Dual-wielding Dutch and English: bilingualism second time round

Zhuzh

Zhuzh

From the start I have been dying to find out how the Girl would get on with the two languages spoken in our house. In case you are tuning in for the first time: I am Dutch and (try to) speak Dutch exclusively to the children. My husband is British and speaks English. And as we live in the UK, absolutely everybody else in the children’s every day lives speaks English too. I often feel like I am battling the tide trying to maintain Dutch – I myself have spent most of my adult life here and it takes a little effort to speak Dutch all the time, and as my friends and their children speak English, all our play dates take place in English.

I know people who have grown up in a similar bilingual set up and almost without fail, they tell me that their younger sibling barely spoke the minority language. This is not surprising, really. The second child in a bilingual family like ours grows up in a very different language environment to the first. Whereas the Boy spent 98% of his time with me, his Dutch mum, for the first 2 years of his life, and went on fairly frequent visits to the Netherlands with me where nothing but Dutch was spoken to him, the Girl has a constant confused language tutor by her side, even when we are at Opa and Oma’s house. Inevitably, and rather sadly, the Boy’s language of choice is English. Especially since starting pre-school and spending a lot of time with a group of people who just speak English, he will often answer me in English even if I start a conversation in Dutch. So of course he will always address his sister in English too.

I could see the effects in the Girl’s early vocabulary. Her first ten words or so were English: Daddy, cat, teddy, down, juice, cheese, shoes and so on. She had two Dutch words: “aai” (stroke), said running after the cat or when saying sorry to someone for yanking their hair out, and “dag” (bye), which she only used for a book I read to her in Dutch at bedtime with little animals you could tuck up in bed. “Dag!” she’d wave as the rabbit disappeared into his hole.

When children start to speak and come into contact with new words, they make several assumptions that help them learn vocabulary more quickly. One of those is that the new word refers to the whole object and not a part of it (“cat” must refer to the whole animal, not just the tail or the ears or the colour of its fur) and another is exclusivity: each object only has one label. This means that bilingual children start off learning just one word per object – which language they go for depends on what is presented to them first, but to start off with they will not absorb both “cat” and “poes“. So most bilingual children of the Girl’s age (18 months) have an expanding vocabulary that includes words in both languages, but only one word per object. In a later phase they will start to realise that Mummy speaks one language and Daddy another, and that they each have a word for “table”, “juice” and “bye bye”.

Except the Girl is already doing this now. And she has done from the beginning.

Not with every word, but from very early on I could hear her experimenting with Dutch and English words for the same concept that had a similar sound. She went through “hello” and “hallo“, as if trying to taste which version she liked best and got the most laughs. And sometimes, she kept both.

She says “neus” AND “nose”, mimicking the version that the person she is speaking to is using. I have also heard her use “voet” and “foot”.

And where she started off with just “cat”, she now also says “poes“.

She says “vast” plaintively when she can’t get out of her high chair or car seat (“I know, I did that on purpose,” I explain). But I also hear her say “stuck”.

She seems very aware of her own language learning, and when she tries out a new word and I repeat it in Dutch, she will repeat what I have said, looking at me proudly as if to say: I am saying it like you, aren’t you pleased, mama?

It isn’t just giving two labels to one object that is quite advanced about her language learning. Generally, she is speeding through the process much more quickly than her brother did. Bilingual children are on average about 3 months behind their monolingual peers when they learn to speak. I was already quite proud of the Boy, who hit each milestone exactly on cue and said his first two word sentence a few weeks before his second birthday (it may have been “bye bye baby” to his new sister…) But the Girl is blowing his progress right out of the water. Besides being an entire phase ahead in her bilingual language acquisition, she is also using personal pronouns, something her brother didn’t do until he was two. She started saying “my Daddy” at about 16 months, expressing a sentiment I had seen in her eyes from her earliest cuddles with him, when she would turn into him and glare at any bystanders who looked like they might be about to muscle in on her special time with Daddy. Also “my juice” turned out to be a necessary addition to her phrases to ward off any thirsty friends or brothers.

She also started making sentences a few months ago, waving “bye bye Daddy” when he goes to work, prodding me while I try to have a sneaky Team Umizoomi-nap saying “mama sleep!” and most recently breaking our hearts with a little sleepy monologue in the Fairy Godmother’s arms at bedtime, saying “Mama? No, mama work. Daddy? No, Daddy work.”

And so it starts. As they say, you spend ages wishing they would talk and then when they do, you wish they’d be quiet. I do love this phase. I love finding out what is in her head, how she is making sense of the world. And I feel more than a little proud of how quickly she is learning to talk, dual-wielding Dutch and English like the bilingual ninja she is.

