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!

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.