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Children who speak Hebrew and Russian. Dr. Natalia Meir about bilinguals and their problems

Dr. Natalia Meir graduated from the Moscow state pedagogical University (foreign languages faculty). Arriving in Israel, she defended her thesis at Bar-Ilan University, faculty of English literature and linguistics. Natalia is a mother of two sets of twins (boys, 13 years and girls 5 years).

By the time Natalya was in Bar-Ilan, the first twins were 3 years, and the problem of child bilingualism was highly relevant to her. During the second degree, Natalia wrote a thesis titled «Discourse markers in the narratives of bilingual children», and later defended his thesis, «Speech profiles of the Russian-Ivrit-speaking children: influence of bilingualism and the General underdevelopment of speech (ONR)» (Linguistic Profiles of Bilingual Russian-Hebrew Speaking Children: Effects of bilingualism is and Specific Language Impairment (SLI)) for the interaction of bilingualism and General underdevelopment of speech among Israeli children aged five to six years.

In an interview with NEWSru.co.il Dr. Meir told about the study, which was conducted in the laboratory of Professor Sharon Armon-Lotem (scientific supervisor Natalia) and has debunked several myths associated with the development of speech in Israeli children-bilingual.

Interviewed By Alla Gavrilova.

Let’s start with how today define bilingualism or bilingualism.

Definitions a lot. Often bilingual call those who are fluent in two languages, but this is too narrow a definition and such people are fairly rare. Usually, one language is dominant or at least dominant in a particular context. For example, in the context of professional activities or study – if in adults. In children, if it is, for example, on Chanukah, then, most likely, «sufgania» they will not be called a doughnut. And, similarly, will not know the Hebrew of the pan. I once got a call from my Hebrew-speaking mother-in-law and asked what «raisins», which I ask my children. Because of my bilingual children are the words typically used to speak Russian.

Even if the child is a balanced bilingual and strong in both languages, depending on the context one of them is going to outweigh.

Remember, we’re talking about children’s bilingualism. There is a simultaneous bilingualism – when the child hears two languages. This usually happens in mixed families. And there are successive bilingualism, which in Israel is more common – when first at home the child hears the Russian language, and then it is sent to the Hebrew-speaking kindergarten.

Why in your research you concentrated on children aged 5-6 years?

Because the late age at which in Israel have a second language is 5 years, when children go to preparatory group of kindergarten. 5-6 years is a very important period, children have to go to school, and in Israel, unlike countries such as Canada or USA, no bilingual schools.

Tell us what you wanted to see in his study.

The fact that the percentage of bilingual children in special classes and special kindergartens, the so-called «gang of state» is very high. Disproportionately high in relation to the number of bilingual children. The same thing is happening in Europe. So we wanted to check whether there is a link between bilingualism and General underdevelopment of speech.

General underdevelopment of speech is a syndrome, which occurs in 5-7% of children. It is important to know that this deficiency of speech development in children with normal hearing and intelligence. That is, we are not talking about children who have hearing problems and other aspects of development.

Our study, like studies conducted in other countries showed that bilingualism in any case not an additional risk factor for the occurrence of the General underdevelopment of speech. That is, bilingualism and General underdevelopment of speech are not connected. A high percentage of bilingual children with this diagnosis, unfortunately, caused by improper diagnosis. Screening tests developed for monolingual children, the existing norms are the norms for monolingual children.

We wanted to show that we need a separate voice norms for bilingual children. If you look at the vocabulary of a bilingual child in each language separately, he will know less words than a monolingual child of the same development for the reason that I mentioned the word «sufganiya» he will know only in Hebrew, and «pan» – only in Russian. But if you combine the words that the child knows in both languages, the conceptual vocabulary of the child will be either the same as the monolingual child, or even more.

As I understand it, you analyzed the errors that make bilingual children with normal language development. Tell us more about it.

Yes. It’s a small price we pay for bilingualism. The fact that bilingual children’s languages influence bilateral, and it is sometimes a plus and sometimes a minus. In some cases, such children acquire linguistic structures better than monolingual children. We are talking about cases where these structures are identical in both languages. For example, Hebrew and Russian built the same verbal endings. «Sleep / is sleeping / was sleeping / slept». Therefore, bilingual children quickly realize that both languages need to show gender, number and time. That’s a plus.

The problem begins when design and grammatical categories are not similar. Russian-speaking bilinguals often omitted in Hebrew, the definite article, which is not in the Russian language.

And Vice versa – our bilingual children, as a rule, misuse cases, because in Hebrew, there is no case inflection. «Pil» (elephant) always will be so «fetch». In Russian such a child will often say «I see the elephant.» Of course, we’re talking about average kids.

Another big problem – the perfect and imperfect. Ate – ate. Because in Hebrew it does not, then our children most often will be wrong.