"tat" or "poes"

“tat” or “poes”

Secrets of the  Sandpit

Lost Fish: Films and Fear in pre-school age children

watching a film

Last week while going around LIDL, I spotted some toffee popcorn and had a bright idea. It was time for a film night. We hadn’t really watched a film with The Boy since the endless Muppet-marathon of September last year, and he was probably going to be that much more able to grasp a longer story line now, six months later. I put the popcorn in the trolley.

“When we get home, we’re going to watch a film!” I announced.

“A film!” the Boy cheered.

“Which one would you like to watch: Cinderella, Ratatouille, The Muppets or Lost Fish?”

“Lost Fish!”

Finding Nemo it was.

I should explain that this was a risky venture.

We have made several attempts to have “nice family film nights” (or afternoons) with the Boy, most of which ended in tears. It turns out that Disney is pretty darn scary when you’re only 3. I realised pretty quickly that Ratatouille wasn’t going to happen when in the first five minutes the loveable furry main character is chased into a river by a woman wielding a carving knife and then a shotgun, after which he loses his family, gets lost and ends up homeless and starving in a sewer.

Cinderella took me by surprise, but it turns out a jolly set piece of a cat – with a broad, toothy, menacing grin – chasing a mouse – with an adorable twitchy nose, wearing a jaunty hat – is actually very distressing to a small boy. So Cinderella had to be switched off as well.

I was a little worried about Finding Nemo, to be honest. It starts with a massive great big shark eating the main character’s wife and all but one of his children, after which it goes on a roller coaster ride of separation, misunderstandings and mortal peril until finally, in the very last five minutes, you get your sugar-coated Disney ending and everything is okay. Mostly, my son doesn’t last past those first few heart-stopping minutes.

But he had once seen all of Finding Nemo – admittedly he was ill and drugged up to his eyeballs at the time – and had apparently been left with quite a positive feeling about it. Possibly because he had got to the end and realised all turned out okay. Whatever the reason, he had remembered the film as “Lost Fish” and I thought we’d risk it and I would just make sure I was to hand to comfort him and put things in perspective where necessary.

And the Girl? Over Christmas, when the Boy had been backing away from the television, terrified yet unable to unglue his eyes from the screen while watching the Gruffalo, she was calmly sitting on the sofa watching the story unfold, munching on a bread stick.

“Ah, she’s fearless,” we said to each other, with not a little pride. And that was what we continued to think, watching her try to scale climbing frames and slides meant for much older children, hurling herself through life, running away from us on tiny shoes adorned with strawberries. The Girl is a ninja badass. I didn’t even consider her feelings in my impromptu film night idea.

Finding Nemo was going really well I thought, and I was even able to retreat quietly into the kitchen to cook dinner. Then I heard a familiar whimper of fear. We were now in the midnight zone and Dory and Marlin were being chased by the angler fish.

But it wasn’t the Boy who came running into the kitchen. It was the Girl, padding on her little feet, reaching for me in distress, expressing with her limited vocabulary what the matter was: “Fish!”

And I realised that maybe it wasn’t that she was fearless. Maybe around Christmas time she was still too young, to understand context, to pick up on the implications, the scary music, what those massive teeth might mean, that the little fish she liked were screaming because they were scared of being eaten. And now, three months and a vocabulary explosion later, she had discovered fear.

So I did what any self-respecting parent would do.

I gave her a cuddle, then put her back on the sofa and wrote a poem about it.

 

Enter the World

Your world was safe, cocooned, defined
It was out and underlined
My arms your home
My hair your own
Image sound the world awash with colours friendly noises hugs and hair

You stood up, stepped and turned away
Charged into a world of play
A joke, a game,
You learned your name
Detach break free you ran off tugging me along by painful strands of hair

But with the wonder also crept in fears
New awareness came with tears
New lines to cross
With joy comes loss
Vast scenes and spaces gripping terror of a world without the comfort of my hair

Still I am always there
When dangers send you crying
you come flying to me cooking up some dish
you wail of “sad” and mourn for “fish”
unnamed undefined yet fear of dying
brings you crying hand still reaching
screeching for the soothing comfort
of my hair.

(c) Judith Kingston, 2014

 

I read this poem at the Virtual Open Mic Night on 25 March 2014 – watch it here!

 

Prose for Thought

Miniature Mathematical Genius: Will my son end up being an accountant?

photo 2

Just before the Boy was born, I remember the Husband and I were out having a curry one night and we talked about our hopes and dreams for our son: the kind of parents we wanted to be and all the mistakes other parents made that we were obviously never going to replicate.

