Home Education Children's Education Bilingual kids and finding my voice
Last update on December 11, 2018
Written by Natasha Gunn

Bringing up your children in another country often forces you to deal with the culture, or the language, whether you like it or not. Natasha Gunn faces the music.

Bringing up your children in another country often forces you to deal with the culture, or the language, whether you like it or not.

Learning Dutch as a second language

Like a lot of expats, especially English-speaking expats living in the Netherlands, I had avoided coming to grips with the Dutch language for various reasons, one of them being that the Dutch speak good English, the other simply that I find the language difficult.

I speak French as a second language, but rather than helping me assimilate Dutch this purely increases the number of words in my cranial database that I instinctively access before reaching the appropriate word in Dutch.

Which supports the theory of a friend of mine; that after assimilating a second language, the first sign that you are getting to grips with a third is when it starts to override the second language word by word.

Sentences which show this kind of linguistic interference could sound like my response to a French-speaking mother trying to arrange a play-date with my children. ‘Je suis d’accord maar il faut que je vraag à mes enfants‘.

Bringing up bilingual children

My daughters are bilingual. They were born in Holland, and if anything their Dutch is stronger than their English.

Therefore, wherever we move to, I have to consider that Dutch is part of them. Which means, in Belgium for instance, sending them to a Dutch-speaking school rather than a French-speaking school.

And this means continuing to help them with homework in the Dutch language, which means that I need to continue to brush up my Dutch language skills.

My seven-year old, embarrassed by my somewhat basic Dutch, which I speak with what she considers to be a ‘terrible English accent’, hushes me with ‘stil mummy!’ when we approach the entrance to her classroom.

When we meet people who open up the conversation in Dutch she explains, even after they have been chatting away to me for some time, while I tip my head and smile and nod at the right places: “We speak both English and Dutch (indicating her sister and not me in this case). My mother’s Dutch is bad.”

And then there is my Dutch partner, who denies saying this, but it remains imprinted on my memory.

“You have no talent for the Dutch language; you would be better off investing the same amount of time and energy in taking opera lessons.”

Perhaps this isn’t as rude as it appears and he is suggesting that I have a beautiful voice which I really ought to develop further.

So I’ve started singing round the house more freely. But now it’s my six-year old who clamps down on me.

Stil mummy!”