When English Isn’t The Dominant Language


Children being raised with more than one language isn’t a foreign concept to me. Working in a daycare that was populated mostly with upper-middle class families meant not only that I saw a lot of really nice homes when I babysat, but I also came in contact with very interesting parents who came from various backgrounds, often outside of North America. 
And working mostly with two year olds, I gained a lot of experience regarding language development, both of children whose first language was English as well as several whose first languages ranged from Italian to Hebrew to French.

Different children develop differently, as we all know, and language is no exception. In one group of kids I had  a little boy whose parents were Italian. They only spoke Italian at home and in the beginning the boy had a very hard time communicating at daycare. Mostly, he screamed all the time. When he was happy, excited, upset, angry: didn’t matter, he just shrieked. None of us spoke any Italian so we just had to keep reinforcing the English words that went along with the boy’s activities and feelings. If he was playing with the farm toys we’d say, “Oh, you’re playing with the farm. You like playing with the animals. That makes you happy.” 
It seems redundant, but eventually it worked and the boy stopped shrieking and started gesturing and eventually speaking in order to ask for toys or to tell us if he was unhappy or whatever else he needed.

On the other end of the spectrum, there was also a little girl whose mother was from France and spoke to her in French while her father was from Belgium and spoke to her in Dutch (I rarely saw the dad and had no clue about this until right before I moved to Belgium). You’d think she’d be even more confused than the Italian boy, seeing as she got two languages at home and a third in daycare, but on the contrary, she was actually super precocious with language. She was shy and quiet so it took a while before she spoke much in daycare, but eventually we realized she had a lot to say (with an adorable accent) both in English to us and French to her mother. She also began writing very early, albeit in French since her mother was teaching her at home.

So, when Tay was born, of course it made sense to raise him in both Dutch and English. You’d think it’d be fairly easy, right?
English is my first language, Dutch is Piet’s first language. I should speak to Tay in English, Piet in Dutch. Obviously in the daycare, Tay’s caretakers speak Dutch.

But it actually wasn’t really all that easy.

Thing is, Piet and I default to English at home. It’s the language we first communicated in when we met and despite the fact that it probably would’ve helped my Dutch when I first moved here and we did attempt speaking to each other in Dutch at first, we always ended up defaulting back to English.

Outside of our house though, I’ve made it a strong point to insist on speaking Dutch.
Otherwise I doubt my Dutch would be as good as it is now. Because as soon as a Belgian figures out that you speak English, you can pretty much forget about that person speaking to you in Dutch. Mostly they assume (and are often right, but not always ahem) that their English (or often their French if you’re a francophone) will always be better than your Dutch and they’re actually helping you by speaking your own language.

I’m so accustomed to pretending I don’t speak anything but Dutch, that it has become difficult to speak in English to anyone outside of a few Portugese friends and my husband.
And with Piet speaking Dutch at home with Tay, I automatically started speaking much more Dutch at home as well.
Tay responding only to Dutch and rarely to English (aside from “no” which he figured out fast and listens to better than the Dutch “nee”) enforced my speaking to him in Dutch because it hurts to be a new mother whose child doesn’t respond when they speak. At 10 months, if I spoke in Dutch, he interacted and responded. In English, not really.

So that’s how it came about that, maybe 2 months ago, Piet told me I really had to start speaking in English to Tay.
And I’ve had to force myself to do it and still often switch back to Dutch if we’re in public or family gatherings.
Tay now understands a lot of what I say. He’s finally starting to say “bye bye” occasionally instead of “da da” although his other 15 or so words are all Dutch. He knows “bottle” and “eat” in both languages, although he says neither. He uses signs we taught him but he’ll make the sign in response to the words in both English and Dutch.

It’s bound to remain complicated, since Piet will continue speaking to Tay in Dutch once we move to America. Piet and I may speak in Dutch as well so that he stays in the habit of using it and so my Dutch doesn’t get too rusty. But I’ll still be trying to speak in English to Tay.

Most of the time.

Unless we need to keep a secret from his Grandma and Grandpa.

3 responses »

  1. I think that’s one of the best things about Brussels – at Hayden’s school, over half the parents speak to their child in a different language. It’s seen as normal, while in Australia it is frowned upon.

    We speak exclusively English at home, and Hayden still seems to only understand and speak in Dutch. I don’t even know if the sounds that he is making are words or just phonemes. Though I do understand “neen neen neen neen”.

  2. I always thought that if raising a bilingual child, it is important that the people are consistent in the language eg mommy speaks x and daddy speaks y and grandma also speaks x etc.

    Our neighbours in the Ardennes are bilingual : mother speaks German and father speaks French. I have no idea what they speak among themselves but the kid (currently 5) speaks French to us and so do his parents with us, but when he turns to his mom he switches to German.

  3. Wondering if you will be back here, or if you’ve moved to a new blog. Would love to know the rest of of the story! Wishing you and yours well.

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