I often hear the opposite opinion about when a child should be taught a second language. Some say that ideally, the child needs to hear both languages from birth, others that you need as long as possible to keep the baby in the «Russian» language, because the Hebrew and so he will learn.

Balance is difficult to achieve in both cases, and the experts still not agreed on the subject. Indeed some say that it is better for a child to hear both languages from birth, while others believe a second language should be added to three when the first language is already rooted and is likely to continue. But we know that in addition to the theories there are circumstances and personal abilities and preferences of each child.

The language is preserved in the passive?

Yes. For example, Canada conducted a study with children, which Canadians have adopted in China and who speak French from a very early age. However brain scans found that the brain of these children react to the Chinese language.

It is true that a bilingual child is easier to learn other languages?

Of course, studies confirm this. When a child in the asset for several languages, it is much easier to understand how it works at all languages. The child repeats what he hears, and creates new suggestions based on lexical units and their grammar. And your child can easily learn a new language when he already understands the working mechanisms of other languages.

The bilingualism there are other pluses, it positively affects the cognitive functions of a child. For example, the area of inhibition, i.e. the ability to suppress external stimuli and focus on one thing. Because children have, unconsciously, of course, all the time to suppress one of the languages. It is a constant verbal training which will help to perform better in nonverbal tasks.

But most importantly, we must remember that bilingual children go through the same stages, including temporary speech development that I’m monolingual children. Therefore, if a bilingual child long does not start speaking, you should not write it in two languages, and should be referred to a specialist.

What is «long»?

About a year the child should be the first words that may not necessarily be complete. The so-called «children’s words». «Sosa», «Bibi», «AV-AV» and so on. To two years the child must appear some phrases and simple sentences from two words («give suck»). At the age of 3-4 years the child uses simple sentences, gradually moving to more complex. In 5 years can participate in the conversation, to tell short stories and tales.

In our study we applied the test for repetition of sentences. The child is asked to repeat sentences of varying complexity. For example, «I see a girl who was combing mom.» This test very clearly identifies children with speech and language disorders. The fact is that when the child repeats the sentence, he uses his internal grammar. A bilingual child can repeat the sentence, confusing cases and mispronouncing words. But the child with General underdevelopment of speech will always make complex sentences simple. «The girl was brushing her mother.» Such children are not even trying to save a complex sentence.

Another important test is the repetition of a quasi-words, nonexistent words. This is a test of verbal (phonological) memory, since this mechanism is associated with the learning of new words.

In addition, children aged 5-6 years are fully aware of almost all sounds. If the child’s General underdevelopment of speech, it is difficult, for example, to pronounce the words with two consonants. Instead of «the bird» – tichka. If three years is normal, 6 indicates a clear problem.

Before noticing the bilingual child’s speech problems, many even professional speech therapists are advised to remove one of the languages. But I repeat, what is special about children slowly learn like two languages, and one. And in any case it is not necessary to abandon one of the languages, because it is absolutely nothing. I know a lot of families, which in such cases were asked to give up their native language, and not all of these families could move with the child to Hebrew, and it is a huge trauma both for the child and for parents.

And how I perceive the two languages, children with autism, for example?

There are studies that have tested in connection with the bilingualism of children with autism and children with down syndrome. And scientists came to the conclusion that these children bilingualism has no negative effect on speech development.

I catch myself doing practical missionary work, constantly lecturing and conducting seminars about what we need special rules for bilingual children.

This is a problem not only for Israel. My supervisor Professor Sharon Armon-Lotem led a large European project, whose goal was to determine the influence of bilingualism on speech skills of children. Migration within the EU is constantly growing, and with it in European countries, a growing number of bilingual (and trilingual or more) children. This extensive study came to the same conclusions – a high percentage of bilingual children in special schools and kindergartens is associated exclusively with an outdated diagnosis.

Unfortunately, for the most part bilingual Israeli children (of course, there are exceptions, but I’m talking about the majority) are virtually unable to stay balanced bilinguals in the absence of the language environment. If English-speaking children are much easier because the schools usually have classes of English even for native speakers, no teaching simultaneously in Hebrew and in Russian or in Hebrew and Amharic. Few parents have enough time, energy and patience to the house to give the kids everything does not give them a school. And not all children possess the capacity for language (what children are like a sponge and absorb everything, is a myth, and every child their ability to learn languages) to the target language outside the language environment. But while we, in the US, where with the aim of preserving a second language there are schools teaching in English and in Spanish, there is no clear awareness of the importance of preservation of language family the majority of our children will not be fluent in the Russian language as speak Hebrew.

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Children who speak Hebrew and Russian. Dr. Natalia Meir about bilinguals and their problems 06.08.2017

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