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Losing the Bilingual Battle

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 US. My oldest was two years old 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 some books and videos, neither of which interested my son much.

The other big problem was that my son clearly preferred English over Dutch. As soon as he learned the English words for something, he would use that exclusively--even if he could already say it in Dutch. It makes sense, because what did he need Dutch for, now that he lived in America? And I was too softhearted to pretend I didn’t understand his English. I just loved hearing him talk and communicating with him that way--even if it was 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 ignores me altogether.

My son and I both love talking (and language in general), which makes it such a dilemma. On one hand, I want him to learn my native language. On the other hand, I want to be able to talk to him! Sometimes I think: why me? It seems unfair that my husband gets to speak to the kids in English while I'm tasked “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 fluent Dutch, they sing Dutch nursery rhymes—including Sinterklaasliedjes. I guess they just don’t think about the meaning, which I probably didn't do either, when I was small.

An argument against forcing Dutch upon them 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. Speaking is just not really necessary for them. 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 music all the time. All Dutch universities offer their programs in English, which wasn't a big stretch since most of the books have always been in English anyway.

You can’t have everything at the same time

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 if I were a Dutch language instructor, but I spend all my days at the State Department speaking English and German. Ergo: I have limited time and energy to teach my kids a second language.

Last month, I saw an opportunity. My husband left town for two weeks, so I decided to be very strict about speaking Dutch to the kids. If I only spoke Dutch to them, I figured, my 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 to English with my 2-year old daughter. The reason: I wanted to potty-train 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, for example, and tell them never to cross the road by themselves, I want them to understand what I’m saying and English is the safest bet.

We live all over the world – except in the Netherlands

Living in the US while trying to keep up with Dutch is a big challenge. The Dutch community is small and not particularly focused on language preservation. When I’m out in public with my kids—and particularly when we’re with American family or friends—it feels rude to speak Dutch to the kids. The unfamiliar sounds of the language draws quite a bit of attention from people, which is something I'm not really 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 perhaps more useful.

So that’s it?

Should I give up on teaching my kids my Dutch, my mother tongue, altogether? It would certainly make my life easier. But I haven’t made up my mind yet. The kids are still young and even if perhaps I won’t actively train them in Dutch, I want them to understand the majority of what I’m saying to them.

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.