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Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Bringing up bilingual baby: when one language is stronger than the other

Kleine Munchkin passed the one-year marker last month (it's amazing how the time flies!), and she's hitting all those milestones that come with it. She started walking in November, she recognizes people and objects, she's more independent than ever, and, yes, she's started talking.

So far - in addition to baby babbling - we've got Mommom, Papa, MoMo (aka Elmo), and caaaaaaa (cat). To clarify, that last one is cat, spoken with that nasal, flat, piercing 'a' we Americans are so (in)famous for.

She sees the four-legged, whiskered animal outside and we hear "caaaaaaaa!" She spies one on TV and we hear "caaaaaaa!" She points to pictures of them in her books and gleefully shouts "caaaaaaa!" Ask her where the kat is, however, and she looks at you like you have three heads.

Houston, we have a problem.

The goal is to raise her to be bilingual: Dutch and English. We're using the one parent, one language module in which one parent speaks one language with the child while the other speaks the second language with the child. In my dream world, she'll be native in both.

But now she's indicating that she understands English but is still extremely fuzzy on the Dutch.

If you leave the room and close the door behind you, she'll bang on the door until you come back. To make sure I don't slam the door open in her face, I started asking "may I come in?" before very slowly and very carefully opening the door. After a few times, "may I come in" became her cue that whoever had gone out was coming back, and she'd scoot out of the way.

The first time my husband saw it, he thought it such a novelty. "Hey, it really works," he said with amusement. So the next time he left the room and she stood outside the door waiting for him, he gave it a try.

"Mag ik binnenkomen?" he asked.

No response

"Kleine Munchkin, mag ik binnenkomen?" he tried again.

Nothing.

He sighed. "May I come in?"

And Kleine Muchkin squealed in delighted anticipation and scooted away from the door.

It makes sense. I work from home, so I'm home with her all the time. I'm constantly talking to her, asking her things, reading to her, singing to her. My husband does all these things too. But he works 40+ hours a week, sometimes coming home late because of office events and networking activities. And then there's the occasional overnight business trip. Because of his work schedule, he's rarely able to join us when we head to the US for a week or two.

We have the exact opposite issue that so many Dutch/expat couples I know do. Usually, because of daycare, time with the Dutch-speaking parent, frequent visits from the Dutch grandparents, and more exposure to Dutch in general, the children speak Dutch flawlessly, but struggle a bit with English.

But because she doesn't see her Dutch grandparents as often, because she spends most of her time with native English speakers, and because her Papa can't be home with her as much, English is definitely her stronger language.

So I've taken it upon myself to give her the Dutch language exposure she needs. Here's what's been working as well as some ideas I got recently from the InCultureParent article 29 Tips for Raising Bilingual Kids.

Making the most out of my husband's time with her - When he comes home, he becomes the main parent. He feeds her, bathes her, gets her in her pajamas, reads to her, helps her brush her "teeth," gives her her last bottle, and puts her to bed. He also takes her one day during the weekend and they do things just the two of them. Not only does this help with her Dutch, it also gives them some great Papa/dochterje bonding time.

Watching Dutch television - I'm not a fan of the TV, but there are some fabulous educational programs out there for kids. To discourage endless, mindless TV watching, I buy those shows on DVD and we watch one episode each day. But I make sure it's a Dutch language show. My favorite: Dora the Explorer. It's interactive, making it great for kids. As a former teacher, I find lots of educational value in it that I see lacking in so many other television shows broadcast here in the Netherlands. Plus, in the Netherlands, Dora speaks Dutch and English, so she gets input from both languages, with an emphasis on Dutch.

Encouraging more Oma and Opa time - My husband's parents are older and live about 40 minutes away (which is really far by Dutch standards), so they don't see her much. By comparison, we Skype with my parents a few times a week and see them almost every month. Not only does this help strengthen her English, but she also has a closer relationship to my parents. So I'm trying to take her to Oma and Opa's more often and encourage them to come visit her more frequently. I've also introduced them to Skype, which they're starting to get the hang of. This helps with her Dutch but also strengthens her relationship with her Dutch grandparents.

