Sharon Unsworth: Welcome to Kletsheads. The podcast about bilingual children. My name is Sharon Unsworth, linguist at Radboud University in Nijmegen, the Netherlands, a mother of two bilingual children. When I talk to groups of parents raising their children bilingually, there’s one question that comes up without fail every single time. And that’s what to do when your child refuses to speak the heritage, your home language and only responds in the school language. A major source of frustration for many parents raising bilingual children and who are bilingual themselves. And it’s a frustration that can happen no matter what the heritage language is. In this episode of Kletsheads, we speak to an English speaking parent here in the Netherlands, and it might come as a surprise to hear that even when the heritage language in question is one of the most widely spoken and prestigious languages in the world, you can still face this very same challenge, though you’ll hear shortly that this story does have a happy ending. Before we get to that, though, we turn to the first edition of one of our new features for this second season of Kletsheads.
Hot off the Press
Sharon Unsworth: In Hot off the Press, I tell you about a new piece of research on bilingual children. I summarize the most important findings for you and translate them into practice. In this first edition, I’m going to tell you about a study investigating two topics that we’ve discussed in season one: how bilingual children’s two languages can influence each other, cross linguistic influences what we call this, and the impact of the amount and type of language exposure on children’s bilingual development. Most studies looking at cross linguistic influence compare a group of bilingual children with a group of monolingual children, or compare two different groups of bilingual children. And basically, they’re looking to see if there are differences between the two groups that are due to the bilingual children’s other language. Now, what’s exciting about this study I’ve chosen for today’s episode is that it looks at bilingual children who all have the same heritage language, Russian, but who are growing up in five different countries around the world. Israel, Germany, Norway, Latvia and the UK. And this allowed the researchers to examine the effect of the main languages spoken in these countries. So Hebrew, German, Norwegian, Latvian and English. So to see whether they show influence on Russian in these different groups of bilingual children. And these languages differ in interesting ways relating to the topic of this particular study, grammatical gender. And I’ll get to that in a moment.
Sharon Unsworth: The second topic, then, amount and type of exposure. Now, in this study, the researchers didn’t only look at the language spoken at home or in school. That’s the usual way in which we look at this in research on this particular topic. They also took into account the exposure that children had had as part of any instruction that they’d had, so any education that they’d had in the heritage language. This could be as part of a bilingual program, but also because children attended a heritage language school or complementary school, Saturday school. It’s called different things in different places, but it’s basically where bilingual children can go to study the heritage language because it’s not possible in mainstream education. And we spoke about this in episode six of the first series of Kletsheads.
Sharon Unsworth: So this particular study was carried out by researchers in Norway, Israel and Germany, headed up by Yulia Rodina from the Arctic University of Norway in Tromsø. As I said, they looked at grammatical gender in Russian. So grammatical gender is basically a way of dividing nouns up in a language. So we’ve classifying nouns. And not all languages have grammatical gender. So, for example, English doesn’t have grammatical gender, but quite a few do. And Russian is one such language. In Russian there are three genders masculine, feminine and neuter. Other languages have just two genders. So for example, Norwegian, Latvian, Hebrew. Three of the languages in this particular study, but also French, Dutch and Spanish. They also all have two genders. And in Latvian and Hebrew, also in Spanish and French. This is masculine and feminine. Whereas in Dutch and also in some dialects of Norwegian, the two genders are common and neuter. Which gender a noun has doesn’t always make sense. So for example, in Dutch, the Dutch word for girl, meisje, has neuter gender. In many languages you can tell which gender a noun has based on how the words sounds or the form that it takes. So the word then gives you cues about its grammatical gender. Now, one such cue in Russian is that most masculine nouns end in a consonant. Take, for example, the word for table, stol, and most feminine nouns end in -a like the noun lisa. Now some of the cues are more helpful than others. So the cue -a for feminine nouns, the one I just told you about, sometimes the -a can be pronounced slightly differently, so it’ll sound more like an ‘e’ which is one of the cues for neuter nouns. So in that sense, it’s not a particularly helpful cue or it’s less helpful than it could be. And some cues are also more frequent than others. So, for example, in Russian, the nouns which have the neuter endings, for example -o, are less frequent. And we see that children, monolingual children too, typically take longer to learn them. So it’s especially those less clear cut, those less transparent and less frequent cues that need sufficient exposure for children to be able to acquire them.
