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I am a native Flemish-Dutch speaker and have been living in the US for the past five years. My husband is a native English speaker. Our daughter is currently 22 months old. I only speak Dutch to her and did this from day one. I read books to her every day, have CDs and DVDs, watch the news online, etc. We also visit Belgium at least once a year and try to use skype every (other) weekend (though this is hard for a girl her age). We usually have at least one Dutch-speaking person visit every year.At the moment our daughter speaks more Dutch than English, despite living in an English-speaking country. We just spent three weeks in Belgium with my family and her Dutch just sky-rocketed (for her age).
However, I have two questions/concerns:
1. My husband is trying to learn more Dutch and uses his basic knowledge with our daughter because he knows how important it is to me. As a result, he will say some things in Dutch but the majority will be in English since there is a lot of Dutch he doesn’t know yet. In addition, I have decided to almost always speak Dutch to him while at home (with an English translation following if necessary), even though he usually responds in English. This is obviously contradictory to the OPOL method. Should we continue this or not? I am afraid that if we stop using this, our daughter’s exposure to Dutch will just decrease. Yet if we continue it, she might become accustomed to mixing the two languages.
2. Two weeks ago our daughter started day care at my school and every day she comes home with more English words, which she will also use against me. She keeps e.g. saying “that one” or “sit down” to me. I respond by asking her “sit down” in Dutch. But I feel like I am fighting an uphill battle. I only know one family in our area that is Dutch speaking and we meet up with them at times. Yet they don’t seem to be as passionate about it and they will speak English with their child too, something which I never do. I have found that I am concerned about the language situation every single day. I am very hard on myself and feel utterly disappointed when I hear our daughter speak an English word to me. I feel very discouraged. Yet I don’t want to give up. Every time we go to Belgium I buy a suitcase full of books and DVDs and CDs. I want to achieve full literacy with her and (being a teacher myself) I really want to teacher her to be a fluent reader and writer in both languages. The problem is that I am a full-time teacher whereas my husband is a PhD student. As a result he is home with her a lot more often, so she hears English a lot more. This also means that he is not as driven to learn my language since he is so busy already.
So does someone have some encouragement and some advice? I know that all children are different and outcomes are never the same, but I really want my child to be fluent in both. I also always use Dutch to her in front of other people. Yet what also worries me is that my Dutch deteriorates the longer I am away from my home country.
1. Country you live in: US 2. Languages the family speaks: Mother is a native Dutch speaker. Father is a native English speaker. 3. Age of the child: 22 months 4. Language system: OPOL with some mixing by the father
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First of all – don’t worry! You are doing the right thing for your daughter! I’m Danish, my husband English and we live in Spain. My two boys – now 9 and 12 y.o. have grown up trilingual. I did exactly as you do – speak only my own language to them when we were alone. Their dominant language became Danish, but once they started nursery and school, that changed. First in Spanish nursery and their dominant language became Spanish, then in an English school. Their dominant language changed all the time for the first few years, but they have ended up totally trilingual after all – you’ve noticed yourself how your daughter catches up with Dutch very quickly once you go there for a visit. Your aim is to make your daughter bilingual, never mind what language she favours at any specific time. Keep talking to her in Dutch and ignore that she answers you back in English sometimes – it doesn’t matter. She clearly understands you and is capable of communicating herself in Dutch. If you make too much fuss about it she might “rebel” and refuse. I’m sure it’ll sort itself out as she gets more and more confident in both languages. Raising a multilingual child is not always easy but it’s worth it and you are doing great! Oh yes, I know about forgetting your own native language – some people just don’t believe it and think you are making it up, but it happens. One advice: crosswords!!! 🙂 Caroline
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Thank you very much for your encouraging words. It is nice to hear that there are success stories out there. How exactly did you go about making sure they heard enough Danish? And when you say I should ignore the fact that she says English things to me, what exactly do you mean? Pretend I don’t hear her or pretend I don’t understand? I want to avoid reacting/responding to things she says in English because I don’t want her to get used to that.
Again, thank you so much!
