When your kids should be bilingual – but aren’t

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Giant Seagull (c) P.M. Kroonenberg

I had high hopes and big dreams.

In my head, my children would, at 3 and 5, be completely fluent in both English and Dutch.

They would speak Dutch to me (grammatical Dutch, with age appropriate vocabulary) and then switch seamlessly to English when talking to Daddy.

They would read Dutch books with me and be card-carrying Annie MG Schmidt fans. They would read Suske & Wiske and excitedly run for the latest Donald Duck magazine in Albert Heijn. Dutch shop assistants would not be able to tell that these children lived in England most of the time.

I was not so aware of the extent and level of detail of my Dream, and the height of my expectations, until I had to face up to the fact that reality was falling far, far short of them.

“Mummy, you dragen me,” was for a long time the sum total of my daughter’s Dutch. (“Dragen” means “carry”). At best, we would get one stray Dutch word in the occasional sentence. On our last visit to the Netherlands she managed to crank this up to two, running up to me crying in the playground to tell me that “those jongetjes didn’t want me to spelen.”

Bringing kids up to be bilingual is hard.

I thought it would just happen, if I spoke Dutch to them all the time.

I hadn’t realised how hard it would be to do that: speak Dutch consistently. How my day to day life meant it would sometimes be rude to (when visiting English speaking friends and their children for a play date), or unwise to (in a city tense from terrorist attacks where guttural languages sound suspicious and it is better not to sound foreign), or just too much like hard work (when you can’t think of the words because you don’t speak Dutch much yourself in daily life).

If you want to be consistent, sometimes you need to switch languages constantly, speaking English to your partner and Dutch to the kids when everyone is in the same room at the same time. It’s hard work. And confusing.

I hadn’t realised that my own Dutch would have got so rusty that it was actually harder work to speak my mother tongue than to default to English.

I hadn’t realised that being consistent would be hindered by the kids’ own choice of language, that they would choose English, and that I would absent-mindedly respond in English too.

I have found it hard to come to terms with the result of this, with the reality. That my own children speak my language like a foreigner, if at all. Living here has been an exciting adventure so far, it has made me feel special to be an immigrant here, but my children not speaking Dutch to me makes me feel suddenly isolated. I realise now that I had imagined sharing with them all the little bits of me that don’t translate into English. And I can’t.

However, on our last visit to Opa and Oma they made me see things differently.

“But you are bilingual,” my Dad said. “And you didn’t learn English until you were seven.”

That is when I saw another hidden assumption I had made. I had assumed that this was it. I had thought: they are not fluent now, and so they will never be. I have missed the boat.

Suddenly, I remembered so many other examples of bilingual friends with messy stories: some who became bilingual at 8 or 11 years old because of a move; some with parents who never did; some with siblings who became bilingual while they lagged behind; some who grew up with two languages but ended up more proficient in a third; some who had spoken another language when they were young, lost it and found it again as an adult.

For all of them, being bilingual to some extent ended up defining the course of their life. I know it did for me.

My children’s experience of growing up with English and Dutch will not be what I had planned for them. But it will have a massive impact on who they are and what they do with their lives. I will just have to be patient and watch their own, individual stories unfold.

Tell me about your experiences of bilingualism, or share your words of wisdom below in the comments!

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A little message for Opa and Oma on their mirror: “Eye luv yoo” in Dutch

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!

My Parents’ Kitchen

No washing upBritmums Live, a two day blogging conference I attended, is now so long ago that it seems like a far away fairy tale. Did I really spend a whole, uninterrupted night in a hotel room, where on waking at 6.30 out of habit I could just roll over and go back to sleep for another two (!) hours? Oh yes and I suppose I attended workshops and saw friends and things. Although I have let time slip by, I did not want to leave the occasion unmarked on my blog, so today I bring you a poem I wrote during one of the workshops.

I mostly picked the sessions that focused on writing, and thus I found myself in Emily Beecher‘s “Storytelling” session on Saturday afternoon. There were lots of good things to say about this session, but the highlight for me was that she gave us a prompt and then gave us time to write something. 

She asked us to spend 5 minutes writing about our childhood kitchen and then set a timer. Below is what I wrote. What hit me as I thought about the kitchen in Holland in the house where I grew up and put pen to paper, was this: whatever you are doing in your day, you can give yourself five minutes and write something. Really, you don’t need much. You just need to set some time aside. And so I am writing this while stressing about a big work deadline – just giving myself ten minutes (on a timer) to share this with you all.

Rise

Dusky red and mustard yellow;
A warm hub filled with jars and pots.
Overgrown apron brushing my toes,
peering over the edge
of the turban-shaped tin
buttered and dusted
She poured liquid sponge in
and the wooden spoon scraped
– not too well, leave me some! –
filled it up, golden, waiting.
I licked spoon and bowl
watching through the glass door
as the heat slowly spoiled
the perfection
melting soft
on my tongue.

 

(c) Judith Kingston, 2014

Linking to Prose for Thought.

MAD

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I wonder why you come here and read my blog.

Perhaps you are a bit of a language geek like myself, and you enjoy reading about my bilingual children.

Maybe you know me in real life and use my blog to keep tabs on me (feel free!).

Maybe you like my poetry.

Maybe you come here to share in my ups and downs as a parent, and to feel that wonderful relief that you are not the only one.

Maybe it is a window on a world that is entirely unlike your own but that is strangely compelling.

Or perhaps this is the first time you have come across me and you are now a bit disappointed to find that the first post you read is asking you to nominate me for an award.

Because that is what I am working up to.

Last year I had only just started Secrets of the Sandpit and was reeling from the discovery of a Narnia-like World of Blogging, just a hash tag away from normal every day life. I saw other bloggers put themselves up for this award but could not imagine ever doing this myself. Fast forward a year and I have cast aside all shame: will you, dear reader, consider voting in the MADs and nominating my blog? There are many categories and I don’t fit into many of them. My suggestion is the Writing category, because that is what I am all about.

There is a badge on the right that you can click on, or you can click here to go straight to the voting page.

You can vote for lots of other blogs at the same time to fill all the other categories. I was going to give you suggestions, but almost all of my favourite blogs would be my rivals in the writing category, so I’m just going to leave you to figure it out for yourselves!

Normal service will resume shortly with inside info from the Girl on the Brother in Life Game, some reflections on how the Boy is coping with his two languages now he has started pre-school and hopefully more poetry.

 

 

We interrupt this broadcast to announce…

Follow my blog with Bloglovin

It seemed the thing to do. If you enjoy reading, click follow! There is bloglovin’, which involves setting up an account, or if that is too much hassle, you can just follow by email. If you choose email, don’t forget to click on the link in the confirmation mail that you will get from WordPress!

That is all, normal service will now resume.

Have another sandpit picture

Have another sandpit picture