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Sharon Unsworth: So languages can vary then, not only in terms of how many genders, or which genders they have, but also what cues there are available for those genders and whether they’re very helpful or not. And in terms of the languages in this study, Latvian and Hebrew are considered more transparent than German, which in turn is considered more transparent than Norwegian. Now, this is relevant because previous research on bilingual children acquiring two languages with grammatical gender has shown that when one language is transparent, so has lots of clearcut cues. This can help children to figure out how grammatical gender works in the other language. With bilingual children, then sometimes being quicker than their monolingual peers to do this. At the same time, there is also evidence suggesting that learning two languages, which each have two genders, can lead to bilingual children taking longer than monolinguals. Another important factor here is exposure. It’s been shown that reduced exposure can make it harder for bilingual children to learn the grammatical gender in languages which are not so transparent.
Sharon Unsworth: The participants in this study were bilingual children aged between three and ten. Most of them were between about five and seven, with Russian as heritage languages as I said before and in those five different countries. The number of children per country varied between 20 and 70, and the countries differ then not only in the main language which is spoken there, but also in the size of the Russian speaking community. So, for example, in Israel and Latvia, this is a lot larger than in, for example, Norway. Some of the children were growing up in families where one parent spoke Russian and the other parent spoke a different language. And others were growing up in families where both parents were Russian speakers. Most of the children had had some education in the heritage language, in Russian, either in the heritage language schools or weekend school, complementary school, as I mentioned before, or because they were in a in a bilingual program in mainstream education.
Sharon Unsworth: Now, how did the researchers figure out what children knew about grammatical gender? So what they did is they they showed them pictures of different objects. So, for example, a red table and a blue table, which the children were then asked to describe. And basically, by looking at the the form of the adjective that the children use, you can see whether the child thought the noun, the table in this case, was masculine, feminine or neuter. So what did they find? Well, the first finding was that all children were very good at producing the target gender for nouns with transparent gender. So the masculine nouns and the feminine nouns ending with -a but less so for nouns where cues are not so clear. So for example, the neuter nouns, which of course makes complete sense.
Sharon Unsworth: The second finding was that there were no differences between children in the different countries. So the main language that was spoken there Hebrew, German, Norwegian, Latvian or English, did not seem to influence the children’s knowledge of Russian. It didn’t matter whether the language had gender or not, or what kind of gender system the language had, whether it was more or less transparent, or whether it had two or three genders. It’s worth pointing out that as the as the authors do, that the reason why, for example, Norwegian and German, both of which have a neuter gender, these languages might not have helped the children in Russian, so to learn neuter gender in Russian. Because in Norwegian and German neuter is actually acquired later than the other genders. So maybe it wasn’t available to help the children’s Russian.
Sharon Unsworth: And the third main finding was then that when it comes to learning gender for nouns where the cues are not so clear cut, more exposure and potentially also different types of exposure helps. So what they found was that children who were growing up in a house where both parents were the Russian speakers, they typically scored better than the children who were growing up in houses where there was one Russian speaking parent and the other parents spoke a different language. Well, they also found was that exposure outside the home matters too, and they found that in two different ways. First, in terms of the size of the Russian community. So the larger the Russian community in the country in question, the better the children scored. And also in terms of whether and how much rather how much heritage language instruction the children had had. So more instruction in the heritage language typically was associated with higher scores.
Sharon Unsworth: So what can you learn from this study as a parent? Well, some aspects of the language may be harder to pick up than others and may require plenty of input. And these are typically things which are exceptions to the rule, or where the cues which can help children figure out the system are limited. Like neuter gender in Russian, bilingual children may take longer to learn these, especially if their exposure is limited. And just as an aside here, I think it’s worth noting that not everything that’s infrequent is going to take a long time to learn. Okay, so this doesn’t hold for everything. What you can also learn is that instruction in a heritage language can help. So you might want to think about enrolling your child at a heritage language school if there’s one available near you. Because this might be beneficial for learning these less frequent aspects of language, like these particular forms of the critical gender in Russian. And of course, it can be beneficial in many other ways, too.
Sharon Unsworth: And what can you learn from this study as a teacher or speech language therapist? It’s exactly those aspects of language which are the exceptions to the rule or where the cues are limited, which might need extra attention. The authors of this particular study suggest that teachers might provide children with plenty of examples of nouns where cues are not clear cut. And comparing those two cases where they are. This might heighten or increase children’s sensitivity to those cues, help them to notice them much more. Of course, they also note that whether such strategies will indeed work is something that you need to investigate in future research. One other thing that you can learn from this study as a teacher or speech language therapist is that the aspects of language where we know differences in amount of exposure can have a significant impact are probably not the best ones to use when assessing bilingual children for diagnostic purposes, at least not without taking into account how much exposure a bilingual child has had to the language in question. All the details about this paper, are given in the shownotes. It’s available for free online and so you can go read it yourself if you want to know more.
