Dual-wielding Dutch and English: bilingualism second time round



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

10 responses

  1. This is so interesting to read. I had no idea bilingual children could be 3 months behind monolingual children but it makes sense because there’s such a variety to learn. We are trying to teach little z 3 languages at once. English and both gujerati and punjabi. It’s a slow process because English is our first language and the other two have always been second so, even this adults, it sometimes doesn’t come naturally. Z, meanwhile, thinks it’s absolutely hilarious to learn foreign words and thinks its one big game 🙂

    • Ooh interesting, so are you teaching him the other two languages as a “foreign language”, as it were? Or do you have particular situations in which you speak them?

  2. Wonderfully written and very interesting post Judith. I am constantly in awe of children who manage to learn two languages from birth but also parents who stick at it against the odds. Well done you. Stick at it because I am sure it will be so worth it in the end 🙂

    • Definitely worth it. It has been a real bonus to me to speak two languages fluently – well, I earn a living translating, for one! I really want the same for my children.

  3. What an awesome little girl! No wonder you’re proud.
    Also really interesting to hear about how bi-lingual children develop their language as I wasn’t aware of the differences between them and mono-lingual children.

    • I’m very proud!! So I guess the language learning delay is only an average, because my two haven’t really suffered much from it. But generally that is the case.

  4. This was a fascinating read Judith, so interesting. How wonderful that she is picking up Dutch so confidently and beautifully.
    Ollie is 17 months and speaking really well, he has about 40 English words (only one at a time thus far with the exception of “big car”) but he isn’t saying any Polish words at all. We feel that he understands and responds to Polish (spoken entirely by my husband) but are wondering if the lack of words is a sign that he won’t become billingual. I think maybe I need to do some reading on the subject! xx

    • Your situation is even more difficult than ours, with the Dad being the source of the minority language. It sounds to me like Ollie is probably just not getting enough Polish input at the moment. Does his Dad work full time? If Ollie speaks English with you and at nursery and only sees his Dad in the evenings and at the weekends I think he just doesn’t hear enough Polish to balance out the English. Is there anything you can do to supplement this? Polish kids videos, online Polish catch up TV, meet up with Polish mums & tots, extended holidays in Poland with family? I think it is still possible for him to develop into a bilingual child, but it will be hard I think. Good luck!

  5. that is brilliant that you are bringing them up bilingual. I was brought up bilingual and I’m so proud of my mum for doing that for me because it can’t have been easy. Her logic was that living in the UK, I would learn English anyway, so she might as well teach me Iranian as my first language. I also remember my first days at school and wondering why the teachers didn’t understand everything I said. But then I soon realised who to speak English to and who to speak Iranian to. Well done to you and to your children! x

    • Fascinating! A very brave decision on the part of your mum, it’s a bit scary when you are standing at the start of the journey and you don’t know if your child will just end up as an Iranian speaker, baffled by the English world. You really have to trust in their natural language learning abilities that they will pick it up without your help.

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