Raising children bilingually
14th July 2008, 9 comments
Accepting the offer of job abroad requires a lot of prior thought, not least when one has a family to consider.
When children of school age are in the equation there is the added concern of how the decision will affect their education. The concern is heightened if the children will have to acquire a new language in order to attend the school of choice.
There are very good English-language schools in Maastricht and Brunssum, but international parents whose children do not (yet) speak English still have to consider the impact an English-language education may have on their children. Also, for some foreign families, a local Dutch school is of interest and/or necessity, even if Dutch is not spoken at home.
The debate about exposing children to more than one language seems to affect a significant proportion of families in the Limburg region, and not just on the issue of schooling. Many families of mixed nationalities find themselves having to decide whether to raise their children with both of the parents’ languages, or to focus on one. However, the issue also affects families based here for generations.
If you followed last year’s debate about whether or not the local Sinterklaas (the Dutch Santa Claus) should continue to speak 'Mestreechs' (Maastricht dialect), you will also be aware that this is a topic discussed in wholly Limburg homes: should the kids be encouraged to learn dialect?
If any of these issues, or similar, are relevant to you and your family, it is likely to interest you that there is a huge body of research accumulating that supports raising children bilingually. In a recent interview with the BBC, Professor Antonella Sorace of Edinburgh University stated that her research shows that children growing up bilingually, far from being challenged intellectually, can gain much more than the ability to communicate in two languages. Studies indicate that bilingual children are succeeding in a range of subjects, not just language-based ones. As an Italian living in Scotland, Sorace is hoping that her research might encourage Scottish parents to send their children to Gaelic schools.
My husband and I grew up in Britain and, typically, did not learn a second language until we reached secondary school. We saw the opportunity of giving our children exposure to another language as a major plus of living in the Netherlands, and it is indeed heartening to know that they might be at further advantage even if, as some have challenged us with, they may not require Dutch in later life.
The decision to send our children to the local village school was not clear-cut for us by any means, and we discussed the choice at length, between ourselves and others who had already had experience of this situation. If you are dwelling on the issue of bilingualism, some of our findings may be helpful.
If one language is spoken at home, then exposure to another language is likely to be through school. This is referred to by linguists as a bilingual setting situation.
Many schools in the Maastricht and Limburg region are already quite experienced in helping international families and their children. This is very much the case at the international English-language schools, which run programmes to help children reach a good level of English required for school.
Most of the local Dutch schools also have firsthand experience. Due to the international nature of Maastricht itself, many schools have welcomed children who do not have Dutch as a first language and have developed approaches, particularly with the input of their assigned speech therapists, to help international children integrate. This is also the case for many of the schools in outlying towns and villages, including those in the cross-border Belgian towns. Aside from international children, teachers are already very used to helping local children who mainly speak dialect to also reach a standard Dutch required for education.
If your home language is one that is unlikely to be spoken by one of the teachers, my observation is your child may actually be at an advantage. My son’s progress was exponential when his teacher was advised by the speech therapist not to speak to him in English at all. I have also observed Israeli and Italian children pick up English very quickly. Call it survival if you wish, but isn’t that how we all learned our mother tongue?
If a child is in a school where the language is not the primary language spoken at home, it can be easy to jump to the conclusion that any sign of unhappiness is because of the added pressure of learning a new language.
People argue that, when starting a new school, children already have a lot of factors to cope with and language is just another to add to the load. This argument, I believe, can actually be turned round and used to support bilingual schooling: language is only one of the many factors, and so can be less noticeable, especially for a younger child.
Particularly at a young age, children learn to communicate at several levels, not purely through spoken language. The vocabulary used by adults, even in a single language setting, is not always familiar to children, who therefore resort to observation and setting situation to gain understanding. This is how children acquire their first language and they are much more receptive to this than perhaps we are as adults.
Adult friends that are bilingual through a setting situation in childhood admit that it was pretty hard in the first few months at a foreign language school, but that they quickly moved beyond that stage. They all say that the long-term gain surpasses the short-term difficulties they may have experienced.
Will vocabulary be limited?
I have often heard the concern that bilingual children are building a vocabulary in their second language which is limited to the words they are exposed to at school. First of all, I would argue that we all have different sets of vocabulary depending on the situation we are in. If my husband starts talking to any great depth about chemicals and biocides, he quickly loses me. The language I use in my daily living as a mum at home is far removed from my days as a management consultant.
