We all know that learning a language as a child is a hell of a lot easier than learning one as an adult. Their little brains are like sponges and children can make learning a language look like a stroll in the park. That is why exposing our children to a second (third, or more!) language is one of the greatest gifts we can give them.
However, parents of bilingual children and professionals in this field can be quite opinionated in the correct method of raising bilingual or trilingual children. What is the best way to ensure your children are able to speak more than one language? There are so many strategies. Do you go with the “One Person, One Language (OPOL)” approach, meaning that one of the child’s parents always speaks one language, and the other always speaks a different language? Or maybe the “Minority Language at Home (ML@H)” method, where everyone speaks the same language at home which is not the dominant language in the surrounding community?
There are also so many questions that are expected to be answered when you are preparing to become parents to bilingual children; Who speaks which languages, When specific languages are spoken, and Which languages the child is expected to use. Should you always speak only your mother tongue language to your children? Simultaneous language development or sequential second language learning? It can all be quite overwhelming if you let it. I really do not believe that it needs to be so cut and dry, so black or white. So I’d like to tell you my story and explain our laid back approach to raising our bilingual children.
I am Australian and therefore English is my native language. My husband is Dutch, so Dutch is his native language, however his English is just as good as mine. Since we first met fifteen years ago we have always spoken our common language with each other, which was English. Even though we now live in the Netherlands and I am learning Dutch, we still automatically speak English with each other. It is comfortable for us both and a habit that was developed early on. Although we have tried several times to switch to Dutch, we always automatically fall back to English. So we continue to speak English with each other.
Our two children were both born in Australia and when they were aged 2.5 and 9 months, we immigrated to the Netherlands. So my daughter was already speaking English well at the time. Around our daughter’s third birthday, we enrolled her into a Dutch peuterspeelzaal (playgroup). We wanted to expose her to more Dutch and ‘get the ball rolling’ so to say on building her second language. Peuterspeelzaal was just 2.5 hours, two mornings per week and she was able to begin learning Dutch in a fun environment as she played with other children her age. We were informed early on during a routine check up at the consultatiebureau (child health centre) that as Dutch was not our daughter’s main language at home, we were entitled to a special language subsidy program. She then began attending the playgroup for four half days per week and amazingly the government subsidised the majority of the cost — I believe we paid just 10 euros per month!.
She immediately began picking up Dutch words and within a couple of months, her sentences were made up of both Dutch and English words. At home, we watched children’s television programs in Dutch and my husband would read bed time stories in Dutch. After about four months, she knew the difference between Dutch words and English words, and would ask the child carers or her dad what the Dutch word was if she didn’t know. Within a year, she had completely switched over to speak Dutch 100% of the time (at both playgroup and at home). I continued to speak English to her at home. She understood what I was saying, but always responded in Dutch.
At 2.5 years of age, my son was also enrolled in the same subsidised program at the peuterspeelzaal. To be honest, I am not sure what my son’s native language is. His first words were a combination of both English and Dutch words. He grew up speaking Dutch with his dad and sister, and English with me. However, as soon as he began at the peuterspeelzaal, Dutch quickly became his dominant language.
My daughter began at a Dutch elementary school (basisschool) at four years of age and my son remained in the peuterspeelzaal for four half days per week. Actually, for about two full years, I did not hear my children speak English. For both children, Dutch had become their main language of choice and they would not answer me in English anymore. Even though I dearly missed hearing them speak English, I was extremely proud of how well they had picked up their second language. They still understood everything I said to them in English and I mostly continued to speak English at home in the hope that one day, that ‘English speaking switch’ would flick back on again. Switching back and forth between the two languages was something they had not yet accomplished at this stage.
Then I began working at an International school. At the ages of three and five, our children were given the opportunity to begin attending that same school. At this particular school, classes were taught in English. Within six months, both children were speaking English again. It was liberating to hear them speak English and wonderful to see them being able to switch back and forth between the two languages when needed.
Moving them to an International school was not an easy decision by all means. I was keen to hear them speak English again, but it was also just an important to us that they were able to speak Dutch fluently. However, not only did the school offer Dutch classes every day as a core subject, it also split the Dutch classes within every grade level into ‘Dutch as a Second Language’ and ‘Dutch at a Native Level’. Our children were able to join the native level classes, so we decided to give it a go. We also made the decision that any after school activities such as swimming lessons, football and ballet etc. would always be in Dutch with other local Dutch children, rather than in English at the school. They also play with their Dutch neighbours most days after school. So outside of school, they still receive plenty of practice speaking Dutch.
At home we speak both Dutch and English. We alternate in watching movies in both Dutch and English (thank you Netflix audio options!). Sometimes I read them their bed time story in English, but most nights, their dad will read them a story in Dutch. Sometimes we play CDs in the car that are full of Dutch children’s songs and sometimes we play English ones. Around the table at dinner time, the four of us go back and forth between the two languages constantly. Sometimes my husband speaks Dutch to them, sometimes English. Sometimes our children will speak Dutch to us, sometimes English. We have no set rules and just go with the flow. But I don’t believe that this combination of languages is confusing for them. On the contrary, they seem to be thriving!
I had always assumed that one must first learn to read and write in your native language before it would be possible to begin learning how to read and write in another. However, my daughter is proving me wrong. Currently at school, she is learning how to read and write in both English and Dutch simultaneously. Every day she receives literacy lessons in English from her native English classroom teacher and in Dutch from a native Dutch teacher. She is now able to read, write and speak in both languages even though vowels are sounded out so differently and sentence structures couldn’t be more dissimilar. Much to my surprise and delight, during her daily Dutch class she even seems to be keeping up with Dutch children attending Dutch schools.
We can only hope that we continue to witness both of our children thriving in both languages, which I am sure will be the case. My greatest dream is that they mature into young adults that are confidently and fluently able to communicate, and complete further studies if they desire, in either or both of their two languages. Our laid back approach may not be right for others and obviously attending an international school is not possible or the right choice for everyone. I figure, as long as our children are exposed to both languages enough on a daily basis, it will happen naturally. As they like to say here in the Netherlands, “Het komt wel goed” (everything will be fine).