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Personal experiences learning more than one language

People talk about their own experiences
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How do young children acquire or learn more than one language? In this step, we asked parents and educators of young children growing up with more than one language, and people who grew up with more than one language themselves, to tell us about their children’s or their own experiences of acquiring or learning an additional language. Let’s see what they have to say. The five-year-old boy is going to a British school. So he learned the Spanish mother tongue at home and that was the only language until at three-years-old he went to a British school. So that way he got immersed into English.
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And now that it’s been two years and a half, I can tell that he is starting to be more fluent and talking more, and the first years, it’s more about understanding and receiving. We can see that he understood English, but he would not express in English. He would reply. Maybe every once in a while there was a word that would come up in English, maybe a colour, or a Halloween word like ‘pumpkin’ or ‘witch’, but normally he would reply in English. The little boy, we have a nanny. She’s from the Philippines, so she speaks to him in English. So for the moment he doesn’t speak very well none of the languages.
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I mean, he’s slower than his brother, but he can count in both languages and he can say the colours in both languages. He mixes words. Like, he’s playing with a toy and he will say, ‘car’ instead of ‘coche’ in Spanish. So he moves into the two languages, but has less fluency. He understands both languages. Well, I speak four languages. For example, English, it is for me the fourth language. It’s, how can I say? It’s difficult. But for example, when you’ve got the second language, for me it’s Russian, then the third and the fourth is, like, easier. It’s like you’ve got already the structure in your brain. It’s like, OK, I know how to do it.
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They’re still learning their mother tongue at the moment, and they’re still obviously making mistakes with that. And as learners, they’re used to not understanding everything in their environment, and they’re not fazed really by not understanding every word. So learning English for them at such a young age is a good thing, because they’re already doing that in their mother tongue anyway. So it’s the same skill and they just transfer the skill. And that’s why I think they make such great progress the younger they are. I grew up in a Greek speaking family in the north of London. So I spoke only Greek until I went to school at the age of four.
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And at school, obviously, I was speaking in English all the time, or I was being spoken to in English all the time. So I very quickly learned to speak English. And I only realised, I think, that I spoke another language and that this wasn’t the common thing for everybody around me, when I was allocated the new girl. I must have been five or six, and there was a new girl who joined the class and she only spoke Greek. So I was her buddy, and I took her around the school and showed her where everything was. And I had to accompany her all day so that I could translate instructions and help her understand what she should be doing.
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And up until that point, I don’t think I considered that I had anything different to anybody else. So the children in my class, generally they haven’t had much contact with English before they started with us. And some of them have a little English at school. And what I find is that they pick up the language quite naturally. So you need a lot of repetition in the lessons. And if things are repeated a lot, they do tend to pick it up quite quickly, and they imitate the teacher a lot. It was great. Because when my eldest was 9-10 years old, we went to live in the UK, in Bath.
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So she entered year five in a state-funded school with mainly kids from the UK, but some others from other countries. And it took her like only one month to get used to it. So it was great, because she had learned the ability of getting used to the language and to some other cultures. It was great, because when my eldest was about to come back to Mexico with the rest of the family she didn’t want to. She loved being there. And then I told her, no worries, when you get older, you can just get a scholarship or whatever you want and then go back to study abroad, and then she did it.
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Right now she has been studying international baccalaureate in Hong Kong and then political science in New York. So it makes a difference, honestly.

In this step, we spoke to parents, educators and people who grew up with more than one language themselves.

We asked them about their own experiences of growing up with more than one language, or to tell us about how the young children in their care manage with more than one language.

While watching, note down in your observation journal anything that you find interesting or surprising, or something that you hadn’t considered before.

  • Which experiences match your expectations of how very young children learn more than one language?

Share your comments with us below.

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English in Early Childhood: Learning Language Through Play

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