Sharon Unsworth: We turn now to our guest for this episode in Let’s Klets. Klets is the Dutch word for chat and so in Let’s Klets I chat to a parent or professional about their experiences with bilingual children. As I said at the start today, we’re talking to an English speaking parent here in the Netherlands. And in fact, she’s my neighbour and friend, Kate. Normally on Kletsheads, I’d like to try and vary where my guests come from and which languages they speak. But Kate doesn’t really tick that box or check that box, as she would say, she’s an American. I thought her story is so likely to resonate with many parents listening, and I hope offer hope to many of you that it was worth sharing nonetheless.
Kate: Hi, my name is Kate. I live in Utrecht. I speak English with my children.
Sharon Unsworth: And I know you have two children because we are in fact neighbors. Full disclosure. So you have two children. Do you want to tell us how old they are?
Kate: I have two daughters, ages five and eight.
Sharon Unsworth: Okay. And you speak English and your husband is Dutch, right?
Kate: Dutch, yeah. So he speaks Dutch to the children and to me.
Sharon Unsworth: Yeah. And what do you speak to him?
Kate: Dutch, as well. That’s how I learned Dutch.
Sharon Unsworth: Which you can speak very well. I know.
Kate: Thank you.
Sharon Unsworth: So why did you decide to raise the girls bilingually?
Kate: I chose to speak English with my daughters because I wanted to give them something from my culture, from my country. I knew they were going to be growing up in a very Dutch environment, speaking Dutch at school, speaking Dutch at a daycare, with my extended family here in Holland.
Sharon Unsworth: Yeah.
Kate: And I wanted them to be able to also communicate with my family in America.
Sharon Unsworth: Yeah. Was that an easy decision to make?
Kate: Yeah, it was. For me, it felt very logical and very natural. Yeah.
Sharon Unsworth: Yeah. I guess some people might think, well, it’s very easy to get in American culture anywhere, right?
Kate: That’s true for me. I think it was more about the language and less about the culture. Yeah.
Sharon Unsworth: Yeah. But I think it can be a challenge still, though, right? When you’re living in a completely Dutch environment.
Kate: Oh, definitely. And I have to admit that I had to get used to speaking English as well, because at that point I was speaking Dutch at my job. with my husband, with, yeah, my extended family, and I kind of had to get into the rhythm of speaking English more. And I have to say it’s actually improved my English, being, you know, speaking English with my children.
Sharon Unsworth: Yeah. Yeah. I must say, I’ve had the same. When I got pregnant with our first child, we also spoke Dutch to each other, and we had to switch.
Kate: Oh, really? Yeah.
Sharon Unsworth: Yeah. So how’s it going then, with the bilingualism?
Kate: Yeah, pretty well. I noticed that my oldest, she doesn’t speak it very often. Only when she’s more or less has to, when she’s forced to, speaking online to my family in the US. But that all changed this summer when we went to America, because beforehand my youngest, who had just turned five, almost never spoke English.
Sharon Unsworth: I don’t think I ever heard her speak English.
Kate: Right, yeah, she would, in the middle of a Dutch sentence, she would use an English word. For example, she would say swimming pool in English. But for the rest, in a Dutch sentence. Because we always went swimming together.
Sharon Unsworth: Yeah.
Kate: But when we arrived in America, I realized it was basically, they were thrown in the deep end.
Sharon Unsworth: To keep with the, to stay with the swimming pool.
Kate: Right, right, right. And they had to get used to it. But every day my youngest, our English got better and better and it improved. And she was just trying to make herself understood to my parents, to her nieces, to my sister. And it worked. I mean, every day it was better. And and she just it was amazing. And she learned quickly. Yeah. And at the end, even while making mistakes, I was very impressed. And at the end of the three week trip, she was speaking English about 80% of the time, even to my husband. Yeah. So that was that was just amazing. I mean, complete sentences for the most part, grammatically correct. They were ordering at restaurants. They were making friends with little American girls at the playground. I was amazed. I couldn’t believe it in such a short time. And apparently it was somewhere in her head. But passively. Yeah. And she just had to kind of access it.
