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Silence is perfectly normal for children learning a second language after emigrating

Speech therapist Sarah McKeown says bilingual children go through stages as they learn to talk

IT CAN be a worrying time for parents if a child seems to stop talking, or the way in which they talk changes. These patterns can sometimes be more evident where children are learning more than one language at a time.

The “silent period” in second language learning is very common. Its main characteristic is that, after some initial exposure to the language, the learner is able to understand much more than he is able to produce.

You can also see this in young children learning only one language. You can speak to them normally and they seem able to understand whatever you say, but, while they may use some of your words, they would not be able to express their ideas in a like fashion.

This happens in a similar way in second language learning. Children need first to understand their new language environment and this includes becoming familiar with the sounds, rhythms and patterns of French.

They do this by watching and listening and then internalising and processing what they have observed.

During this period, children may participate in classroom activities and communicate by non-verbal means. They may also use their first language with other speakers of the language. This processing may take up to six months, sometimes longer.

Sometimes teachers need simply to be reminded this crucial stage in second language acquisition exists, just so they do not place too heavy a burden on themselves and their pupils. It also allows both teachers and learners to relax and accept it as an important stage of language learning.

Another area of speech and language development that causes much anxiety is the apparent development of a stammer. All young children who are learning to speak show some hesitancies and disruptions of fluency.

This is called normal non-fluency and includes pausing, repeating words or phrases and saying “er” or “um”. It is most common between the ages of two and four.

It may seem as if your child is stammering, but it is vital not to panic. The more anxiety parents or school staff show, the more likely it is that the dysfluency will become more established.

There is much information and advice about this area, but several key strategies can help.

Slow down your own speech when you talk to the child, to make it easier for him to follow what you are saying and help him feel less rushed. This can be more helpful then telling a child to slow down, start again or take a breath.

Follow your child’s lead during play activities, remembering to praise them for what they are good at; for example, “you are good at drawing” or “that was a nice thing to do”.

Do not put pressure on them to answer lots of questions and try to make things relaxed rather than rushed.

It is also very important to show your child you are interested in what they say, not how they say it.

Look at your child when he talks, so that he knows you are listening and will then be less likely to try to rush his own speech.

Use the same sort of sentences that your child does: keep them short and simple.

Do not expect changes in your child’s speech straightaway, but practising these strategies can help your child to talk more easily.

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