnian was far from what you might call fluent, there was no problem doing this.

The boys were in a Bosnian nursery for 18 months, every morning. After 18 months I can honestly say I have no idea how much of the language they picked up. Sometimes they looked as if they understood everything. Other times I wasn't sure if they'd understood a word. The teachers told me that if they were going to talk Bosnian then they would only talk it with the other children, otherwise they both remained very silent during nursery hours.

I'm not sure how the experience has affected them. Adam was at the age when he was wanting to make friends his own age, and not being able to communicate with the children made that much more difficult. For a boy who is naturally shy anyway, I think he found this very hard and he also developed a stammer in English. But coming back to England proved a revelation for him, suddenly everyone else spoke a language he knew and understood, we saw very little of his shyness when he started his English school, his stammer fell away as his confidence grew. Luke, now aged 3 3/4 yrs, is definitely behind his English peers linguistically. This is to be expected, it is common for children learning 2 languages to be a bit behind at this stage. His pronunciation has a distinct Bosnian accent to it even now.

Most interestingly for me, 6 months after our return, neither of them appear to remember a word of Bosnian. Adam has a Serbian Teacher and another Serbian boy in his class, he could talk to them in Bosnian if he wanted to, but he doesn't. Chatting to my boys over supper the other night it became apparent that neither of them could recall any of their Bosnian at all, even some of the most basic stuff. Presumably it is still there somewhere and hopefully some of the brains ability to function in 2 different languages is still there, but I have no idea.

At a general gathering of Mums the other day I was listening to one mother talking of enrolling her daughter into a French school, because this is the time to do it and at this age she'll just absorb the language. I kept my my mouth shut. Maybe she will. But children don't just absorb language easily, learning a second language and becoming bilingual is hard for them too. Our experience, where everyone outside our house spoke the second language, was more intense than simply sending your child to a foreign language speaking school. But even then the boys didn't really see the point in learning it just yet. Maybe if they'd been in Bosnia for another year we'd have seen them making big steps forward. Maybe if they'd been a bit older then they'd have decided to learn rather than stay silent. But without a doubt, bilingualism doesn't just happen. It is a lot of hard work indeed.

If you are interested in bilingualism then I suggest heading over to Bilingual for Fun which runs a monthly blogging carnival for parents of bilingual children (or those somewhere on the path towards being bilingual).

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A bilingual experiment + hope