Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Motivation to Speak (My Macedonian Son Speaks English)

Jane (that is my son, it is pronounced YAH-NEH) started to speak Macedonian (his mother tongue) at around two and by 3 1/2 he started to use English words. Gradually, he totally abandoned Macedonian and he used only English. All of his therapists and teachers insisted on him using Macedonian and now he speaks English at home and Macedonian in the school to sometimes awkward results. I know it is really hard on him to use Macedonian, so my question here would be if I should also insist on Macedonian, having in mind that it is an official language here and that using English only would render him maladjusted? Unfortunately, current state is also unsustainable as it is very confusing for him to be bilingual?

[To get further information I asked a little more ("Before I go into detail in a blog post answering you Maja, would you mind if I ask some clarifying questions? Are you or your partner (or both) a native English speaker? If so, does the English speaker have very fluent Macedonian? .... Will you tell me more about Jane, what he most enjoys doing, what you think he would read about if he could read well, for example, and what he chooses to do when given free choice of all things to do? What is your personal assessment of him in expressive and receptive language? Which is easier for him, do you think, for example?") and here was the answer:]
I would say that my English is fairly good, but my husband's is not so. Jane is learning his English from TV and movies, mostly. Most of the people we are socializing with I speak English to certain degree, so it is not difficult for him to acquire new words. I have to admit that at the beginning when he started to use English I encouraged him, I thought that it is good for him. Later, as his therapists insisted on him speaking Macedonian, I tried to reduce English usage, but to no avail. I believe that his motivation comes from the fact that people appreciate the fact that he speaks English and it makes him feel competent....I almost forgot the most interesting thing: He likes to call himself DJ, short from DJ Music. He claims that he is English, not Macedonian.
At first my problem answering this was that I was getting stuck on the notion of whether bilingualism would be confusing if you were Autistic, even though studies have shown that it is actually helpful in increasing executive functioning in children overall, and the beneficial effects persist into adulthood (here is just one good example of such a study, with a useful bibliography pointing toward more).  I wondered if our brains were so different that perhaps the studies didn't count for us.  This is still an interesting question and one I might pursue at some point soon, if funders are interested.

But then I thought about it some more.  What is really going on here isn't really centrally a question of the thing I was hearing to to be, at first.  What is probably a more important thing to think about is that DJ here is interested enough in the English language to express himself in it quite freely.  You, his mother, have noticed that it makes him feel competent, and people appreciate him for it.  He is interested in aspects of English-speaking culture to the extent that he gave himself a nickname.

Patrick Schwarz and Paula Kluth wrote a wonderful book called Just Give Him the Whale which I believe gets at the core of what we are really talking about here, and may help you communicate with DJ's teachers and therapists why it can be an excellent idea to meet him in the English language.  The basic idea is that he has found a thing in which he is passionately interested, so interested that he wants to include other people, to tell other people what he is thinking, to use his imagination and share with them.  This is a wonderful thing, and can be helpful for him in further aspects of his life.  For example, in English, he may become interested in other aspects of schoolwork.  In English, he may finally become interested in Macedonian.  This is different from taking away his special interests and not allowing him to do the things that make him feel confident and passionate: it is the opposite.  The idea is that you as his mother can help his service providers understand how important that feeling of confidence and engagement and being interested is for a person who is trying to learn things, and use the fact that he cares about what he cares about to find the keys perhaps to get him interested in other things.

In short, I do not believe his Macedonian is awkward because he can speak some English.  I believe it may be becoming awkward because in the efforts being made to stop him from doing what he finds truly interesting, his feeling of competence is sliding away from him.  When your feeling of competence slides away, your actual competence is soon to follow.  (I believe this is true for every human being in the world, but it is so true for me that I can become absolutely stymied, petrified and broken down from the effects of it.  This is how I am also partly guessing the importance of not taking English away from DJ.)  Ask them to try it where he is the expert in his class at translating between English and Macedonian, particularly with respect to the plots and dialogues of key movies and song lyrics that are important to him.  See if his Macedonian doesn't pick up: I am almost certain that in circumstances of himself being positioned as expert, it will do just that.  Please get this book of Schwarz and Kluth I mentioned which explains more of what I am saying, and let me know what happens with this idea.

Another detail here I wanted to add.  You might have noticed that I am saying your son Jane is called DJ because he is calling himself that.  The reason I am doing this is a habit I have with people having to do with following their own specifications of what I should call them.  Sometimes it is not very important, just a type of politeness on my part, or a quirk, but other times it can be very important.  When a person who may not believe that speaking is a useful way of getting things to change or happen in the world finds out that he or she can exert small amounts of will into the world by speaking, this will make speaking seem more worthwhile.  Some people go through life believing nothing they say matters and nobody will care, so it has long been a secret personal mission of mine to announce through action that I am listening in small ways.  Here it will not do anything because I don't think DJ will read these words, but I am just telling you the habit I have of why I am calling him this, because you told me he likes to call himself this name so I am following his preference, and it does not matter to me that he is only a child, because children have even less power in life.

If you have any further ideas or questions or parts of it I did not address sufficiently, please also write back.  I am sorry it took me so long to answer because of the fact that I was trying to answer what I am now convinced was the wrong question!

All the best, 


  1. Not relevant to the actual question being asked, but I did recently read a Candadian study comparing language development in autistic children who were exposed to a bilingual home environment to those exposed to a monolingual one. They did not find any significant differences in the age of first words, first phrases or total vocabulary and both groups scored similarly on receptive language measures also. I work with young autistic children, incuding some who are exposed to one language at home and another at school or speech therapy, and have had questions about their language development. So I was pretty excited about the results of this study. (I was also pretty excited to find an article about autistic children that neither compare them to non-autistic children nor measured strategies designed to make them become or appear less autistic.)

