Becoming Bilingual: A Piece of cake?

This article isn’t about children that were exposed to more than one language since birth, but about kids that were exposed to a different language after the acquisition of their mother tongue. That was my case at five. I know people usually say that children learn a foreign language easily, almost effortlessly. They also say that children don’t suffer much through the language learning process. Nevertheless, my experience doesn’t relate to that.

I have no idea if other people remember how they become bilingual as children, but I do. I remember starting primary school and not understanding anything my teacher said. I have a vivid image of communicating with her through hand gestures. I remember learning the English alphabet and my first words just by listening and copying letters, with little comprehension at first. I have memories of making mistakes and feeling hurt and frustrated because of the language barrier. I’m pretty sure that I didn’t become proficient in English from night to day, much less effortlessly.

Since I moved to the Netherlands a year and a half ago I have been privileged to witness the acquisition of a second language in real time, with my daughter. I can tell you that it has been everything but easy. Like me, L. started talking very early, and by age two she was fully proficient in her mother tongue, Portuguese. Her grammar and verb conjugation was impeccable, and people marveled. After her second birthday, we moved to the Netherlands, officially becoming expats. Since my husband and I are both Portuguese with no previous contact with the Dutch language, we thought it would be a good idea for her to go part-time to a local pre school in order to learn the language. That was when our troubles started.

From day one L. was resistant to learning the new language. The fact that she had been an early talker made things more difficult. At first, she didn’t even listen. She stressed teachers and caregivers alike by speaking to them in Portuguese non stop. I mean really non stop, loud and insistent, I would say even pushy (because my little leo can be like that!), all the time. She cried and cried in frustration for not being understood. Although every effort was made towards getting her to listen, she ignored the new sounds and stuck to her mother tongue. A teacher told me that she clearly thought they were silly because they didn’t know how to talk correctly. She said this in a nice way, with sense of humor, and I smiled despite it all. In the end, everybody at school learned some Portuguese. You see, L.’s pronunciation was impeccable and she really made an effort to “teach” everybody how to talk “correctly”. Once I was there for nap time and observed her repeating the same Portuguese word over and over again to her little sleep companion… He quickly got it, to the delight of his Dutch parents.

After some months it finally clicked for her: people at school were not saying wrong words, they were saying different ones. She expressed this verbally when she started pausing to listen and becoming curious about the meaning of those strange words. What didn’t work for most three year olds, worked for her: real time, painstaking, word by word translation. If you told her that “car” in Dutch is “auto”, and exemplified with short sentences, she would memorize the information and put it into practice. After a year, she has acquired enough vocabulary to make short sentences, and happily chats in her broken but ever improving Dutch.

So you see, it took a year and lots of tears to get to the point where she’s actually starting to speak the second language she’s been exposed to. It’s not like she did it in three months without any effort, and she’s definitely not at a proficiency level. I took the time to write about our experiences (mine and my daughter’s) because I feel that adults often underestimate the impact that learning a new language can have on a child. They act as if it’s a piece of cake! It might seem that kids become bilingual really quickly and easily because our expectations (regarding grammar and vocabulary, for example) aren’t so high when it comes to them, or in the case of very young children simply because they haven’t acquired enough verbal skills to express their frustration. Either way, I agree with the research that classifies as a myth the assumption that children learn a foreign language quicker than adults. Also, and more importantly, my heart goes out to those kids: not everything is easy just because you’re small, especially something as huge as learning a new language!

More about this issue here and here. Also a great resource for parents of bilingual kids here.


This article has been previously published on originally published on the website Craftie Mum.



Catarina Queiroz
Latest posts by Catarina Queiroz (see all)