They say kids are like sponges. Especially when it comes to languages. Like they soak it in. Like it’s the easiest thing in the world. Like it’s like breathing. Like it just happens. Like it’s effortless.
And maybe it is true that it just happens. But effortless?
We moved to Portugal with our 4,5 year old who only knew her small local language, Swedish. Before moving, everybody, including us, kept telling our daughter that it was going to be so easy, that it would be no time and she would be fluent. She was truly amazing and it would be truly amazing. And she is, but you know what? It didn’t just happen, it didn’t change over night, she didn’t start talking to the Portuguese speaking children in a matter of hours or days or whatever was referred to.
And can you imagine how disappointed and sad she was that it didn’t happen like she had been told it would?
Because she was expecting it to be like pushing a button really, as this was basically what she had been told, and it wasn’t. She started day care in local language only a few weeks after arriving, and she didn’t understand anything. Nor could she say anything to anybody. And we are talking not being able to communicate your basic needs, not knowing what you are told you are eating or what you are asked about, never mind not being able to answer. And it was tough. And she was lonely. And she was crying when going to sleep and she was crying before opening her eyes in the morning. On a few occasions she couldn’t be dragged out of the house even by force.
It was an absolutely horrible experience also for us.
To think that our life choice had this impact on the creature we loved the most and who we would die for? And yet we were absolutely certain we had done the right thing. In the longer run. But now?
So we started talking about that instead, the shorter run. We started talking about motivation. As in why we were here, why we were doing this, why we all needed to learn the language and how that was a necessity for making friends. And we ditched the old story on everything being so easy and started talking about the fact that for us as well it was pretty difficult sometimes. That she wasn’t alone, and that she wasn’t strange or wrong in how she was feeling. That we too felt like that sometimes. That we too didn’t always understand, that we felt the frustration when people talked above our heads in a language we didn’t understand, that we were all in our own ways trying to learn the language in order to be part.
And we played. All of the dolls and all of the stuffed animals were dressed up to go to day care and to school. They were lined up for morning assemblies, and some of them knew the local language, whilst others didn’t. We invested days just focusing on these games and letting them take their time, letting the play be an outlet. And it worked both ways. For her as an outlet to try to make sense and relive all of the non understandable things she experienced every day via the dolls. And for us as input to what was going on in day care, what the teachers were like, and how she perceived it all.
And after a while it turned and it was like she decided to do it. Like she found her inner motivation. So she put her chin up, straightened her back and went into the fire.
And she started learning. And it wasn’t long till the teachers were telling us how she had started speaking Portuguese not only with words, but with sentences.
And now is when she started acting like a sponge. It seemed she soaked the language in. Like it was the easiest thing in the world. Like breathing. Now, it seemed to be just happening.
But it wasn’t easy. It really wasn’t.
And it is true that all children are different and therefore will react in different ways to different situations in life. And the circumstances make a difference as well. So it’s not saying everyone will go through the same experience. But no matter how a child experiences moving into a new language, they are trying very very hard. And they are doing a real fine job. So let’s not insult neither our children nor ourselves by saying it’s effortless.
But let’s definitely say it’s worth the effort to make our children behave like sponges.
And to add to the benefit, when getting into her second new language just months later, she knew better, we knew better, and it went better. Not effortless, but with all the more experience.