I have also observed that, through play with their Dutch friends, my younger children actually have quite a breadth of non-school vocabulary in Dutch. Older children talk about their interests and this also widens their vocabulary.
There are several ways in which we can help our children extend their second language. Many of the libraries in the Maastricht region are free, or have low membership fees, for children of school age. As well as the obvious choice of books, there are several books on CD and DVDs available in the libraries.
Television raises much debate among parents, but if I need a spare five minutes or so I will let the kids watch television and we often tend to put Dutch programmes on: it spares the guilt I feel a little as the children are building on their vocabulary!
One approach to building up vocabulary in a second language I would guard against, though, is to start speaking to your child in that language, to the detriment of their learning your own language.
If your language abilities are anything like mine, there is also the risk that your children might adopt your bad habits!
Joking apart, it is widely agreed that a child best acquires a second language (or more) if the boundaries are distinct.
I have seen amazing successes when these boundaries are held, for example a trilingual two year old, who was exposed to Polish through her mother, Dutch through her father, and to English in other family situations. Unfortunately I have also seen disasters, especially if parents have felt under pressure by the school to speak the school language at home.
What about the parents?
My son observed the other day that I didn’t have a brain for Dutch like he does, which is absolutely true! I have to admit that the arguments I originally had against sending our children to a Dutch school were purely selfish ones. How would I interact with the teachers? How would I understand the notes brought home from school? What about homework?
My experience has been that school staff and parents have been very encouraging, if somewhat amused, by my attempts at speaking to them in Dutch. As time has gone on, my level of Dutch has increased (I don’t know if I can say improved!) since my son started school.
Notes home and even homework can usually be conquered with a dictionary or the help of a willing friend. And as homework gets harder, there is a high chance my kids won’t want any parental input anyway. As a maths tutor, I have taught children who, in spite of having very numerically able parents, had reached an age when they doubted that their parents could do anything!
What happens if we move away?
Many expatriates face the uncertainty of length of stay in their new location. However, my observation has been that a child can gain a good understanding of a language by about three/four months, and most are making a very good attempt at speaking it by six months. After going to school in a foreign setting, children may well have mastered a second language, and at the very least they will have an understanding of another culture: that there are other ways of doing things.
We expected to live here for two years, and are now well into our seventh year. We are relieved that we took the risk and that our kids are benefiting from the experience.
As in all decisions regarding children, most parents know their own kids’ personalities and what they might be able to cope with. Having said that, we might be surprised by their capabilities!
Alex Ward / Crossroads / Expatica
Alex Ward is a British national living in South Limburg. Copyright Crossroads: a webmagazine for expats living in Maastricht.
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9 comments on this article Add a comment
5th September 2008, 12:57:47 Bjorn Solli posted:Thanks for an interesting article.
I just wanted to say that children in most cases have much more capabilities than people think.
Our daughter is now 9, and she speaks 3 languages fluently. We are both foreigners speaking English at home. So she grew up with this as the basic language.
As I am from Norway, I decided to only talk Norwegian to her when me and her were alone together. She is also watching kinder programs from Norway almost every day.
She has been in dutch kinder garden and is now in a dutch local school.
It is quite amazing, but she switches directly between the 3 languages, english-norwegian-dutch, without thinking about it.
So as I said, we must not underestimate the kids abilities. I wish I had the same possibility when I was a child!
19th September 2008, 04:08:46 Ana posted:Hello it is very interesant the article, I have got a question I am a spanish speaker we just arrived in Holland I do not know how to help to my daughter with the dutch language... it is better not to talk to much spanish with her and try to do my best and explain, teach her new words in dutch of course translate the words in spanish.. thank you in advanced
5th October 2008, 19:07:19 Natasha posted:Hi Ana,
Is your daughter going to a Dutch school now? How old is she? Does she mix with locals? How long do you plan to stay in Holland?
You need to answer the above questions first.
Take a look at Expatica feature: All about educating your children abroad
I would also contact Educaide, the professional Helpdesk for International and Bilingual Education in the Netherlands at:
PO Box 969 11, NL-2509 JH The Hague
Tel.: 31 (06)5 598 8998
Fax: 31 (0)70 326 2252
Contact: Willemijn van Oppen
With regards to what language to speak to her in, I would carry on speaking Spanish. Your child has a lot to deal with right now and changing the language you communicate in wouldn't help her to feel settled.
Helping kids with the expat move
Should our kids go native too?
