Interview: What's it Like Growing up Bilingual in the UK?

In our GoStudent Personal Stories, we talk to real people about real experiences. Gain an insight into education and learning trends as well as authentic advice from experts.

I’m here today with Natalia. Natalia is originally from Slovakia and moved to the UK when she was 14 years old. She moved there without speaking a word of English so had to adapt and learn very quickly.

Natalia studied German and Spanish at university and now lives in Berlin, Germany where she works in a British school teaching other bilingual students.

Can you tell me about when you first moved to the UK? How did you feel about moving there? Were you scared about having to learn a new language?

I was pretty excited because it sounded like a great new adventure; a new country and a new culture. I was very excited however very scared. I wasn’t sure what to expect. My parents had already lived there for a year and a half before I moved so I had an idea of what it was like. But it was very scary.


What was your first day of school in the UK like?

It was very scary, the whole experience. I didn’t know what to expect. I had left all of my friends in Slovakia and I was very anxious about finding friends and whether anyone would like me. I was also worried about how I was going to communicate with people. But the day was nice. People were trying to talk to me but I couldn’t really understand what they were saying. I just kind of laughed it off and hoped they wouldn’t ask me any questions. But overall I felt welcomed. It was scary, yes but they made it easier for me.


How was the process of learning English for you? Was it difficult to pick up?

I couldn’t even say ‘hello’ . I didn't know how to say ‘how are you?’ or ‘my name is’ or anything. So the first few weeks and months were very difficult. I was just sitting in class trying to process everything and figure things out. The teachers knew I didn't understand so they didn’t really ask me any questions. They just used a lot of hand gestures to check I was ok. I would say the first two months were the hardest. But then after six months I was practically fluent. I could communicate and understand everything. The hardest part was expressing myself.

Reading was the easiest part but to say something, to get something out of me was definitely the most difficult part. I had some extra support. Me and my brother had this nice lady that gave us extra support after school so that sped up the process. But I think the best way is to really be in the situation, try your best, don’t be scared to say something even if it’s wrong. That worked with me definitely. 


Although it must have been very scary and difficult for a while, do you now look back and appreciate the fact that you were forced to learn a second language at a young age?

Definitely. I’m very grateful to my parents. Now I understand where they were coming from. At the time I was angry, and wondering why they did this to us. But now I’m grateful. If I was in Slovakia learning English as a foreign language, I would never have learnt it so well. Just being in the country and speaking to native speakers, you learn the language as if you were a native speaker. It’s definitely the easiest way to learn a new language.

And I see it with the children I teach. The younger they are, the easier it is for them. They don’t even realise it’s another language. They just learn the words and figure out that one teacher speaks one language and another teacher speaks another language. It was automatic for me. At school I spoke English, at home it was Slovakian with my parents. It’s definitely the best way to learn a language at a native level. To be in the country with native speakers and to embrace the whole experience.  


It’s crazy because talking to you, you’d never know you’re from Slovakia. You sound English! I guess you became fluent so quickly because you started learning it so young.

I thought fourteen was late! Now when I see four or five year olds with no English and then two weeks later they have great English. I thought fourteen was very late. My brother was much younger and it was definitely easier for him. He was able to pick it up much faster. He was definitely the better one. From the beginning he was able to grasp the vocabulary and the accent. It took a while for me to get the British accent. I still sounded very eastern European. 


You’ve worked as a teacher with bilingual children for a while. Can you tell me a bit about how bilingual schools work? How do they teach different languages to children?

I’m a big fan of bilingual schools and kindergartens. I think they give children experiences on how to be tolerant, respectful, and open minded because we have a lot of different cultures and different languages. Kids come to us from all over the world. There’s this understanding that everyone’s different and it’s great to be different.

We have two different teachers and we always stick to our own language. That’s very important. We don’t translate. We use a lot of resources like pictures, books and flashcards to make the children understand. The key is to talk and use a lot of gestures. I love it. I love where I work because you really see that the children are becoming very aware of the world. How many cultures we have and different languages. In the mornings when we say hello to each other the children always say it in different languages. They learn that there are lots of different languages out there. They are very open minded.


In your experience, what would you say are the main difficulties bilingual children face?

The biggest thing they have to face from the start is the frustration that comes with not being understood. If you want to express how you feel or what’s wrong and you can't, it’s very frustrating, especially for a child. It’s scary. So we try to make them feel comfortable. They can say whatever. We have one student that’s Italian. She keeps talking to us in Italian and we don’t understand but we make sure that she feels heard. We want to make her feel heard and comfortable.

They know that we’re here to listen and here to help. Just to help them with this frustration so that they know it’s going to get better. It’s a learning point for them.


And what are the advantages of growing up in a bilingual environment?

Like I mentioned, respect, tolerance and open-mindedness. Your child is going to be aware that there are many different people in this world. It’s good to be different and it’s nothing to be ashamed of. I used to worry that I was the only foreign one in my school and I sometimes felt ashamed. But eventually I learned that it’s good to be different.

I became very aware of how the kids at work would feel coming to a different country or coming to a bilingual school. I can’t tell you one disadvantage. It’s been an amazing experience. You see children in bilingual schools being very tolerant and respectful to the other kids. They’re always eager to learn new things. 


Is there anything that you can take from your own experience being bilingual and apply it to the work that you do with bilingual children today?

For me it was a lot of reading, anything with pictures like flashcards and a lot of singing. That’s what I try to do everyday. Through singing or play they pick up the language very fast. We try to make it very playful and they’re not even aware that they’re learning. That’s the best way; to make it fun and make it a bit silly sometimes. Have a lot of resources and keep it diverse. If we ever learn a new song, we hear the kids singing it in the afternoon. It’s definitely the best way to learn; to make it fun. That way they learn easier. 


I feel super inspired now! I can imagine for kids and parents it’s really scary having to move abroad. And parents are bound to worry about their child being in a school where they don’t know the language. But the fact that kids can adapt so quickly and are eager to learn new things should be embraced.

Especially at such a young age they don’t think about the shame. They just say things and they don’t care if it’s right or wrong. At the age of fourteen I was pretty aware of everything. But my brother was younger and he just went to play football with his friends and said whatever he thought was right. 


Thanks so much for telling us your really inspiring story Natalia! You can read more about bilingualism on our GoStudent blog.  

Start your kid’s learning journey