Home Raising children bilingually
Last update on May 16, 2014

If you’re considering moving abroad with your family, you will need to consider their schooling and language learning. How does raising your child bilingually affect them?

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.

School input
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?

Extra burden?
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.