Losing the Bilingual Battle
Updated: Oct 5
I try to speak Dutch with my kids, while my husband usually sticks to English. That way we both speak our native languages and, hopefully, our kids will become bilingual. In theory it's totally doable—English and Dutch are not far apart and we all understand each other (my husband speaks great Dutch).
In reality, it's more complicated. The problems started as soon as we moved from the Netherlands to the United States. My oldest was two at the time and just beginning to speak. Suddenly, I was solely responsible for teaching him new Dutch words. The only aids I had were books and videos, neither of which interested him much.
The other big problem was that my son clearly preferred English over Dutch. As soon as he learned the English word for something he’d use that exclusively. I guess it makes sense. What does he need Dutch for now that he lives in America? Plus, I’m too softhearted to pretend I don’t understand what he’s saying. I just love hearing him talk at all. Even if it’s all in English.
The fluency discrepancy
My son is an articulate 6-year old. His English is very good; people compliment him on it all the time. When he speaks Dutch, on the other hand, he sounds like a 3-year old. As a result, I can barely have conversations with him if I stick to Dutch only. And if I say too much in Dutch he gets irritated and ignores me altogether.
We both love talking, which makes this such a dilemma. On one hand, I want him to learn my (and his) native language. On the other hand, I want to be able to chat with him! Sometimes I think: why me? It seems unfair that my husband gets to speak to the kids in English while I'm tasked with “teaching” our kids Dutch.
The cultural dimension
One argument in favor of teaching my kids Dutch is that they need it to understand Dutch culture and traditions. But after years of observation, I'm wondering if this is actually true. For example: even though my kids don't speak Dutch fluently, they sing Dutch nursery rhymes—including Sinterklaasliedjes. I guess they just don’t worry about the precise meaning, which I didn't do either when I was little.
An argument against forcing Dutch upon the kids is that—as long as they hear it on a regular basis—they can still understand it without really speaking it. So far this seems true. My kids seem to know exactly what I mean when I tell them something in Dutch, and they don't mind watching Dutch TV either. Speaking is just not necessary for them right now. My son told me a few weeks ago: “I only speak Dutch when there’s a real reason.”
Also, there’s something uniquely Dutch about speaking English. Most Dutch people speak English or at least understand it. They listen to English-language music and watch English-language movies all the time. All Dutch universities offer programs in English now, which wasn't even difficult to achieve a big because most of the academic books used are in English anyway.
You can’t have everything at the same time
What bothers me also is that teaching my kids Dutch sometimes gets in the way of teaching them other things. Perhaps it would be easier if I were a stay-at-home mom or a Dutch language instructor, but I spend every day at the State Department speaking English and German. Ergo: I have limited time and energy to teach my kids anot her language.
Last month I saw an opportunity to incorporate more Dutch into my daily routine with the kids. My husband left town for two weeks, so I decided to be very strict about speaking Dutch only. I figured the kids would be forced to at least try to communicate in Dutch. The first day was OK; they seemed to understand what I was saying and didn't get frustrated.
Pretty soon, though, I switched back to English with my 2-year old daughter. The reason: I was potty-training her. I could have tried to talk to her in Dutch about going potty, but she already knew those words in English. Plus, I feared she’d have problems communicating with her daycare teachers if I insisted on speaking in Dutch about it. I badly wanted the potty-training to succeed, so I sacrificed the Dutch-speaking.
Issues like this one come up all the time. When I tell my kids that you have to watch out for cars when you cross the road, for example, or implore them never to cross the road by themselves, I want them to really understand what I’m saying—and English is the safest bet.
We live all over the world—except in the Netherlands
Keeping up with Dutch at home is a big challenge while living in the Washington DC area. The Dutch community is small and not particularly focused on language preservation. And when I’m out in public with my kids—and particularly when I’m visiting my American family and friends—it feels rude to speak Dutch to the kids. Also, the unfamiliar sounds of the language tends to draw the attention from people who don’t know it, which is something I'm not always looking for.
When we live elsewhere—Armenia, and soon Germany—it makes even less sense to speak Dutch with the kids. Not only is Dutch useless in those places, it may also cause them to miss out on learning other languages that are interesting and more useful in that moment.
So that’s it?
Should I give up on teaching my kids my Dutch altogether then? It would certainly make my life easier. But I haven’t made up my mind yet. The kids are still young and as long as I expose them to the language they may continue to understand it.
But at the moment it’s hard to see how I’m going to do make them bilingual English-Dutch speakers without some outside help. It would be immensely useful if we hung out with Dutch-speakers on a regular basis, or if the kids attended a Dutch school. Until that time arrives, it’s going to be a struggle.