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Learning a third language according to my bilingual daughter: “confusing” and “funny”

“Jeg er ikke en gutt”, my 8-year-old daughter shouted across the room. We were on holiday in northern Norway and she was busy learning Norwegian with the Duolingo app whilst we took shelter from the cold for a few hours. One of the perks of my job is that I get to travel to places I wouldn’t necessarily go to otherwise. When I was young(er) and free(er), I would often tack on a couple of extra days to explore but nowadays, it’s usually there and back in the shortest time possible. This last half-term holiday, though, was an exception: the whole family joined me for an unforgettable trip to the Arctic Circle (yes, there are people doing linguistic research up there, quite a few of them actually).

The trip up to the far north was quite long, involving two flights, and in an effort to keep boredom at bay, I suggested we try and learn some basic Norwegian. (What can I say, once a linguist, always a linguist …) No doubt spurred on by the fact that this meant free access to my phone, my daughter very enthusiastically got started. She soon worked her way through the first few levels and seemed to really enjoy the challenge. After a while, she commented on how funny – and confusing – it was that “ikke” in Norwegian meant “not” and “jeg” meant “I”. My daughter is bilingual – she speaks English and Dutch. The Dutch word for “I” is “ik” and the word which sounds almost identical to “jeg” is “jij”, which means “you”. Yup, that’s definitely both confusing and funny.

This ability to talk about language or – to use the technical term – metalinguistic  awareness, is a useful skill to have when it comes to learning new languages. Interestingly, bilingual children have been shown to have better metalinguistic awareness than monolingual children. The idea is that having two languages makes children more aware of the differences that exist between languages in words and structures. This makes them better able to think and talk about language, leading them to have more strategies at their disposal when it comes to learning a third language. Indeed, there is research showing that bilingual children may be better language learners than their monolingual classmates. For example, when it comes to learning English as a foreign language, children growing up bilingually in a bilingual community, such as Basque-Spanish children in the Basque Country have been shown to be better language learners than their monolingual peers. Here in the Netherlands, we found similar results for bilingual children following bilingual primary education. More specifically, after three years of education, children who spoke a language at home other than Dutch or English had higher scores than their monolingual Dutch classmates on a test exploring their understanding of English grammar.

We’re now testing the same children after five years of bilingual education and we’ll have to see whether this advantage remains. Research from further afield suggests that bilingual children’s apparently superior abilities to learn a third language may depend on the context in which this third language is learned and what exactly is being tested.

I don’t know whether my daughter’s apparent talent for language learning was due to her being bilingual, but I do know that she made her linguist mum very proud, even if being able to say “I am not a boy” is unlikely to be crucial for successful communication in Norway.

About the author

Dr. Sharon Unsworth is a linguist and expert in bilingual child language acquisition. She works as associate professor in the Linguistics department and the department of English Language and Culture and is the principal investigator at the 2in1 project. As mother of two bilingual children, Sharon also has direct experience of the practical side of raising children with two languages.