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Children don’t always have it easy learning a second language.

George, aged 5, beginning to learn Catalan

I was interested to read the article in the Financial Times by Tanjil Rashid on the difficulties he faced when he started school in a suburb of East London knowing little or no English. The teacher tried to make him pronounce his name properly (as in an English way), he was placed with a special needs teacher and given degradingly simple tasks as well as being discouraged from speaking his own language with others. Whilst the teachers might have had good intentions wanting him to fully immerse himself in the #English #language environment, he developed a lasting #anxiety around language.

Rashid’s experience made me reflect on the problems my own children faced when we moved from the UK to Mallorca.

My daughter was 8 and my twins 5 when we plucked them out of school in a sleepy, rural town in Oxfordshire and placed them in a local school in Northern Mallorca where Catalan was the main language for the first three years of schooling with Castilian Spanish a later addition to the curriculum. As a lifelong #language #learner, I was pleased we had the opportunity to work there and was hoping my children would become #bi-lingual and even #tri-lingual. After all, friends reassured me, children are like sponges – they pick up languages without really trying.

In fact, it was undeniably hard for my children, especially my twins, Thomas and George who had barely started to read before arriving in Mallorca. They were in separate classes so that they would make their own friendships and hopefully learn Catalan more quickly. In fact, making friends was never a problem even with no language and they were welcomed to their respective classes. It’s just that #learning an entirely new #language alongside their native classmates was slow and hard.

By my own admission, some of the problem was that, by nature, they were quite shy children. George’s teacher (who was really kind and meant well) leant across the table one parent evening. ‘George has to talk’, she implored. I explained he didn’t talk a lot, even in English but that he seemed generally a very happy and curious child. I later learned he did get laughed at when he had to recite a whole poem in Catalan to the class. Maths, however, both boys found good fun. They were ok with numbers and could get on with some sums like everybody else – they were brilliant reciting or even singing the times tables.

We were also advised to encourage George and Thomas to watch Catalan cartoons on TV after school. They would arrive home exhausted and, as advised, we would try and #immerse them in more language. They couldn’t switch off and after a few protests we gave up. We soon realised that at home, all the children simply needed to relax. Enforcing Catalan TV was just creating more tension.

Eventually, we got there, and the children became fluent in Catalan and Castilian. They did get extra support from a wonderful language teacher whose classes instilled confidence and fun. The whole experience made me realise that you can’t and mustn’t create #anxiety around language learning. Language learners need to feel safe and #included, be able to learn at their own pace and most importantly, still be themselves. The second or even third language will come in the end.

Zanne Gaynor

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