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

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Just a little bit more

A day later than normal, but this is the last of my Nininand Triptych. First I looked at the influence of Dutch culture visible in my children’s lives and then there was basically some pic spam of stuff we’d done. Now it is time for a language update.

Just as much as the photographs in my last post, the new words and phrases the Toddler has picked up during our visit tell the story of what we have done and what we have seen.

Meal times

Mag je van tafel, oma? [May you get down from the table, Oma?]

The Toddler has been practising being polite in Dutch, and prefacing his requests for things with “Can I have-” instead of “Want a-“. Unfortunately, his version has become victim to a little hypercorrection. He knows that I refer to myself as “I” and that if he wants to refer to me he should say “you”. So when I model the right phrase: “May I have some juice, please?”, the Toddler will dutifully morph it into “May you have some juice, please?” All his questions at the table have now become “May you” instead of “May I”.

He has learned new words for things-to-put-on-bread, as this is the Dutch staple for both breakfast and lunch. He can ask for leverworst [liverwurst] and hagelslag [chocolate sprinkles, yes we eat those on bread at ordinary mealtimes], in addition to ham and kaas [cheese], which he already knew about. He will also gleefully trot ahead of opa delivering me a kopje thee, mama! [cup of tea, Mummy!]. He knows little snacks come in a bakje [bowl] and that what he needs to do with his chair is schuiven [shunt/move] to get it closer to the table.

Daily life with Opa and Oma

Opa and Oma’s house is very tall and has three floors, so we are keeping quite fit climbing up and down many flights of stairs many times a day. The stairs are quite steep, so each trip involves a lot of Toddler-managing, persuading him to hold on to the handrail. Self-regulating chap that he is, he now does the pep talk himself and descends while keeping up a constant commentary: “Leuning, vasthouden leuning, dit leuning, dit balustrade” [Handrail, hold on to handrail, this hand rail, that bannister].

He loves having Opa and Oma around, and keeps constant tabs on them. Wat ben je aan het doen? [What are you doing?] is what he wants to know all the time. If one or the other disappears, he wants to know where they are. Telling him they are at work will produce a sage nod: Opa werk. Oma werk. However, five minutes later he will want to know where they are again, as he thinks that was quite enough work.

A bit more milk

A bit more milk

The Toddler’s English is full of little phrases he has borrowed from his Gran, such as “goodness me!” and “That’s a clever trick!” and “not again!”. It has been lovely to see the things my parents say creep into his Dutch over the past week or so. My parents made up a little song about my Dad (Opa, to the Toddler), which we have sung a lot while we were here, my Dad improvising new verses as the mood took him. This has led to the Toddler randomly coming out with “gekke vent!” [silly guy!], a phrase Opa uses to refer to himself in the song. The Toddler also seems to have noticed how Oma frequently nudging Opa for a little refill of tea or wine (depending on the time of day) and has started to do the same. He now holds out his milk beaker to me and asks me with a charming smile: “Beetje meer, mama?” [little bit more]

Little sisters are fun

The Toddler has been having great fun playing with his sister of late. We’ve been rolling a ball back and forth with the Baby. When she catches the ball, she lifts it up and starts gnawing on it, causing great hilarity and “Nee, niet om op te eten!” [No, not for eating!] Her brother has also been recreating her kinderstoel (high chair) for her out of cushions (one behind her back and one on her lap).

He loves the fact that she is trying to crawl, and he will merrily demonstrate for her (or just for me) giggling: “probeert te kruipen” [trying to crawl]. When her efforts fail he lets me know: “viel om!” [fell over] and usually also “baby huilt” [baby is crying]. In general, he acts as her advocate and protector, warning me when she is crying, telling me when she is lying on her front “aaaaaah baby beetje moe, baby slapen” [baby bit tired, baby sleep] and insisting that she must also wear her hood (capuchon) when it is raining, just like him, even if they’re actually sitting safe and dry in the car.

When he is feeling a bit fragile, though, he will command Oma vasthouden Baby [Oma hold baby], so that I have my arms free to hug him and carry him down the stairs.

Little

Feeding the 'little ducks' - who are half his size.

Feeding the ‘little ducks’ – who are half his size.

Most importantly, while we have been here, the Toddler has picked up a key feature of the Dutch language: the diminutive. It is mostly formed by adding the suffix -je to the end of a noun, pronounced ‘yuh’. It basically makes something ‘little’. You may have noticed some examples earlier on. The Toddler brings me a kopje thee [little cup of tea], goes to feed the eendjes [little ducks], looks for his sokjes [little socks] and tells me we have to wait for zes minuutjes [six little minutes] until it’s dinner time. Why do the Dutch make everything ‘little’? Mainly, it is our way of softening the things we say and making them sound less harsh, less threatening. Asking someone for a cup of tea might be a bit forward. Asking them for just a little cup is more acceptable. A six minute wait till dinner is a long time for a toddler. Six little minutes, however, can be done.

The Toddler seems to have instinctively grasped this while he has been here. I can see it in his face, holding out the milk beaker. A ‘bit more’ got Oliver Twist into a lot of trouble. But a little bit more, that he might just get away with.

A week in Nininand

It has been a busy week so far in Nininand and there is much to reflect on, but today I would like to give you a more visual impression of an Exceedingly Dutch Week.

In the month leading up to our visit, the Toddler put a sticker on a calendar every morning to count down to our departure. By the time we got to number 9, he was pretty solid on the concept of “tomorrow”, as evidenced by our bedtime conversations: “And tomorrow, number 9, and then 8, and then 7, and then 6, and then 5, and then 4, and then 3, and then 2, and then 1, and then: opa oma Nininand!”

count down calendar

Numbers on the calendar written by the Toddler himself, using a stencil set.

