Clinging on to Bilingualism: “I’m wijzing at the blue auto”

IMG_3858[1]I’ve had to face facts. The kids are barely scraping by with their Dutch. As their only source of input, and an inconsistent one at that, I provide pitiful motivation for speaking Dutch, as I respond just as well to demands for juice in English. And so the idea for our Intensive Language Holiday to my parents was born. Surely 2 1/2 weeks in a purely Dutch-speaking environment should help.

One week in, the Boy is still speaking mainly English with, granted, an increasing number of Dutch words thrown in.

“I’m dol op spaghetti!” he exclaims. (I love spaghetti)
“Look Mama, I’m wijzing at it!” (wijzen = point)
“When he is worden vier then I will be vier as well!”
“We can put it in my mondje and it will be very lekker. I love that dropje!”

It’s not surprising really. Here in the Netherlands where we are all pretty well educated in Modern European Languages, requests for juice work just as well in English. Again, there is no pressing need to speak Dutch to get your needs met.

We discussed just refusing to respond to anything but Dutch, but I could picture the despairing wailing and frustrated crying that might ensue if I had to stop every excitable story the Boy started to insist he laboriously translate every single word of it into Dutch before I would listen or join in his game. I don’t want to make Dutch a chore.

Clearly, though, what we were doing was not working as well as we’d hoped.

This morning I had a little epiphany as we met Opa while we descended their Himalayan staircase. He told the Girl: “Je moet wel het hekje even open doen“, which is to say: “Don’t forget you need to open the stair gate.”

And I repeated for the Girl: “Hekje open“, “open the gate”.

She echoed: “Hekje open“.

It was then that I remembered a friend of mine with a little girl who had a speech delay. The speech therapist taught her how to talk to her daughter to help her catch up. Basically, the message was to do more “child directed speech”, as it’s called. Talk about what your child is doing at the moment in short clear sentences, modelling language they can easily mimic and pick up. Like, for example: “Open the gate”, as they open the gate.

We started to implement the new technique over breakfast. We spoke to the Girl in short sentences, stressing and repeating key words: “Juice or milk?” “Not nice?” “Yummy apple!” It worked wonders on her, and she dutifully parrotted what we said, even volunteering some Dutch words herself without prompting.

It did not seem too effective on the Boy, however, until we accidentally landed on a rhyme. This helped trigger his memory for the Dutch word he needed and he seemed delighted to have discovered that there are rhymes in his other language as well. Perhaps, I thought, he needs games, things with repeated phrases that he could start to pick up.

After breakfast we played a game with pulling and pushing Opa, sleeping and waking up, standing up and sitting down – but the commands only worked on Opa if you said them in the right language. With a lot of enthusiasm we just managed to keep it fun and light-hearted, skirting the edges of frustration with frequent successes, a lot of help and a lot of cheering when they managed to get Opa to wake up or push him back down again.

IMG_3976[1]Then while trying to distract the Girl from running around the living room like a lunatic I discovered another good game, using a Kermit the Frog puppet. I improvised a tiny interactive puppet show.

First Kermit was shy and had to be called gently. Then I changed shy to afraid as that is much easier to say in Dutch. The Boy wanted to join in and spontaneously produced an almost correct Dutch sentence saying “Maar ik ben niet bang” [“But I’m not scared”]. He said ‘scared’ instead of ‘scary’, but the idea was there. We repeated the key words a lot more times, Kermit decided The Boy was not scary and got a ‘kusje‘ (kiss).

Then Kermit was hungry and wanted something to eat. As the Lego was out, the kids started offering him Lego food items (eg. a little tile with an apple on it). Kermit started chewing and then spat it out. “Dat is geen eten, dat is Lego!” he exclaimed: That’s not food, that’s Lego. And so a game was born. In fits of giggles, the kids kept fetching Kermit more funny Lego titbits (a little broom, a small bicycle, a tiny watering can) and Kermit chewed them with enthusiasm before spitting them out in disgust and repeating: “That’s not food, that’s Lego.”

I left them to it after a while. They went off by themselves and continued finding food for Kermit and using the Dutch phrase. Slowly he started substituting other acceptable words into the grammatical construction, like “Dat is geen Lego, dat is een aap“, that’s not Lego, that’s a monkey.

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It is now almost a week since I started writing this and there is definite improvement. The Girl now shouts “Klaar!” instead of “Finished!” when she pushes her plate away at the dinner table, and the Boy was overheard in the sandpit today, talking to two random Dutch boys and telling them in Dutch to dig deeper. Their vocabulary is expanding and occasionally they will say an entire sentence in Dutch.

I think, after a doubtful start, I am ready to call this language holiday a success!

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11 responses

  1. Ah! So glad to hear its going well… Love all the ideas for language games! The two things I’ve found that have worked with my girls are talking to them ALL the time about what they’re doing (as you mentioned) and consistency… Just being completely consistent seems to be the only way to guarantee bilingualism will work. It’s so hard, but so worth it!

  2. Yay! That’s fantastic! Well done to them (and to you!). It can’t be easy to keep up their Dutch living in Britain surrounded by English speakers. You must have been particularly proud to hear the Boy talking to the Dutch boys :)

  3. I’m so glad you’re having some success, it’s a long, hard, ongoing battle but so worth it. I found playing with French children on our family holiday recently is what worked best for L – she has no choice but to speak to them in French and can’t bear to miss out! Good luck keeping it going x

  4. Fantastic! I’m pleased that your hard work is paying off. It’s funny but I’ve always just assumed that bilingualism comes easily to children if they have a bilingual parent and never actually thought about the effort required on both sides of the equation. I suppose because the results are so great and because I’m so in awe of those who speak more than one language I tell myself it’s a talent they have, rather than giving full credit for the effort required. So well done to all three of you!

    • I think before I started I had kind of assumed it would be a bit easier than it has been, but I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised that it is hard for my kids: they do only have me as an example and I spend a lot of my day speaking English.

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