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!

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

The Boy speaks

A little collection of what the Boy has to say for himself. He is still speaking a lot of Dinglish – I had thought it might be sorting itself out by now, but instead it almost seems to be getting worse. As he picks up more of each language, he mashes them up more. He is also still using his “filler”-syllable, “ne”. Any part of a sentence or word he is not sure of he will fill up with “enenene”.

The Boy plays out a disturbing little scene with his breakfast items.

“Don’t be scared, sap [juice]. Enenene zorgen [I’ll take care of you]. Don’t run away.
Kiwi really scared enenene sap. Sap really sad.
Don’t be scared, apple. Don’t be scared a snijden snijden snijden [cutting cutting cutting].”

I am reading a book. The Boy takes it from me.

Boy: “Is mama’s book.”

Me: “Actually, it’s Daddy’s book. Mummy has borrowed it.”
Boy (nodding sagely): “That’s papa’s book, called ‘Papa’s Magic’. Heel veel letters [lots of letters].”

I take out a notebook to write down what he is saying. He notices: “You drawing. I’m enene reading a book. Aha! That’s the page.”

He hugs his little sister and says: “Love you.”

Compliments: He notices the Girl, puts an arm around her and says: “Beautiful baby. Got a hair and a smiley face. Blije [happy] baby.” Similarly, I was changing his nappy one day and he was gazing up at me. Then he said: “Really mooie [pretty] mama. Got some eyes, and a smiley mouth. And a red t-shirt. And trousers, and a that one [forehead] and hair and a neck.”

He loves helping in the kitchen. We are making cakes and I let him put the butter dish in the microwave to be zapped. He places it in and says “I’m really careful.” Then I give him a spoon to stir the mixture with. “I’m goed in roeren [good at stirring]”, he compliments himself.

His banana falls on the floor. “Want a nieuwe banaan!” he wails in Dinglish.

He picks up lots of phrases from TV shows or from the people around him and applies them to his own life, startling us all.

“That’s a fun filled festival!” he exclaims.

Or he invites me on a “rip roaring pirate ‘venture.”

The Girl wants to join in his game. “Noooooo!” he screeches, “Not by the hair on my chinny chin chin!”

“It’s a tough day,” he says with a happy grin.

“I go get it,” he explains to me. “You stay here.”

Finally, my favourite moment. I put him to bed for a nap, but have to come back up after ten minutes because all I can hear over the baby monitor is crashing, banging, jumping and shouting “Walk the plank! Walk the plank!” I tuck him up again, set the lullabies going. He wriggles and giggles in bed. In my calmest, most soothing tone of voice I say: “Now, you are going to have a lovely sleep.”

He responds in the most patronising tone: “Yeeeeeees Mummy.”

Dinglish is still going strong, but I think nap time might be a thing of the past.

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 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.

Dinglish

As you have probably gathered by now, I am Dutch. As a child, I spent some time living in Australia, where I learned to speak English fluently. I was seven years old, the first time we went, and I arrived knowing only one phrase: “I’m sorry, I’m Dutch and I don’t understand.” My parents dunked me and my brother in the language pool, straight in at the deep end, and sent us to school. In class 2A they were just starting on Charlotte’s Web in story time. I had no clue what was going on in the book, or in class for that matter. I remember this time as one of pleasant bewilderment. It was always sunny, there was a lot of playing outside, my classmates were very friendly – happy memories. But wordless memories. I have always been very language-focused and I tend to remember conversations I have had verbatim, but those first few months in Brisbane I only remember as sights and sounds, almost as if someone had pressed the mute button.

Three months later, my brother and I were fluent. We spoke English to each other at home as well, and if my parents addressed us in Dutch, we answered in English. I had slowly started to enter into Charlotte’s Web and by the end of the book I was following the story like everyone else. I still don’t know how it starts, though. I never went back to read the beginning.

Back in The Netherlands I felt pretty special that I spoke another language fluently, and probably bored my school friends to tears with my cool new skill. In secondary school, I met the person who came to be my closest friend, a girl who had quite recently moved to The Netherlands from England. We started off speaking English to each other so I could show off, then later switched to Dutch so she could improve her skills, and eventually we settled on Dinglish.

Basically, we said whichever word occurred to us first in whatever language, resulting in bizarre Dutch-English mash-ups. A typical conversation in Dinglish might switch between the two languages three or four times per sentence, sometimes in the middle of a word.

Now my son speaks it like a native. Here some prime examples, English in blue and Dutch in red.

1. “Thank you well!” he says gratefully when given an apple. That’s a mash up of “thank you” and “dank je wel”.

2. On returning to our street from the playground he likes to spot familiar cars. “Oh!” he exclaims. “Where’s papa auto gone now?” [Where’s daddy’s car gone now?]