Listening to music - Think about how you learned your native language. You learned all the kid songs and nursery rhymes. Music makes things catchier and easier to memorize. It sticks better and you're likely to find yourself singing the songs without even realizing it. That's why teaching those songs at home and at school is so important. I was singing the ABC by the time I was 18 months old. Music also helped me learn Dutch. I don't feel that it's right for me to be singing those songs to her because I'm her English source and may teach her the wrong pronunciations, but I can play the music for her. Whether it's Jan Smit, Trijntje Oosterhuis, or a kinderleidjes CD, I always have Dutch language music playing in the background for her.

Taking classes - Every Monday, Kleine Munchkin and I go to swimming class at the local pool and on Saturdays my husband takes her to classes at the Little Gym. Not only are those kinds of things great for motor skill development and social interaction, but she also gets further Dutch exposure. So, even though I take her to swimming, she hears instructions from the juff in Dutch. Bonus: we both learn something new each week.

Hiring Dutch childcare - Yes, I work from home, but anyone with children knows that you don't get anything done with kids around. To ensure that I'm able to complete my work and meet my deadlines, I've hired Dutch-speaking babysitters. One comes for three hours on Mondays and Thursdays, and the other one's here for four hours on Tuesdays. The girls only speak Dutch with Kleine Munchkin and it's great for her to be exposed to other people.

Broadcasting the Papa Show - This one I haven't tried yet, but Hubby and I are going to work on it tonight once Kleine Munchkin's in bed. What you do is video the minority language parent reading, telling stories, singing and talking. Then, when that parent's not around, you show the video. Kleine Munchin will see and hear her Papa in what is now her minority language. This is particularly great during business trips or for when Hubby will be getting home after Kleine Munchin's already gone to bed, so that she'll still be able to see and "spend time with" her Papa.

Breakin' out the electronic toys  - We have oh so many of these. Toys that sing and talk and play music. We have them in Dutch, and we have them in English. But recently I noticed that all her Dutch language toys are up in her bedroom and her English language toys are downstairs in the living room, where she spends most of her time. There's a reason for this. As new toys come in, my husband moves the old ones up to her bedroom. Whereas the gifts she gets from friends and family in the US are mostly electronic, the ones from Dutch friends and family are mostly wooden. So in the living room right now, we have all American electronic toys and Dutch wooden toys, with very few exceptions. Recently, I took most of her English speaking toys up to her room and replaced them with the Dutch speaking ones. Now at least when she presses those tempting, noise-inducing buttons, she hears more Dutch.

Getting out and about - Another simple way to expose her to Dutch is taking her out. To the playground, to the drugstore, on a grocery run, out for a coffee/apple juice. I may not be speaking Dutch, but the other people around us will be.

I realize she'll probably never be equally strong in both languages, but there is a real need in our situation to level the playing field at this juncture. Luckily, being the English-language parent doesn't mean I can't do little things to expose her to the other language we want her to learn.

What are some other things parents can do or that you do yourself to show some more love to that minority language?

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7 comments:

Vinnie said...

Very interesting blog and kudos to you for bringing up your daughter in such a thoughtful manner, making every attempt to make her conversant with both the languages.

But here I would like to make a small suggestion. I think the most effective way would be to speak in Dutch in front of her. Children learn the most from their parents.I think you should divide your week into 4 Dutch days and 3 English days.

Karien said...

I think it is not something you need to worry about too much. Kids are so versatile at this age. if you decide to stay in the Netherlands you will find things will change dramatically when she starts (pre) school, and she will become much more Dutch, if you will stay there for all her school years it will probably become her 'first' language. We are Dutch, but my kids are born in the UK. my eldest used to be fluent in both, as we spoke dutch at home but english at nursery/ pre-school. At some point the kids even played together in English always. Now we moved to Singapore and started them in a Dutch school. They are rapidly losing their English, so we started extra classes and arrange many playdates with English speaking friends. My experience is that exposure to several languages at an ealry age is very good, even if they do not speak it tat well at the time or forget it later, the benefit will stay with them.
Just let her dad speak as much Dutch with her as he can, let her play with Dutch kids, that will be more than enough. Will you pit her in an international school? If you want her to be fluent in Dutch you'd better not, she will get good English anyhow! That is so easy these days.

Karien said...

