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.


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!


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.


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.