Sharon Unsworth: Yeah, it was pretty cool. And I know that’s the main reason I asked you to come on the podcast, right, Kate, because I think it’s a really helpful story because so many parents who speak the other language, so the non-Dutch language here in the in the Netherlands, but whatever that language might be, wherever you are, they often find that the kids always speak back to them in the school language. And I know you’d had that. And I was always, still amazed how you keep it up speaking English to them when they’re speaking Dutch to them, because I think I would just automatically switch to Dutch all the time. So how did it make you feel then when you came home and they were, came back here and they were still speaking English?
Kate: Oh, I was very proud. I was very I mean, first just totally floored. I was so amazed. And yeah, I was just so proud of them and apparent- I mean, that just that it was it was just there the whole time. And at some point I just I kind of forgot. It came, it was so natural that they would speak Dutch back to me and I would speak English to them. That’s how it’s been for the past eight years. Yeah, I was too. I was very proud.
Sharon Unsworth: Yeah, and proud of yourself as well a bit, right?
Kate: Yeah. After talking to you, you said, oh, you should give yourself a pat on the back for that one. And yeah, so proud of myself.
Sharon Unsworth: And how is it now? Because I know. So they came back and then all our kids were speaking English to each other, which they never normally do. Right. And I heard the youngest talk in English to me for the first time ever, and she was saying some pretty funny things, like amusing, not odd, but I know now they’ve switched a bit. So we’re now recording this in, well, the end of November. So it’s been a while since they’ve been back and they switched a bit back to Dutch, right. Definitely the kids amongst themselves.
Kate: Yeah. They have. Yeah. Sometimes in their play I’ll hear them speaking English. Yeah. But it has definitely decreased, the amount of English that they’re speaking. Yeah. Also they’ve gone back to speaking Dutch to me.
Sharon Unsworth: Yeah. But you know the, if you go to America again next year.
Kate: Yeah, they can just access it again. Yeah, it’s nice.
Sharon Unsworth: Yeah, it’s really cool. Thinking about them being here in the Netherlands. How do your children’s teachers view their bilingualism? Do they ever say anything about it?
Kate: In general, very they’re very encouraging.
Sharon Unsworth: About her speaking a different language at home?
Kate: About her speaking English. Yeah. Knowing English and and doing something different to improve her English during the English lessons that the other children get at the same time. Yeah. Yeah.
Sharon Unsworth: And I guess, of course we speak from a very much a position of privilege, right. Because English is viewed as a useful language wherever you are.
Kate: Absolutely. Yeah. Other parents were almost jealous that Finna learned English at home.
Kate: Whereas I kind of thought, oh, but English is such a global language. They everybody learns English anyways. Yeah. I thought it would be cooler to learn Papiemento or something from a different, you know, a very small language.
Sharon Unsworth: Yeah. And I think also the flipside is as well that people think that because English is everywhere, then it will just happen automatically. And I think the story you just told us before says that that’s not always the case, right?
Sharon Unsworth: Because kids maybe don’t see that how useful English is, like the adults around them do. They see I’ve been speaking Dutch all day. My dad speaks Dutch. My mom understands Dutch. I’m just going to carry on in Dutch.
Kate: Right, yeah, exactly. Which is how it goes in our family.
Sharon Unsworth: Yeah. And you said, you mentioned you had brought back comic books so your eldest can read in English.
Sharon Unsworth: How did that go? Did you teach her? Because English, English is awful to, the spelling, right?
Kate: Absolutely. There are always exceptions to the rule in English, which is in my experience of trying to teach her English. But now at some point she just I think it was in group, maybe it was last year, yeah, it was last year that she started reading English. She just started reading a book that we had read before bedtime. So we always read books to her in English from the time she was a baby. And they watch only films and videos and English, but Finna just started reading English. Yeah, the pronunciation was sometimes difficult and bigger words she had trouble with, but she just started by herself.
Sharon Unsworth: Yeah, it’s really nice to see that once you’ve learned to read in one language, there’s a whole load you don’t need to figure out.
Kate: Exactly. Yeah. Yeah. It was right after she had learned, yeah, right after group three here in Holland of learning learning Dutch. And that’s when, that’s the year that they learn how to read within one year. So it was right after that that she just automatically started reading English.
Sharon Unsworth: Yeah.
Kate: Which was also very amazing. I thought.
Sharon Unsworth: Yeah, no, I’ve seen that happen too. What are the biggest challenges then for you as a parent of a bilingual child?