His very exciting new bed at Opa and Oma's house.

His very exciting new bed at Opa and Oma’s house.

He has surprisingly not once asked to watch Numberjacks, and has taken a liking to Dutch Mickey Mouse Clubhuis and Dutch Sesamestreet instead. This meant I could finally produce my 26 year old Sesamestreet colouring book for him. It soon derailed into “Mummy, seven?” Groan.

Everything is better with addednumbers.

Everything is better with added numbers.

Picking his own apples in the supermarket

Picking his own apples in the supermarket

Koffietijd (coffee time) - a Dutch institution. Toddler joins in with a beaker of milk.

Koffietijd (coffee time) – a Dutch institution. Toddler joins in with a beaker of milk.

Lego. Also 20 years old. Still awesome.

Lego. Also 20 years old. Still awesome.

Very Dutch Lego.

Very Dutch Lego.

Most Dutch houses have a built-in attachment for a flag pole, for festive occasions like the Queen’s (now the King’s) birthday, Liberation Day or someone in your house having passed their school exams. Or just because you are selling nice fish, as is the case in the picture below. Worth celebrating.

Flags. Because there are fish. Of course.

Flags. Because there are fish. Of course.

My parents have a dishwasher. Hurray!

My parents have a dishwasher. Hurray!

My Mum's list of what is in the fridge and freezer.

My Mum’s list of what is in the fridge and freezer.

Oma's slippers are a wonderful toy if you are 7 months old.

Oma’s slippers are a wonderful toy if you are 7 months old.

The Toddler's very own, mini supermarket, complete with miniature food you can sell to Opa for a cent or two.

The Toddler’s very own mini supermarket, complete with miniature food you can sell to Opa for a cent or two.

Learning the Dutch alphabet, in which P is for umbrella and S is for turtle. It's a whole other language, I tell you!

Learning the Dutch alphabet, in which P is for umbrella and S is for turtle. It’s a whole other language, I tell you!

They also slot into this cool bus.

They also slot into this cool bus.

I have done a lot of freelance work while I’ve been here. And a lot of writing of various sorts. I feel a little sad that I have barely spent time with my parents in the evenings as I have been staring at this very screen most of the time. I am starting to feel a bit like the Toddler when he sees me tip-tapping away on the laptop again: Nuff Puter!

Nuff puter, Mama.

Nuff puter, Mama.

Just a few more days and we will say goodbye to Nininand. What will the Toddler miss the most? Will it be Opa and Oma? Will it be Mickey Mouse Clubhouse? Will it be baking number biscuits? Will it be the Lego? Tune in next week to find out…

A Dutch Childhood

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Half Dutch, half British toes. Cute in any language or country.

Gezellig (adj): enjoyable, pleasant, sociable, fun, convivial.

I have now been in the Netherlands with my two children for just over 48 hours and already we have seen a room full of relatives, a room full of friends and their children, been to visit an old schoolfriend and dropped by my brother. I think the kids might need a day off with naps. The whirlwind of impressions of the past few days has led me to think a lot about Dutchness, and how Dutch my children are and will be, given that I live in the UK.

The Toddler was having lunch with my friend’s children yesterday and I was sitting back, enjoying the very Dutch process of it: the loaf of bread on the table; the forest of possible toppings, most of them sweet; the mother insisting their two year old should have a savoury “boterham” (slice of bread with topping) first before having something sweet, while the father was liberally coating his son’s bread in apple syrup; the mug of milk supplied with lunch as standard for adults and children alike; and of course the merry Dutch chatter of the little people, alternately sharing and snatching the food on their plates. My son did throw in some English here and there, but generally he seemed to catch on that this little boy spoke like Mummy and he mainly spoke Dutch.

I was thinking: what if we lived here? What would the Toddler be like? Would he be a different little boy? I think he would be much more familiar with bicycles and would be cycling himself very early on. We would go on daily trips to the local bakery to get fresh bread for our very bready meals. He would take little individual treats to school for all the children in his class on his birthday. He’d be rowing around the canals in a rubber dinghy by the time he was nine. And he would be Dutch. I am not sure how to classify exactly what that is, but it is not the same as being British. It something to do with living in a completely flat country without hills, with the wind in your face when you cycle to school, rushing to the beach as soon as the temperature sneaks above 18 degrees, about being normal because that is quite silly enough, about small-scale and sensible and enjoying being a kid and being active and about being thrifty and things being “lekker” and “gezellig”.

A Dutch sandpit. Just as good for writing more numbers in the sand as a British one.

A Dutch sandpit. Just as good for writing more numbers in the sand as a British one.

Then I thought that although perhaps my children are growing up in a different country to the one I grew up in, and there will be cultural differences between them and me, they will only be relatively small. It’s not like I’m living in India or Japan. I watched my son play in a Dutch playground, in a Dutch sandpit. He knew what to do. A slide is a slide and a sandpit is a sandpit, whether you’re playing with English or Dutch friends. He made a sand-Miffy and then diligently shoveled sand down the slide. He was still the Toddler, whatever language he was speaking or wherever he was playing. He still wanted to write numbers in the sand.

This is the life I wanted, the life I embraced. I have always enjoyed being a traveller and a migrator, living in different countries and trying to fit in so seemlessly that nobody will notice I’m actually Dutch. The result is, of course, perfectly assimilated children.

In the evening, when the Toddler snuggled up next to his little sister on the sofa and held her hand, he looked at me with an expression of intense satisfaction on his face and said: “Gezellig!” I wiped a little tear from my eye. That’s my little Dutch boy.