When a bilingual child turns quiet

This is an extended version of an answer I gave to parents who asked me for advice about their 7 yo boy turning silent.

One or the biggest myths about bilingual children is that they are all like sponges and that they become fluent in no time…

Fact is, that during language acquisition, children go through different stages: Pre-production, Early Production, Speech Emergent, Beginning Fluency, Intermediate Fluency, Advanced Fluency.

There is silent period and silent period in particular circumstances

In the late ’70ies, early ’80ies silent period was considered a part of the language learning. With silent period they defined the period of time when the child or adult is first introduced to the second language and the time when he or she begins to speak. Fact is, that in those times, second (or additional) languages were taught in a grammar-based language instruction! Learners were first confronted with the grammar of the new language and not encouraged to speak until they were “ready”! This is a completely other approach to current language learning practices! That kind of silent period was indeed reinforced by the way languages were taught.
Nowadays, children (and adults!) are encouraged to speak naturally. Students will listen for a while and start speaking on their own. Fact is that sometimes nature needs a little help. We need to know how to speak to our children in ways that engage them in speech and conversation at their level. We have, indeed, to help them directly with sounds, vocabulary and semantics (meanings)!

When a child turns silent there is usually a reason

In the many years I have been studying this topic as a mother and a linguist – for my personal interest and curiosity – I observed that when a child that has acquired another language turns silent, whether in the additional language or the first language, there is always a reason.
The reason can seem insignificant to parents but can have a major impact for the child. – Maybe the child went through a major change during the last few months? Or anything else happened like: the family moved country, or the child is attending daycare or school in another language.
It is important for any parent, teacher, speech therapist etc. to know if the child stoped talking both (or all) languages at the same time or not, if there are specific situations and with certain persons that the child turns silent, and what could have triggered this reaction.

During adaptation time in a new environment (new country, new school, new language etc.) a child needs time acclimatizing to the new context, to begin to tune into the sounds of all languages involved.

Some children may rehearsing the new language silently to themselves and practice “private speech”. You would notice this when they play by themselves and let toys talk. Or they would feel more confident in speaking with a peer, feel more at ease in a small group etc. – They might processing the language internally and building up confidence to try out the language before “going public”. Many schools have trained staff members who can help children adjust to the school language. In many countries exist classes for newly arrived children that allow them to learn the school language in settings where they are encouraged to use the target language as soon as possible (without being judged by others).

What you can do

What you, your partner and everyone interacting with the child can do, is to reassure and encourage them by making them feel accepted member of the group/family/society.

I know that the pressure from society, family, friends, teachers etc. can be very hard and frustrating, but I suggest that you entirely focus on your child’s needs.

Let your child decide when they are ready to talk.

Here are some suggestions about what you can do:

1. Continue talking even when your child does not respond verbally. But make eye contact or touch your child gently on the shoulder when speaking with them.

2. Try to include you child in small groups (1-2) with other children who speak the same language – possibly in relaxed settings.

3. Use varied questions, especially open questions, where your child can’t only nod or shake his head.

4. Help your child find the words in the target language by modeling possible answers, without expecting them to speak.

5. Include other children in the conversation.

6. Use the first language – or the language your child is most fluent in to start conversations.

7. Accept non-verbal responses, and add a possible verbal response without asking your child to use words: he/she will do so if ready.

8. Praise minimal efforts, but not in an exaggerated way. If your child says something or tries to say something, you can praise with a smile or by repeating what they said (in a calm voice). This will comfort and foster their confidence.

9. You can try to sing more songs with your child. – Through music, rhythm and movement, the body can relax and the child may try to sing the tune too.

10. The practice through role play can be beneficial too: let them choose a puppet or a toy and try to let them talk on the toys’ behalf. 

What if my child still doesn’t speak (in certain situations)?

If a child doesn’t speak and you know that he is capable to express himself in the target language but doesn’t in certain situations, it can be that the reason is of other nature.

Especially when the “silence” is limited to situations – for example in class, with certain people or in specific situations – it can be the case of selective mutism. It often gets undetected because people would excuse it with the child being shy, or with the child “just still learning the language” or it is interpreted as rude behavior.

It can be that the child is experiencing social anxiety. – If a child doesn’t talk in given situations, even if prepared for the situation, and you know they are able to speak the language to certain extent, it might be that they experience shame as a consequence of their silence, or any other kind of judgment that the child is not feeling comfortable and confident with.

Selective mutism can be characterized as follows:

  • Consistent failure to speak in specific social situations (in which there is an expectation for speaking, e.g., at school) despite speaking in other situations.
  • The disturbance interferes with educational or occupational achievement or with social communication.
  • The duration of the disturbance is at least 1 month (not limited to the first month of school).
  • The failure to speak is not due to a lack of knowledge of, or comfort with, the spoken language required in the social situation.
  • The disturbance is not better accounted for by a communication disorder (e.g., childhood-onset fluency disorder) and does not occur exclusively in people with autism spectrum disorders, or psychotic disorders such schizophrenia. (source: Wikipedia and American Psychiatric Association (2013). Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (Fifth ed.). Arlington, VA: American Psychiatric Publishing. p. 195)

If you wonder if your child might be experiencing selective mutism, I’d always advice to seek professional advice. 

Child Psychologist Jet Sichterman recommends parents and teachers to look for support if a child:

  • remains silent more than 6 months,
  • speaks the new language confidently in certain settings but not in others for more than two months, or
  • seems to experience intense resistance or anxiety around speaking in certain settings.

If you have any further questions, please don’t hesitate to contact me at info@UtesInternationalLounge.com.

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