I would like to share our story of multilingualism with other people in similar circumstances. We have 4-year-old twins and we live in Barcelona. Their father speaks to them in Dutch, I speak to them in Bulgarian, their schoolteachers only speak in Catalan and my husband and I talk to each other in Spanish. I think this is a wonderful experience although I admit it can be very hard.
A year ago, I was desperately looking for information about multilingualism and trying to find some advice from people with similar experience. I was confused because at the age of 3 our children could say no more than 10 words even though badly pronounced. There were many people asking questions but unfortunately there were few answers. But then I found Andreas Braun’s site from the University of Luton and he encouraged us to continue using the OPOL (one person one language) method. So we have and now I would like to tell you how it has gone for us.
A psychologist previously advised us that on one hand, twins usually begin to talk later then only children and on another hand, multilingual children begin to talk later than monolingual ones. Many times I thought that they would not start speaking for years and I feared this would hinder them socialising with other children. However, it was amazing how, during the last year, bit by bit they started making sentences and expressing themselves. They are still far behind other children of their age in speaking and it is still very difficult for other people to understand them because they mix up all four languages. These days I have written down some examples:
- When they address me or my mother (who is taking care of them while we are at work and they are not at school), they mainly mix Bulgarian + Spanish + Catalan: “Primero iot me ha puesto baba y després lepenka” First (Spanish), grandma (Bulgarian) put me (Spanish) iodine (Bulgarian) and then (Catalan) plaster (Bulgarian)
- When they address their father they mix Dutch + Spanish + Catalan. Example: “Papa, vamos tennis spelen”-Daddy, let’s go (Spanish) to play (Dutch) tennis.
- When we are all together sometimes they mix the 4 languages in one sentence, as this example: “Ako hodis a peu a casa de oma y opa, te vas a izmori” - If (Bulgarian) you go (Bulgarian with Spanish termination) walking (Catalan) to the grandparents’ (Dutch) house, you will (Spanish future form) get tired (Bulgarian).
When they speak to us, not only do they mix the languages but also the tenses. They use verbs from other languages but with a Spanish verb tense. They also make lots of errors and sometimes use the 3rd person singular verb form instead of the 1st. We usually correct the errors but do not insist they speak in a certain way, although I think we should do it in the future if we want them to speak our languages. The curious thing is that their dominant language for now is Spanish. I guess this is because there are other children in school who speak more Spanish than Catalan.
They have recently started to be aware of the different languages and have got used to listening to each language from each person. I have tried to read a story in Spanish but then they get surprised and ask me to speak in Bulgarian saying that I can speak Spanish only if their dad is there. Or if I repeat what their father says in Dutch, they start laughing and say that I do not have to speak “in that way”.
Many people say that children simply pick up languages and learn them so easily without realising it. But I think it is a very difficult process, which requires a lot of patience and great efforts on both sides. When we are all tired in the evenings and I try to explain them something in Bulgarian, they often ask me several times “What are you saying, mommy? What? What?” All of us have to make extra efforts: they to understand me and me to repeat the same thing over and over.
Are they going to speak all four languages in the future?! At what age are they going to start speaking at least one language fluently?! Why are there so many bilingual children who understand perfectly the parents’ language but can only speak the community language?! Does it depend on the children’s capacity or is it because the parents do not insist enough? I wish I knew the answers to these questions. What is sure is that we will do our best and time will tell…
Anna van Ginkel