    The complete reference is "The Impact of Bilingual Environments on Language Development in Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders." by Catherine Hambly and Eric Fombonne, Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders (2012) 42:1342-1352

  2. Dear Nightengale of Samarkand,

    This is an absolutely fabulous contribution! Thank you so much! It is like an early Christmas present--exactly what I was hoping to find, and here you just came and gave it to me. What a sweetheart you are. With the powers vested in me by my admittedly heightened capacity for discernment of such things, I hereby pronounce you Awesome.


  3. Chiming in here on multilingualism. First, I echo what Ibby said, about helping DJ develop his confidence and sense of empowerment and identity. I love that he is choosing what he wants to be called, at this stage. Second, we aren't a true bilingual family since English has become my "natural language" and I even dream in English, but my native tongue is not a roman-based language and is vastly different from English. Our child grew up being exposed to English, but I want to expose him to different languages because I don't have reason to believe that he will be confused. He was getting exposed to Spanish at preschool and he knows when he is counting in one language versus counting in another language. By DJ developing confidence and competence in one language, I think this can help him gain confidence in learning Macedonian, not because these languages are alike, but because he has experienced success acquiring the rules of one language and knows he can do it again for a different language.

  4. Thank you, thank you so much, Ib. This is exactly how I felt for so long, but unfortunately his therapists didn't thought so. It is difficult task ahead of me to try to persuade them to change their teaching approach, but your post will be excellent starting point:)
    At least I will not feel ashamed that I was not capable of following their advice. You see, for such a long time I was pressured to stop using English with him, and I was doing it anyway because I somehow felt that it is the right thing to do. However, at the same time I felt that I was failing him in a way. I do not know if the sentence above makes any sense to you, but when it comes to DJ my feelings are mixed up most of the time. There are so many things that I would do differently regarding his education and socialization, but then again I am not confident enough to assert my views. I always thought that therapists and teachers are better trained and have more experience and they know better then I do. At the same time, I am surrounded with mothers that are moving mountains to help their children: all sorts of diets, supplements, medications, different types of therapies for many long hours, so sometimes I feel that I am not doing enough for my son i.e. I am failing him on many levels. And then again, I would look really hard at him and I would see that essentially he is very happy child and I think that I am not doing such a bad job after all. And then my fears for him would return as we live in a very competitive world and he is not interested in competing with anybody ever, but he is content with his routines and his special interests. So you see, it all becomes very mixed up.
    Anyway, I am looking forward to the English classes for my Mom (she is 64 and she doesn't speak English at all). But, since she spends a lot of time with him, she will have to do something about her English. On the second thought, I even may try to organize class whereas DJ would teach her English. That would be something:)))
    I will read the book you recommended as soon as I get it, earliest next Friday
    Thank you for calling him DJ, actually we all call him DJ at home:)
    I am sorry if my post is confusing it is 1 am here, so I am a bit tired. Once again, thank you for your support.
    Best regards,

    1. Maja, If I've learned one lesson, it is that I'm not only facing a lot of uncertainty and unknowns, but I am constantly being challenged and doubted by "experts".

      These experts are well meaning and they have a collection of experiences: they serve a purpose. I have known my child all his life and am an expert in *my* child: I also serve a purpose. The goal is to find where our purposes overlap in the child's best interest.

      Trust your role as a partner in this.

    2. Maja and Jane you are excellent and one reason I am so happy that I made this blog even though I was afraid to do it is that I met you two. :)

      Your boys are both lucky :) :) :)

      It is a great idea for DJ to help his Grandmother learn English! She can learn the hip young English of cartoons! :) :) :)


      PS Please write back a lot and also write advice for others if it comes to mind.

    3. english translation below

      zdravo Maja, pozdrav od ungarija. kako ste i kako e DJ? meni me zvuči deka angleski mu e specialna zanimanja. makedonskiot jazik beše eden od moite specialni zanimanji pre nekolku godini i brzo go naučiv. Jas mislam deka ke DJ nauči makedonski vo svojata vremena, i drugi jazici ke nauči ako bide sakal da gi nauči.

      hi Maja, hi from Hungary. How are you and how is DJ? It sounds to me like English is one of DJ's special interests. Macedonian language was one of my special interests a few years ago and I learned it quickly. I think DJ will learn Macedonian in his own time, and other languages too if he wants to learn them.

  5. Aw, thanks! It may be a magic article. I found out about it at a conference by a chance conversation with a psychologist acquaintance. After hearing data on bilingualism in typically developing children, I mentioned my young patients with language disabilities and autism who are exposed to only one language at home and only English at school or speech therapy. Their parents end up choosing between speaking non-fluent English at home to support what their child is learning in speech therapy, or continuing to speak their home language fluently. I often advise them to keep using their home language, but without any research to support that advice besides what has been done in typically developing children.

    I had to present an article on "autism research" to my department a few weeks later, and this was the perfect solution. I'm both a recently diagnosed (while long self-identified) autistic and a pediatrician training to care for children with developmental disabilities. So I have the ongoing challenge to fulfil my professional training responsiblities with research that remains respectful to the experiences of actual autistics.

    1. It is a magic article and you are doing magic things! Do you ever wish to do research with an education researcher? Does this fit in your schedule and plans?


    2. My current research is in how medical students are taught to think about disability and what factors influence their attitudes. I'm still at the literature review stage. When I get to actually designing curricular interventions, I may well be looking to collaborate! But that's easily 3 or 4 years in the future.