QR:  The bilingual’s relationship with language

The bilingual’s relationship with language

Having a bilingual child does not necessarily mean that the child’s relationship with languages is an easy one.

As a teacher of Modern Foreign Languages I worked in Austria and the UK, and usually I encountered two types of language-learners: those who were talented linguists and those for whom languages were rather difficult to learn. My response as a teacher was the same for both: making language lessons enjoyable.


My idea was to ensure that those who were talented would not lose interest and that those who found languages difficult would find some sort of pleasure in games and songs. And there I was rapping the daily routine, describing imaginary and real pets, singing prepositions.

For several years, in various classes and a variety of schools and learning institutions this approach of mine worked; until I had a bilingual child.

Of course, when your child is small you talk and sing and play, and in our case we did so in English and German. Our son naturally learnt both languages equally well and is now a successful communicator in both languages. In school, he is also learning French, and this is where the problem creeps in. His teacher’s approach is very similar to my own as a teacher, and yet, here he is questioning the relevance of topics and the suitability of methods.

In his short life as a bilingual he has had enough experience in communicating with people to know that you do not describe your daily routine or the colour of your pet’s fur, but instead discuss rules of games, news or special interests. For him trying to learn to listen to a French weather forecast is a serious waste of time because it ignores the vocabulary that is relevant for his kind of communication.

He enjoys playing the games and singing the songs in school, but his relationship with the French language is strained. On the other hand, before a trip to France he was keen to learn all phrases necessary to be able to order a crêpe with Nutella and peach ice-tea.

Language for the bilingual is not a theoretical construct to be learnt for academic purposes. It is a means to communicate your needs, it is a means to bridge gaps between cultures and to make links with people you would otherwise not be able to get to know.

Language learning in schools becomes futile as the topic areas are too far removed from real life situations, whilst at the same time the acquisition of words and simple grammar becomes a necessity.

And so it is possible that in his or her relationship with language your bilingual child simultaneously loves and loathes them.


Thank you to Lidia and David for inspiring me to write this article, which can be viewed on their website, too.


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