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Wednesday, 1 February 2012

Are multilingual kids special needs kids?

If you ask a Dutch person what they think of bi-or multilingualism, they’d probably answer that it’s a great thing to have. They’d probably mention the opportunities that come with speaking two languages and belonging to two cultures. However, my experiences with the Dutch approach to multilingualism, as well as my discussions with friends in similar situations show quite a different picture.

I remember when I took K. to our appointment with the Consultatiebureau to get her speech development checked. And while they know K. grows up with three languages, the nurse looked rather shocked. Luckily, she was clever. When she saw that K. didn’t understand all instructions in Dutch, she had me repeat them in Polish. She then understood that K’s speech development is fine. But not everybody is so lucky.

An expat friend of mine is married to a Dutch man. They have a 3-year old daughter, a bright clever girl who speaks 2 languages and understands a third one. But to the nurse at the Consultatiebureau this doesn’t seem so impressive. To her, the girl’s Dutch is never enough. Although the mother explains at every appointment that her daughter is bilingual and that therefore her speech development doesn’t follow the same path as other children’s, she is told every time that her child’s Dutch level is not enough.

This brings me to my point. It seems that while the Dutch consider multilinguality a good thing, they have no idea how to handle it at health institutions or schools. Also, not all languages were created equal. While English and French (and maybe German) enjoy a high prestige in the Netherlands, more “exotic” languages (like Polish) are considered weird and a hindrance to a succsesful integration. Multilingual children are measured by the same standards as monolingual children. And while at some point, they usually catch up on their Dutch peers as far as language is concerned, at the beginning they are at a disadvantage.

So are multilingual children special needs children, like those with Autism, ADHD, etc.? Yes and no. Multlilinguality has clear benefits to a child’s development, like a better understanding of how language works, and a it will be a big help when the child starts learning future languages. But in a society where integration is considered a priority, and where only a few languages are held in high esteem, those children are seen as "different". 

Also, the lack of good reputation of a language can prevent the child from learning it, thus making the child monolingual where they had a great chance to speak two or more languages. Multilingual children sometimes have to go to “special” (i.e. bilingual) schools, have additional training, and spend more time on languages than other children their age. Parents who want to raise multilingual children have to spend more time on language activities with their children than Dutch parents. Often, they are confronted with institutions that have no idea about how multilingualism actually works.

So yes, multilingual children are special needs children, but in a positive sense, more like very bright children who need assistance to fully uncover their potential. And I think the additional effort that comes with having a multilingual child is totally worth it.

One other thing. Eowyn Crisfield of On Rasing Bilingual Children proclaimed 2012 the Year of Talking About Bilingualism. The discussion I had with a Polish woman in the library yesterday makes it clear that it is indeed important that we talk about bilingualism. There are so many myths and misunderstandings surrounding this area of language development. So let’s talk about it: let’s blog about it, let’s share our stories and experiences, let’s discuss it. This is another thing we have in common with parents who have children with special needs: we need lots of help and support. I know I do. 

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  1. I wish that I were brought up to be bilingual; as you know, it becomes far more difficult to master another language as you get older. On the other hand, one of my friends was brought up in Italy for the first three years of his life, speaking only Italian, then his parents got divorced and he moved to England with his mother. He was thrust into and English school with no prior knowledge of the language and of course his early education suffered greatly. Because of this, nowadays he masters neither English nor Italian. I therefore agree that is very important that multilingual children receive extra support so that they can achieve their full potential.

  2. Thanks for your insightful comment, Paul! I agree, support in mother tongues is extremely important. Also, a lot depends on the parents and how they manage this. Consistency is of crucial importance. Also ,some people wouldn't teach their children their mother tongue because they are afraid it would hinder integration and learning the new language. The opposite is true: the better the children master their mother tongue, the better they will speak the majority language.


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