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Hi, Caroline! I hear a lot of my own sentiments and/or worries echoed in your post. To be fair, it sounds as if you are a. determined and b. doing everything in your power to ensure the success of your child, in regards to bilingual child rearing. My child, too, from an early age learned how easy it was to manipulate the languages in order to upset mother. Honestly, I cannot think of any time she has done this to her father (languages: he-English, myself-Latvian). She would also intentionally, just to be cruel, say to me, “My name is —” and use the English pronunciation of her name. I tried to instill in her that she need not change her name to fit the situation, partially in response to my own upbringing in which my parents made that decision for me and so then I became a person with two names, and now it is hard trying to convince the world how to correctly call me by my one and only name, though some may find it “hard” to pronounce. Long story short, she changes the pronunciation now, to fit every circumstance, in which case the English modified version wins out, because we are living in America. So, even if we are approached by an African, or an Italian or a Polish person speaking English she uses the English pronunciation (she is four) and only when we are speaking and with Latvians does she use the Latvian pronunciation. This is defeat number one for mom. I tell you this, because there will be some kind of disappointment, I imagine, in ourselves in regards to something with raising our children, so be prepared. It is hard, but worth the effort to not turn the linguistic environment into a… war or competition. It is hard for me, too. Children as children will act up, will for some unknown reason enjoy the games of making mother angry (sometimes) and they will also enjoy playing with their new words, giving them a fit, trying them out. Good advice given to me was this, when we come at our children like a piece of wood, we collide, but instead we have the privilege, the intelligence and the ability to become the water that embraces them, absorbs them and comforts them. This is something I try to remind myself often, this and love. I think the speaking to your husband in Dutch with a translation is brilliant, I too, try to do something similar, though not always. Maybe he will learn a little quicker, eh? Good for you, and God bless!
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Since you haven’t posted yet, I wanted to say I accidentally addressed my response to this to Caroline, when I meant to address it (my response to this) to Heidi. I greatly apologize and will be more careful in the future, but since you haven’t posted it, I would be thankful if you changed it or just deleted that address. Thanks for a great site! Daira
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Hi again Heidi,
You’re welcome – any time 🙂 Glad you could use my experience. What I meant by ignoring her answering you in English when you speak to her in Dutch was, just keep the conversation going. Pretend you didnt notice what language she spoke and especially – pretend you are not hurt by her answering you in English. The fact that she answers you, means she understood perfectly, and from you hollidays you know she speaks Dutch too. Keep in mind this is your aim – to make her bilingual! You can not decide for her which will be her prefered language, and it might very well not be Dutch – your only responsability is to make sure she is fluent in both languages when she chooses to. My boys where spending more time with me during the day for the first two years and so heard more Danish than English or Spanish. Family visits from Denmark, books, nursery rhymes in Danish, dvd’s helped too. We didnt join any of the Danish playgroups available here as I thought they had plenty of Danish input already. Later on when they started school and hobbies and heard mainly Spanish and English I got in contact with a few other Danish families to arrange days out together or friends to come around just to keep it up. My boys speak fluent Danish, but it is NOT their prefered language – and that’s ok. I did what I set out to do – make sure they learned the language properly. That’s all you can do. So keep doing exactly what you are doing – and your daughter will be perfectly bilingual in a few years time. Caroline
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Dear Daira and Caroline,
Thank you both so much for your responses. When I wrote my original post, we were visiting my in-laws and of course my daughter heard English all day long. As soon as we came home again, she reverted back to her normal pattern where she uses mostly Dutch. I think you are very right, Caroline. They pick a ‘preferred’ language and that is not necessarily always the same one. All day today my daughter used Dutch and then just in the past hour she started using English. It seems to even switch back and forth within one day!
I am afraid, though, that if I pretend that I didn’t notice it was English she used and I just respond to it in Dutch, she will get used to saying things in English and having me respond in Dutch. Did that happen with your children? For now I have been saying ‘how do we say that in mommy’s language?’ or just providing the Dutch. She is such a ‘parrot’ right now that she repeats it all anyway.
I realize there will be disappointment along the way. It would be my hope that she speaks Dutch with her future siblings, but that chance is small. It isn’t always easy to show my disappointment or frustration. But I don’t want it to be a competition, that is for sure.
Either way, I greatly appreciate hearing your experience, Caroline! It was very encouraging. And thank you, Daira, for your great advise and feedback.
I’ll have to get back with you in a year and let you know how it’s going.