3. We are playing a simple card game. The Toddler provides the running commentary: “Mixing. Make a stapel? I can’t go. Pakken. Mama, your beurt. Mama gewonnen!” [Mixing. Make a pile. I can’t go. Pick up. Mummy, your turn. Mummy has won!]

4. We have pulled up outside Gran’s house. “Goed gedrived, Mama,” he compliments me. [Good driving, Mummy.] This one is real top level Dinglish, as he is using Dutch grammar on an English verb.

5. I come into the Toddler’s bedroom in the morning, not wearing my glasses (‘bril’ in Dutch). “Oh no! Where’s bril? I find it bril!” he exclaims with great concern, and runs off to find my glasses.

When I wrote about his language soup before, I thought he might have sorted the two languages out by now. He is getting more and more fluent, making longer sentences and learning more phrases. I have also noticed that he increasingly distinguishes between who speaks which language: he will start a conversation with Daddy in English, but in Dutch with Opa and Oma on Skype. If he is not sure about someone he will try one of the two and switch if he gets an unsatisfactory response.

But perhaps I shouldn’t be too surprised.

We hebben gisteren met de advisor gepraat over onze mortgage,” I say to Opa and Oma on Skype. “All being well gaat hij vrijdag completen.” [We spoke to the advisor about our mortgage yesterday. All being well it should complete on Friday.]

I may have to face facts: his first language is Dinglish.

Occupational Hazard

Before my son was born I Entry 1 Aims Objectivestaught English to immigrants and asylum seekers at a college. I enjoyed teaching higher levels most, as it afforded me the best opportunities for language geekiness – really getting my teeth into the finer points of grammar and pronunciation, stretching the students’ vocabulary and exploring essay and story writing. My last tutor group, however, was a beginners’ group. I was very nervous at the start of the year, not sure if I would be able to do a good job or whether I’d enjoy it, but I loved it. The students were so lovely and grateful for anything you did for them and teaching-wise it was also extremely enjoyable. You see so much progress in a year with beginners. Also, absolutely anything you do with them will help improve their language and their confidence, so we went on outings to the cafe, the park, the British Museum and the local ecology centre.

What I found essential for communicating with my students and building a good rapport was what us English teachers like to call ‘grading your language’, which basically means choosing words like “trip” instead of “expedition” and trying not to use endlessly long sentences with subclauses and past perfect continuous tenses. It also helps to make eye contact and face your student when talking to them, and trying not to mumble or speak too fast. I can actually think of quite a few walks of life where we could benefit from people grading their language.

These essential skills for teaching I am now finding a bit of a hindrance in speaking to my Toddler. He is not a fifty-five year old Afghani woman who is leaving the house on her own for the first time and already has a native language interfering with the learning of English. He is at the peak of his language learning abilities. He is like a little sponge, soaking up everything he hears. He repeats anything you say to him, as if he is tasting the words. He picks things up when you weren’t even sure he was listening. He is absorbing two different languages at once and sorting them into their appropriate context without any need for formal instruction or homework. The things that will help him learn are not the things that will help a group of nervous, adult beginners.

I know this, yet out of habit I find myself grading my language. I use words that I know he has already mastered and use the same phrases in the same situations. In fact, I find myself worrying about other people ‘confusing him’ by using different expressions to me. When I want the Toddler to ask for something politely, I say: “Can you ask me nicely?” However, other people will say: “What’s the magic word?” or “What do you say?” The evidence suggests that he has absolutely no trouble recognising that all these questions require the same response, but instinctively, I feel I need to limit his language input.

The opposite is true. I need to radically re-wire myself. The Toddler needs more, not less, variety in his language input. Unlike an adult, who has already got all their concepts of the world sorted but needs to learn to map them to a new language, he is learning about life at the same time as learning to speak. Everything in the world is new to him and he wants to know how things work, what they are and how he can talk about them. He knows ‘good’, so now it’s time to learn ‘excellent’, ‘fantastic’, ‘amazing’ and ‘wonderful’. He knows you can ‘fly’ on a plane, so now he needs to know that you can ‘soar’ and ‘zoom’ and ‘lift off’ and ‘touch down’ and that birds and kites and Superman can do flying as well. Instead of limiting myself to conversational topics that can be expressed in the present tense, I should discuss the past and the future and conditionals and passives and mights and used tos.

Technically, this is still “grading your language”. I just need to grade it up, not down.

Further grammar

It has been a little while since I took stock of the Toddler’s language development and it has come on a lot since my last post. This is a snapshot of our bilingual toddler’s speech at two years and four months old.

Possession
He has been interested in who things belong to for a little while now, especially whether things are his. When we leave the house to go on an adventure – or just to the supermarket – he will start to look out for “Mummy car” and once in the car, he will wave goodbye to “S house”. When Fat Cat comes prowling along the dining table, he gets told off: “No, Pike, not table. S food.”

