You might have heard this from teachers at your children’s day care: “Your child does not speak Dutch, even though he’s 2 and a half”. Maybe they offer you the advice to speak Dutch to your child, or maybe they will just bring it to your attention and leave it at that. And you might start worrying that maybe your children’s speech development is not as you had thought it would be. And maybe you’ve wondered if you were doing your child a favor by raising him bilingually.
I’ve gone through this with Klara. She said her first word at 18 months, and her speech development went slowly. I thought this might be fine, but was still worried. And this is when I came across a book on raising bilingual children that explained that this kind of thing happens to children who are still working on their mother tongue and therefore can’t concentrate on the new language just yet. They need to reach a certain level in one of the language to be able to start speaking a new one, even though they grow up with this language.
The book referred to this as the “silent phase” and it describes exactly what happened to Klara. She was working hard on her German and Polish, so it was no wonder that she didn’t speak Dutch! However, t was clear that she could understand everything that was said to her in this language.
After a while, she started picking up. Sentences became longer and more complex. Slowly, she also started adding Dutch words to her vocabulary. I am happy that this is working out and stopped worrying about her Dutch.
Another version of this might be when your child suddenly stops speaking one language (for example Polish) and concentrates on the other one. It might look as if your child is rejecting your mother tongue, and sometimes this is the case. However, it might be that the children are concentrating on another language they speak, in Klara’s case- German or Dutch. She has phases when she prefers Polish, and other times- German or Dutch, even though Dutch is much less common with her. I try not to worry when Klara speaks a lot of German, and instead try to be proud of her for managing 3 languages- it’s after all, quite an undertaking. Usually, she comes back to Polish after a while.
As for day care, there might be yet another reason why your child doesn't speak the majority language there. After all, it is not home, it’s a strange place with strange people, and while some children adapt really well to it, others struggle and refuse to use the majority language at day care even though they speak it at home really well. And, it also depends on the teacher: a friend of mine told me a story how she was criticized by one of the nannies for not speaking Dutch with her daughter. The nanny even went as far as to call a crisis meeting with the parents, and told them that they need to speak more Dutch at home. At home, however, it turned out that the girl could speak Dutch really well, and it seemed that she didn't like the nanny all that much and this is the reason she refused to use her language- or any language, for that matter.
So there are many reasons why a child wouldn't speak the majority language at daycare or school- and one of them could be that he’s working at his other languages, to come back to the majority language later. It’s always good to have your child checked if you’re worried, but it’s best if it’s done by someone who has experience with multilingual children. Usually, they turn out just fine.
Have you had similar experiences?