Kate: I think the biggest challenge I face is encouraging her to speak the language correctly, grammatically correct, without discouraging her. I try not to correct her too much, both of my daughters, but I try to. And if I do, I try to correct them in a very. Kind of positive, encouraging way.
Sharon Unsworth: Uh huh. So how do you do that?
Kate: Well, if I say a sentence in English or with a Dutch word in between, then I’ll just repeat it. But in a positive way. I guess.
Sharon Unsworth: Yeah. Yeah. So, just repeat what they say, but then include the English word.
Kate: Yeah. Right. Yeah. Or the the correct verb.
Sharon Unsworth: Yeah. So I do that too. Definitely, because I know they’re using the Dutch word because they don’t actually know the English word. I’m pretty sure that they don’t know it. So I try and use that as well to offer the right word. Yeah, but I know sometimes it’s hard. Well, I also know from the research literature that, for example, correcting you know, that they say “he goed” instead of “he went” that there’s not really much point in that because kids go through a phase where they stick -ed on the end of all verbs and they’ll grow out of it.
Kate: Yeah. Yeah.
Sharon Unsworth: But I know also that I sometimes think, oh, they’re just adding more and more Dutch into their English sentences because they’re so used to speaking Dutch or they don’t know the words. And I always I also try and slip
Sharon Unsworth: It back in there or ask. But it’s hard, right, to not appear like you discouraging them.
Kate: Yeah. Yeah, definitely. And I think, one thing I thought about when I started speaking English to Finna when she was a baby, I thought, okay, I’m not going to focus too much on speaking English. I’m a mother first, not her English teacher.
Sharon Unsworth: Yeah. Yeah.
Kate: Focus on being in that relationship and she’ll learn English.
Sharon Unsworth: Yeah. And I wonder what other parents who were not raising their children in a bilingual situation even ask them, consider that question. Right. You’re only forced to consider that because English is not the language that surround us.
Kate: As a second language. Yeah. Yeah, that’s interesting.
Sharon Unsworth: So if you could change something, what would it be? Or would you not change anything?
Kate: If you would have asked me that question five years ago, I would have said, I wish they would, my daughters would speak more English to me.
Sharon Unsworth: Yeah.
Kate: But now I’ve kind of let that go. And definitely after our experience in the US this past summer, I just know it’s there. And they just need to be in the environment where they will use it. Use the English that. That they know.
Sharon Unsworth: So is that what you most proud of?
Kate: That is what I’m most proud of. Yes. Yeah.
Sharon Unsworth: Yeah, you should be. What do you think the future looks like then, for their bilingualism as they grow older?
Kate: Well, I hope that they will continue to speak English. So continue, continue to be proud of being bilingual? Because I know that they are right now.
Sharon Unsworth: Yeah. What piece of advice would you give then to parents raising their children bilingually?
Kate: I would just say, keep it light, make it fun, don’t focus on correcting them too much and yeah, just have fun with it.
Sharon Unsworth: Yeah. Okay. Thank you.
Kate: You’re welcome.
Sharon Unsworth: Thanks to Kate for sharing her story with us. I hope it will inspire those of you frustrated by your own child’s refusal to speak your language to keep going. While the switch from Dutch to English that Kate saw in their daughter’s language, use hasn’t lasted forever, and I’m sure it’s been frustrating for her to watch them move back to Dutch again. The fact that they were able to make that switch is testament to her perseverance in speaking English to them all this time. Because one thing’s for certain if she had consistently switched from English to Dutch herself, the daughters would have had a hard time communicating in English when they actually needed to. We’ll be back in two weeks when we’re going to be talking about bilingual children and well-being. And I share another Kletsheads Quick and Easy with you. So if you haven’t done already, hit the subscribe button in your podcast app to make sure that you don’t miss it.
Sharon Unsworth: If you want to know more about Kletsheads, go to our website at kletsheadspodcast.org. That’s where you’ll also find more information about this episode. If you want to make sure you don’t miss an episode, subscribe to Kletsheads using your favourite podcast app. If you know someone else who might enjoy the podcast, then I’d really appreciate it if you would share it with them. You can do this via the website or in your podcast app. And if you’re on social media, we’d love it if you followed us. Our handle is @kletsheads. Thanks for listening. And until the next time. Or as we say in Dutch: tot de volgende keer!
This transcript was generated using amberscript.com and was checked by Aniek Ebbinge.