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I live in Israel. I am a native English speaker. My wife is Israeli. My five-year-old son speaks Hebrew. He understands when I talk in English.

But he has a lot of difficulty in saying a sentence in English on his own.

He will say it in Hebrew, I will tell him to say it in English, he'll repeat it in Hebrew. Then I'll tell him 1 of the words in English. Then he can sometimes stumble through the sentence, as if having told him one of the words has triggered in his mind the recollection of the other words.

He translates words pretty well from English to Hebrew. The other direction is a bit more difficult.

My questions are:

a) Is it because I am his only English speaking exposure that his English is not "natural" to him., i.e., if it were true that kids pick up languages so quickly, then, why is it still so hard for him to speak in English?

b) How can I help him improve his English: (he hates the effort that I ask him to put in to try to talk in English)

c) Could it be that my enunciation is not so good, and that is a major problem? Should I work on speaking more lucidly and clearly?

Also, another problem is that recently he has developed problems in his Hebrew, mixing up the sounds sh and s - in fact; I noticed he is copying how some other kids in his pre-school are talking :(

I expect he will learn English with time and patience and perseverance. But the question is, why is it not coming to him naturally and spontaneously and organically like everyone says it should be for kids, and like his Hebrew was?

P.S.: He also has English exposure from songs on CDs/tv shows. Instead, it seems to come to him as it does to an adult, in a rigid logical way. As if he stores everything in Hebrew, and translates all English to Hebrew before handling. i.e., as if he does not think in English, only Hebrew.

I guess that it's just a silly myth that all kids are magically amazing language learners....

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    It's not a straight myth, children do generally learn better than adults. But they need proper guidance and teaching to do so. – Reed Rawlings Nov 26 '15 at 17:57
  • I think that's fairly common when kids are immersed in one language and often spoken to in another, but can answer and be understood in the first. I grew up among a lot of kids in that situation who understood Spanish well but couldn't really speak it fluently. – Karl Bielefeldt Nov 27 '15 at 1:35
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    Did your son magically start speaking Hebrew perfectly without a learning period and a lot of practice? Probably nod, so why do you expect him to do so for English? – user7953 Jan 1 '16 at 21:33
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a)

If he has been exposed to a lot more Hebrew (e.g. at school) than English, it seems natural that he would be a lot more comfortable speaking in Hebrew. While children in general have an easier time learning languages than adults, I'm sure there is a range, just as there is with adults (some adults can pick up languages in no time, while others require years).

I have heard it said (though I don't have evidence) that children who grow up bilingual take a little longer to develop language skills in either language, probably due to the fact that they're trying to learn two languages at the same time.

b)

I would say that if you're comfortable with his language development in Hebrew, your best bet is to try to expose him to as much English as possible. You've already mentioned videos in English. Try to have both you and your wife speak to him in English as much as possible. If you have any friends or acquaintances that speak English (especially children), try to spend more time with them, so that he gets more exposure.

If circumstances allow, you could try taking a trip to an English-speaking country. Immersion is a wonderful way to learn a language. It sounds like he has the basics of the language down; while you're there, encourage him to interact with the locals as much as possible, and read street signs, menus, etc.

If you think he is capable of communicating in English, but for whatever reason is shy, or feels that he shouldn't, or is embarrassed, etc., you could try pretending not to understand when he asks for something in Hebrew, and only give it to him after he asks in English. I would only recommend this if you think he has the ability to do it in English, though, since it could backfire otherwise.

Don't forget that he is learning not only two different languages, but two entirely different alphabets. It's a lot to take in, even for a malleable child-brain. If he seems to understand English fluently, and continues to be exposed to it, then he should be able to use it well enough if he is ever in a situation that requires it.

c)

I don't think enunciation has anything to do with it. When kids are learning their first language, it's rare that their parents or others around them take the time to enunciate clearly. Part of learning the language is learning how to understand poor enunciation. Of course, if there are particular words that you pronounce particularly badly, and he has no one else to hear them from, that might hamper his ability to learn somewhat. That's why I think giving him the greatest possible exposure to the language will be beneficial.

TL;DR

If he is immersed in a Hebrew-speaking culture, and you are his only exposure to English, it makes perfect sense that he is picking up Hebrew way faster than English. Give it time, and try to increase his exposure to English, and he should eventually get there.

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I'm in a similar situation, linguistically. The thing is, I have two, and can see the differences between them in this respect. My eldest learnt both languages in parallel, the way you think "should" happen. My second has a much stronger first language, and is only now starting to speak short sentences in the second, though she has always understood all things said to her in that language.

My advice is as follows:

  1. If you are really your son's only exposure to English, spend more time with him. I know that my girls will speak much more of language 2 after a day alone with me than after a day immersed in language 1.
  2. Don't expect TV to do your work. It will help him understand, as he does now, but doesn't cause him to practice talking.
  3. Try immersing him in English for a few days. If you can, take him to England (or Australia, or the US etc.). Once he sees there's a place where everyone speaks English, he'll have much more motivation to learn.
  4. Don't force the issue. I had to learn that the hard way. Once you make it into a chore, that's how it will be. Don't force him, just keep speaking to him in English, and let him answer in Hebrew. He will eventually try to answer in English just to impress you, which is a much more powerful incentive.
  5. Read lots of books in English. There are lots of excellent children's books in English, buy a few and read them to him often. I'm not sure this is the right place for recommendations, so I'll refrain for now.

All of the above advice is stuff that I myself have done with my own family in a very similar situation. I hope it helps.

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First, you are doing such a great thing for your son, giving him access to another language!

We have a not too dissimilar situation in our household. My 7yr old daughters first language is English but her mom speaks to her entirely in Russian. She also struggles with Russian in response but understands pretty much everything my wife says.

Neither of us are teachers or language experts. However we feel that what we're doing is good for our daughter and that ultimately she will learn Russian.

My advice for you is pretty simple. Keep doing what you are doing and make it as fun for your son as you can. I'm sure he's actually learning more than you know and your efforts are going to make the English language classes he takes later (assuming he does) much much easier.

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Our daughter was four when we moved from France to the US. She quickly switched to speaking English and refused to speak French for several years, even though it was her mother tongue and we continued speaking to her in French. She eventually started speaking French again and returned to France for her university studies. Many of the other answers here offer great advice; I would add this: Be patient, learning a language is a lifelong process. Help your son form positive associations with speaking English. Make it a voice of love and happiness between you.

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I am in a similar situation as well - living in the United States, my first language is Russian, my wife's first language is English although she is fluent in Russian. We have nine children ages 1 through 16 and are fighting the battle of having them grow up with at least some knowledge of Russian. I think we've won it with our oldest. He fought my efforts to teach him Russian from a young age, but I never gave up. Finally I got him to read the Book of Mormon in Russian, which was excellent material of him because he was very familiar with the English text. I also had him read various Russian texts to me out loud when I took him places in a car. Around the age of 14 he made a breakthrough and eventually reached a level where he could have a conversation with a native Russian speaker.

We are still trying to get our other children to become conversational and are slowly making progress. It is no small challenge, but key, I think, is persistence. As you keep trying different things eventually you will find something that the child will respond it, and it is also important to remember that all children are different and might respond to different things.

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