Having a multi-lingual house


Having a multi-lingual house

Since moving to the Netherlands we’ve had to negotiate how to include Dutch into our family life. Or whether we want to at all. Obviously we are a British family, and our main language is English, but in order to integrate better here we were keen to all learn Dutch.

We knew from fairly soon on that we wanted the children to go to the local Dutch school, rather than an international school. So we joined some Dutch children’s classes and started them at a preschool when they were old enough. And that has really worked for them.

There are two main theories for raising children multilingually that I’ve discovered: One Person One Language (OPOL) and Minority Language At Home (MLAH).

OPOL advocates that each person a child interacts with should only speak to them in one language. Even if they understand other languages that the child can speak they shouldn’t use them to I retract with the child. Needless to say this is quite a strict rule and can bring about conflict when children refuse to use your designated language.

MLAH advocates that you separate languages by place. So at home you speak whichever language they would have least exposure to, and outside you speak the community language. Obviously this requires you to have a proficiency in the other language too!

In actual fact we don’t really follow either of these, as we’re a bit more relaxed about it. Of course we only have two languages, and we are helped by the fact that one is English as that is so pervasive everywhere. We do try to talk mostly English at home and amongst ourselves, though some Dutch does creep in. I have no worries with either of them about their language abilities, in either language, so I am staying relaxed about which they use. When they have friends round we all talk in Dutch, and I try to talk Dutch as much as I can out of the house. I also try to talk Dutch all the time at preschool, to help starry girl transition to Dutch there. Though I often forget!

Rocket boy went through a phase where he completely ignored me if I spoke to him in English, but answered me straight away if I asked him the same question in Dutch. So for my sanity I was talking Dutch to him (after trying in English first!). He used to play by himself in Dutch, though since he’s now playing more with his sister he’s switched back to English. I wouldn’t be surprised if once she starts school they start talking to each other in Dutch.

One of the worries about speaking a non-native language to your children is that they will learn your inaccuracies. I haven’t found this to be a problem as they have enough Dutch exposure outside us to help them do it right. In fact rocket boy is very helpful telling us when we pronounce things wrong! His pronunciation is already so much better than ours.

I also think that it’s important to model to them my language learning, that I’m working hard to improve it. And that trying to speak it is important, especially if you’re not perfect at it yet.

2 thoughts on “Having a multi-lingual house

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  1. Very interesting post, Clari. I taught elementary kids in a university town. There were 25 languages spoken among our students. I was amazed (and humbled) to see how quickly kids from everywhere/anywhere pick up “playground English,” meaning they can chatter six to the dozen with friends. The reading/writing piece is more difficult. In my school, the best method for these kids seemed to be having them work with a teacher in their native language several times a week to help them complete assignments in their native language and then slowly transition that to English. This allowed them to show a teacher what they understood, while working to become fluent in reading/writing in English. Otherwise, too many children from other countries get shoehorned into “failure.” (A word I hate to apply to any human being, but especially kids.)

    1. Thanks for that – it’s interesting to see another approach. We’re lucky, in a way, that we moved here early enough that the children could develop their language before needing to read and write. Their language skills in Dutch are as expected for native children if their age. I just have to work on keeping their English up and adding in reading and writing in that!

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