Very recently, though, I was excited to hear that he has started adopting “my”. The other day he would not relinquish a story book when it was bedtime and said: “No. My book.”

Pronouns
Aside from “my”, we also get “you”. He is handing out plastic plates to eat plastic cake off: “You plate, you plate, you plate.” Or I am handed a Duplo brick: “You present, Mummy.”

“Everyone” is also new. “Hello, eddy-wan!” he says when faced with a room full of people.

Indicative pronouns have also appeared. My favourite is “zwis” [this], as in: “No, Mummy, not zwis way anymore.”

“I” appeared for the very first time recently, but only in a phrase that he had obviously heard someone say: “I did it! Yay!”

Verbs
Verbs are now usually conjugated. He is my little spy on the backseat of the car, and will report: “Mama, A. slaapt!” [the baby is sleeping]. Previously, he would have used the infinitive only, but now he correctly uses the third person singular. The verb ‘to be’ is usually left out, though: “Mama, A. wakker.” [the baby awake]

He is also working on auxiliary verbs. In fact, he has invented his own to cover most eventualities: “a”. A little like the French verb ‘avoir’, in fact. Proudly, he displays the completed Maisie mouse puzzle: “S a maakt puzzel!” [S has made puzzle!]

His most complex sentence to date, including various verb phrases, was: “S a maakt zitten billen Teddy.” [S has made sit bottom Teddy]. There are many wonderful things about this sentence, for one that although it is in Dutch, the expression ‘to make someone do something’ is English, and he has translated it. Also, it shows that “zitten billen” is an expression to him, in the way that the two words always occur together and in that order, although in Dutch you would split them and put “zitten” at the end of the sentence in this case.

One
At bedtime, we read two stories. The Toddler can choose which.

“Which book would you like to read?”
“Zwis one.”

We read one story and he picks number two. He clearly knows the drill, because as he opens it, he says: “Last one.”

Adjectives
He has been using adjectives for a little while, but they are now modified as well.

We are reading Monkey Puzzle at bedtime. Is this the monkey’s mummy? “Nooooo, issa slake [snake]! Very long, Mummy.”

Mummy has romantic notions of entertaining the Toddler by playing some classical music on the piano. It is not popular: “Oh, too noisy, Mummy!”

He can do it in Dutch as well. If I suggest some kind of interaction with the baby that he considers her incapable of he will set me straight: “Heel klein, mama.” [very little, Mummy]

Colours are now used as adjectives too, usually the correct ones but not always. Colours and numbers can also be combined, as in “two black cats”.

Prepositions
The Toddler knows quite a few prepositions now, but often mixes up the opposites. He will ask “uit [off], Mummy?” when he wants the light on or “beneden?”[downstairs] and then set off up the stairs.

Sometimes he will improvise if he is not sure of the right word. He will point at a toy he wants that is on top of his bookcase and say: “High, Mummy. Top.”

Question words
He still only really uses ‘where’, although that has progressed from “wawa Teddy gone?” to “Where’s Teddy gone?”. ‘What’ is usually silent: “doing, Mummy?”, “Happened, Mummy?”. Same in Dutch: “Beurd, mama?”. ‘How’ only appears in the stock phrase: “Hello, Mummy, hawa you?”. ‘Why’ and ‘when’ I assume are not due until later, when he has developed concepts of cause/effect and time.

What I find both interesting and frustrating is that he also has trouble understanding question-word-questions, particularly if he is already feeling frustrated. When he is in a rage about something and I don’t know why, asking “What did you say?” or “What is it you want?” throws him into an even more hysterical fit of sobbing. The only way out at that point is yes/no questions: “Do you want milk?” will often cause the crying to subside and he will nod, his face still buried in a chair cushion.

Language soup

The Toddler is bilingual Dutch-English, as you may have gathered. At the moment, he is not yet differentiating much between which language is which and who speaks what. He likes to combine words together into sentences, but sees no need to match Dutch to Dutch and English to English. Here are some of his interlingual combinations:

While putting on his socks: “Goo-bye voeten!” [Goodbye feet!]
Pointing at our cats: “Two poezen” [two cats]
Collecting leaves on a chilly autumn walk: “Nother blaadjes” [Another leaves]
In response to a suggestion of what we could do when we get home from our chilly walk: “No, not sap drinken” [No, not drink juice]
Examining a picture of a whale eating Mr Nosey: “Walvis hap Nosey. A big walvis.” [Whale munch Nosey. A big whale.]
Handing me a book: “Tory lezen” [read a story]

I imagine that in time he will separate the two languages out and start to use them appropriately, but for now, we get language soup.