One of the things we talked about was: what do you think he might want to be when he grows up? We started off daydreaming about our son taking our own roads-not-travelled. Maybe, my husband thought, he’ll study military history. Or maybe, I mused, he will learn lots of languages and become a diplomat.

“But you know,” my husband cautioned, “we have to be prepared for the fact that he might be very different from us. We want to support him whatever he chooses to do in life.”

“Yes,” I nodded fervently, ever the tolerant Dutch-person. “Even if he wants to do sports.”

We grinned. We both hate sports.

“Maybe he’ll want to study Chemistry!” I suggested.

We tittered. Chemistry, how dull.

“You never know,” my husband said, scratching around now for something utterly outrageous, something no sensible arty-farty parent could ever support, “he might want to become an accountant.

How we laughed, dear reader.

Fast forward three years, and my husband has just picked up our son from pre-school. I am at work. Inspired by this fact, they are having a conversation about work, and at the Boy’s suggestion that perhaps he could do some work my husband starts explaining that you have to be a bit older. Some people start work at sixteen, some at eightteen, some at twenty-one…

The Boy nods sagely.  “When I am be twenty-one, I go to work.”

The Husband: “And what kind of work would you like to do?”

The Boy, without hesitation: “Numbers.”

“Would you like to tell other people about numbers, or do you want to do numbers by yourself?”

Again, the Boy is ready with his answer: “Numbers by myself”.

You guessed it. The Boy really does want to be an accountant.

It’s not surprising really, because he just loves numbers. Nothing fascinates him more. They are his friends, they make the world exciting and comforting at the same time. I recently went to an information morning about how Maths is taught in primary schools these days and we were given some handouts that the children might get in school: pages full of number lines and multiplication squares and rulers. I knew I would have a very happy boy when I got home and I was not wrong. We put all the handouts in a special folder for the Boy’s “Work” and now he likes to get it out importantly and pore over the Pages of Joy.

Maths - the Boy is in heaven

The love affair started almost as soon as he could talk. The Boy could count to ten fairly flawlessly before he was two, and has since moved on to bigger and better things. He now startles teachers and hairdressers by counting to 100, simply to amuse himself. In fact, he can count to one hundred in English and in Dutch. A few months ago he still had some interference issues, as in Dutch you say “three and twenty” where in English it would be “twenty-three”. This would sometimes cause alarm when he was reading out my friend J’s digital speedometer on the way to pre-school and confidently announce that it said “Eighty-two!” (I should just stress, for the benefit of my friend’s husband who is a police officer, that it really was the Boy’s error and she was doing a very conservative 28 mph).

However, he seems to be on top of the distinction now and doesn’t swap the numbers around any more. He has become quite enamoured of finding big numbers and will announce with glee that he loves me “one hundred”, and when entering a room full of people he will say in a (rather loud) awed voice: “There are thousands of them!”

At just over two years old he amazed me by taking a piece of chalk and writing the numbers from one to ten on the pavement as we walked along. He has been practising and perfecting this skill ever since. Last week I was sitting next to him at the table doing some work and he was busy with paper and a pen. I looked over and he had done this:

photo 3

It turned out to be a plan for the day, which he explained: “Step 1: Go to the moon. Step 2: Go to Nediland [The Netherlands]. Step 3: Go back home. Step 4: Is a surprise.”

Really, everything to do with maths is exciting to him. He loves going round with my tape measure to measure things and likes to spot shapes where ever we go. “Look Mummy, a trapezium!” he shouts from the back seat of the car, pointing at my rear view mirror. It’s only a matter of time, we think, before he’ll start adding, subtracting, multiplying, dividing and calculating the decay rate of gamma radiation in preparation for the nuclear apocalypse.

The other day in the car he was again musing on what life would be like when he was older. “Next week is my birthday!” he said. (It wasn’t) “And then I be 4, and then I be 5, and then I be 6…” (This was where I tuned out for a while.) “…and then I be 21 and I go to work…” The counting continued with this addition (“and then I be 43 and I go to work, and then I be 44 and I go to work”) until he arrived at: “…and then I be one hundred!”

“Well, when you’re 100 you won’t have to work,” I said. “You can have a nice rest.”

“Yes! Then I can have a nice rest.

I quickly switched the radio on at this point, to ensure that we did, just for a moment, have a nice rest from the counting. Don’t get me wrong, I am very proud of his skills, but let’s face it: (ac)counting is a bit boring.

All the numbers had to come into the kitchen at Opa & Oma's house to join in with lunch.

All the numbers had to come into the kitchen at Opa & Oma’s house to join in with lunch.