I think it is not something you need to worry about too much. Kids are so versatile at this age. if you decide to stay in the Netherlands you will find things will change dramatically when she starts (pre) school, and she will become much more Dutch, if you will stay there for all her school years it will probably become her 'first' language. We are Dutch, but my kids are born in the UK. my eldest used to be fluent in both, as we spoke dutch at home but english at nursery/ pre-school. At some point the kids even played together in English always. Now we moved to Singapore and started them in a Dutch school. They are rapidly losing their English, so we started extra classes and arrange many playdates with English speaking friends. My experience is that exposure to several languages at an ealry age is very good, even if they do not speak it tat well at the time or forget it later, the benefit will stay with them.
Just let her dad speak as much Dutch with her as he can, let her play with Dutch kids, that will be more than enough. Will you pit her in an international school? If you want her to be fluent in Dutch you'd better not, she will get good English anyhow! That is so easy these days.

LJK said...

I just wanted to agree with the other commenter to 100% not worry about this AT ALL!!! I have 2 bilingual kids. My kids had 2 diff experiences.
My son didn't speak more than a few words before he was 3. We did one person one language as well and just hoped for the best. When he was 2 we put him in a peuterspeelzaal 2 mornings a week. He only used English there but by 3 he favored Dutch and has ever since. I've only spoken English to him all these years so he's always been able to understand. Because of his speech delay (thank you autism) I was just happy for communication so I never corrected him. I allowed him to speak Dutch to me and replied to him in English. Around age 6 he started to speak English. He's almost 10 now and totally fluent in both languages. He caught up from his speech delay in Dutch around age 7 and in English maybe a year later. He can read and write in both languages even though I never taught him to do that in English! I'm super proud of him.

Our daughter was an easier experience. We did the same thing as before but by the time she was here I was speaking Dutch often with my son's teacher's friends, etc. We just didn't even worry about the confusion she may be experiencing. She started speaking at a year old in both languages. She only started to favor Dutch when she started at the peuterspeelzaal but has always spoken English to me. She's 4.5 now and never shuts up. She can even translate for people already. She switches languages effortlessly!!!

I'm glad I didn't worry too much about any of it. The kids favor Dutch because everyone here speaks it, it's the language at school, etc but they are fluent in English which will be very valuable to them in the long run!

I had all these worries about my kids only speaking English because of being home with me. I made sure Daddy read them books in Dutch as it was important for us that they hear a native speak the language. I can read them Dutch books but my accent isn't perfect of course.

It was really neat to have a friend here from the USA. Our kids can speak both languages together and we all understand everyone. Truly unique to hear them mixing up the languages without a thought.

I disagree with Vinnie's comment. One person one language is the best thing for bilingual kids! If you speak both to her she will not be able to realize there are 2 separate languages. I can do this now because my kids are old enough to understand that it's not my 1st language (Mommy why you speak Dutch!? LOL!!!) but under age 3 for sure keep it OPOL!!!

Cosette Paneque said...

I think it will happen naturally. I was born in Havana, Cuba and my family immigrated to the U.S. when I was two years old and my sister was 12. Spanish was my first language and I didn't learn English until I started school when I was five. Being engulfed in the language, I picked it up quickly, easily, and mastered it. I even majored in English in college.

My sister has three American-born children. With Spanish rarely spoken in their home, their Spanish is very weak.

I don't think your child will struggle with Dutch. She'll pick it up from the media, from other people, at school, etc. If anything, she may be weak in English so it may be a good idea to keep up with English at home. Best of luck!

Tiffany said...

Thanks everyone for the awesome feedback! What fabulous strategies and ideas.

Regarding the suggestion of the majority language parent speaking the minority language for that extra input, it's not a good idea. Hearing more than one language from one person is confusing. At this early stage, the child has no idea that he or she is speaking two (or more) languages. They only know that they have to use a certain vocabulary to communicate with one person or set of people and another list of words to communicate with others. Besides the crossed signals, if it's not the parent's native language, mispronunciations, incorrect grammar and word usage, and incorrect intonation being passed on to the child is another risk.

This is why the one parent one language model is the most highly recommended.

I also should have made it more clear in my post, but we're looking to move back to the States within the next year or so, so unfortunately, learning Dutch at school won't be an option for us. At that point, it'll just be a matter of coming up with clever ways to find Dutch language input in the US.

As Kleine Munchkin will be about 3-4 by that point, one of the things we're considering is becoming a Dutch speaking household.

So we'll see... should be interesting :)

Anonymous said...

Actually finding Dutch in the us is not hard ex Amish called Pennsylvania Dutch speak both back and forth so ur child will get the best of both worlds