I guess your child isn't a teenager - but for those with teens read:
A typical intercultural training day for teenagers
22nd April 2009, 16:06:35 Doormat posted:I wouldn't advise people send their bilingual children to a Dutch school. If it is possible, better to get them into an international school. I sent mine to a Dutch school and had horrendous experiences, the school endlessly blamed the fact they weren't doing well on them being bilingual and being brought up in a foreign home! Turned out [edited by moderator] some locals also had a problem but from what I understand decent schools here are few and far between, hence the reason why some Dutch parents in border areas of Belguim are choosing to send their children there.
7th October 2009, 13:56:43 Freda posted:Talking abt Limburg community, my husband is a Limburgse himself. They speak dialect and I have problems initially to understand the lingo even till now. I do understand other Dutch better than him when they speak Dutch..LOL..on the other hand, they are very friendly and warm peep.
Since Im married and moved here, we find international sch too expensive after much survey when attended EXPATICA FAIR so Dutch sch is our best option. I was being raised under Cambridge n Oxford based education in Asia so Im quite particular how my child being raised in their education here. Fyi I was formerly a teacher in my country b4 moved to NL.Since my son is being raised trilingual, we always encouraged him to communicate in English, Dutch and Malay too while hub being Dutch-Limburg-German descendents, he speaks more langs than us besides some Scandivanian lang.
Im proud to say my son communicate Dutch and ENglish better and he speaks simple Bahasa by translating to me in English and Dutch if he cudnt get the right word.I always explain to him the essential of learning other languages since typical most Dutch always fluent in different languages such Spanish, French and German besides English. I myself in my homeland did picked up some other languages like Chinese eventho Im not one. Why? coz I see the need to communicate with other races/nationalities and it gives a better understanding besides to get works done when working with foreigners.
At the end of the day, it's how open minded we are to accept other languages into our life, dat betekent to understand other cultures and their ways of life. Whichever sch u send ur kids too is significant and always do ur homework b4 ur kids turns to 2. Personally at the end of the day, it\\\'s how u raise ur child to appreciate the country that u live in and adapt and assimilate with everyone rather criticising or condemning will not resolve anything. Everywhere is the same whenever u r a foreigner residing a foreign land.
Honestly it\\\'s not education dat tells u how noble a person is but how a child being raised to accept other n vice versa..
13th May 2011, 12:28:18 Andrea Nagy posted:I liked this article a lot. we are currently living in Hungary, but my husband is already working in the Netherlands and we are planning to move there too. we have two children, they are 6 year old twin boys, born in the USA. so they speak English and Hungarian. I have no doubts that will learn the Dutch language. they supposed to start 1st grade here in Hungary this year in September. i m wondering if they can do the same there? i mean maybe it will be much more easier if they start school right away in a Dutch school, we wont have that much money to send them to private school, i mean learning the letters and numbers and stuff, it sounds like they would be all right with that. they have already learned the letters, numbers, and stuffs, like that in the USA, they start everything very early there. i am not worried about them at all, i think they have good potentials to learn foreign languages at this young age.
thanks a lot for the article, it is very helpful for people like us.
Andrea from Hungary
10th December 2013, 02:23:49 Yvonne khan posted:I recently retired from teaching in the uk and came over to Holland to look after my granddaughter. We are now beginning to look for schools and are finding it very hard. I am so shocked to see how the dutch teachers dress - they look very scruffy with their terrible jeans and dirty trainers. I wouldn't want my grandchild to be taught by them. They are not setting a good example. We speak English at home and I teach my grandchild using the English curriculum. We are looking for a good School where she can also get a Dutch education. I volunteerd in a Dutch school to see how they are working and I was really shocked. The children were inactive in the lesson, the pace was terrible and there was no differentiation at all. At play time a child had a nose bleed. The two teachers on duty did absolutely nothing. Another child fetched some tissues and took her friend to sit in a corner. I am sure that there are some excellent Dutch Schools but where are they?
24th May 2014, 21:07:07 Ingrid Elbertsen-Sirkin posted:If you live in North Holland, there is a fully bilingual school ( Dutch /English) opening, in Haarlem, in September.
13th October 2014, 18:18:44 May posted:Hi, I am May and i will migrate and staying in Best with my kids age 6,8,10. We are chinese and my kids do not know any dutch language. I would like to know whether is there any bilingual local school in eindhoven or best? What should i do if i cannot find a bilingual local school for my kids in a lower cost way?