This is what Play Doh was made for

This is what Play Doh was made for. Outside the frame the line goes on to twenty…

All linked up to the first ever Loud ‘n Proud linky!

3 Children and It

Life Game: The Brother

Hey there Gamers,

I’m pretty much blazing Level 1. An average day will find me clocking time with the toy garage or the board books to get my xp up and then blowing it all on vocabulary. My latest discoveries are “Daisy” (gets you access to In the Night Garden books and TV shows), “seep” (the name for an undesirable state of affairs where the character you want to interact with is unconscious) and “am” (this can be added to bread to make sandwiches).

But what I want to talk about today is that very special person you might be lucky enough to run into in Life Game: The Brother.

The Brother has been around ever since I started playing and seems to be in control of the game a lot of the time. He controls what appears on the Awesome Viewing Device and also has ways of influencing what food appears on the table. I’ve been observing him closely and as always, the trick seems to be gathering more words. I’ve been trying it out myself and have had some success with words like juice and cheese.

"No! You cannot play with my tower!"

“No! You cannot play with my tower!”

It’s always a good idea to check out what the Brother is doing, because he has a lot of cool stuff that you can use. You do have to be really careful only to use it while he is looking the other way, otherwise he uses Snatch on you and it is gone again. In fact, try not to look like you’re enjoying anything you are playing with while in the Brother’s field of vision or the item will disappear from your inventory and reappear in his. This is an extremely annoying trait but I have recently mastered a skill that trumps Snatch: it’s called Snitch. Basically, using Snitch involves a loud cry of anguish and the repeated use of “Mama!” This will summon the Mummy who will use what seems like Snatch on the Brother, but is really a higher level skill called Discipline. Details, details, I know – the most important thing is that the item is back in your inventory, you get a “Sorry” from the Brother and you can carry on playing with the toy. Or abandon it for something more interesting that has caught your eye during the conflict sequence.

The Brother comes with a lot of entertainment options. He can sing no end of brilliant songs with actions, and you can play running, chasing and hiding games with him which really boost your Happiness. The best game is “Round and round the garden”, where you hold hands and he spins you round and round and then tickles you. Word of warning though: games with the Brother do have a tendency to drain your energy levels and you often take some damage due to falls and bumps or getting squished.

Squishing: this is something that deserves a special mention/warning. Although the Brother is a friendly character, he does come with some “hostile” traits. If you see the words “A is very cute, I want to hug A” float above his head, run for the Mummy as fast as you can. If you don’t manage to get away, he will grab you around the waist (if you’re lucky) or the neck (if you’re unlucky), squeeze as hard as he can, tackle you to the ground and throw his full weight on you. The number of hit points this will cost you depends on how he grabbed you and whether your head hit any furniture on the way down, as well as on the response time of the Mummy. Basically, running away is your best bet, and get a head start because he is both stronger and faster than you.

"Mama! A is playing with the tower!"

“Mama! A is playing with the tower!”

Another annoying feature of the Brother is that he’s got Snitch too. So when you’re minding your own business, pouring out the entire contents of your beaker of juice onto the dining table, he will pipe up: “Mama! A. is pouring juice!” Or when you’re gleefully pulling your shoes and socks off in the back of the car, he will say: “Mama! A. is taking her shoes off! No Baby, don’t take your shoes off, you have cold socks and feet!” Worst of all, when you manage to get down to floor level in a big shop and you make a break for freedom while the Mummy is distracted, he will shriek in distress, shout “Mama, A is running away!” and then run after you full pelt and trap you in a bear hug until the Mummy captures you again.

All in all, though, Life Game is so much better with the Brother in it. Whenever you see him, you get a massive boost to your happiness bar, which is only increased by waving at him and giving him a hug.

Finally, I will leave you with a little montage of great Brother moments:

* When a pint-sized NPC came up to investigate me, he jumped in front of me protectively and told him I was his sister.
* I love holding his hand when we go for walks. Holding his hand makes me feel happy.
* When I come to pick him up from The School, he shows me off to his teachers and his friends.
* The first night we shared a bedroom, I managed to get the Mummy and the Daddy to take me out of bed in the night for extra cuddles, and I had to spend the rest of the night trapped in the travel cot. In the morning, the Brother’s sad voice could be heard coming from our room saying: “Where is A? I want my little sister back.”

brother and sister

 

There is still time to vote for my blog in the MAD Blog Awards! So far I have been nominated in the categories Best Writer, Most Entertaining, Family Fun and Blog of the Year (but that was probably just my mother). Click here to vote, you have until a minute to midnight on the 14th of March.