Reading this piece, I’m struck by the similarities in behavior between my own multilingual 4 year old and Kathryn’s Lucas. Particularly when I misunderstand something V has said, hurt expression on her face, she throws up her arms and says, “NOOO, Mama! I MEEEEEEEANNNNN….!” and gives a big sigh, looking around as if the right words will pop out of thin air. Our bi/multilingual children are growing up with amazing elastic minds with the ability to move between languages. It doesn’t mean, however, that communication is smooth from the start. How many of you can relate? Join us as Kathryn Roscoe shares some of her own amusing observations raising a bilingual child.
My daughter is in “groep 8″of the “basisschool”. And since she has returned from her last break beginning of May, she is in a total mode of end-of-primary-school-career-celebrations. They still do learn something at school, but after the Cito-toets just before the last holidays, school is all about preparation for the school camp and the famous end-of-musical.
For many international parents the Dutch school system is sometimes at least a bit confusing. To start with the fun parts. in many other school systems going to school camps happens yearly as from year 1 or 2 (groep 3 and 4 here), while in most Dutch schools the groep 8 camp is a very big deal. My daughter was lucky enough to go abroad to an International British school, and back in the Netherlands first to an international orientated bilingual Dutch school, so this is not her first camp. And also not her first musical, as theater productions are an yearly happening in many other school systems. She sometimes giggles: I am a pro, I’ve already done so many camps and musicals. But even so, the fever of all these preparations, the fun and the joy is there every day, but also the fear and anticipation of what comes after. Because after the school camp, and after the musical, and after the summer holidays, she will start at her new “middelbare school”. Quite a huge step. And it keeps her and her peers very busy.
Since the Dutch education system does not have middle school, the step between the 8 year long primary school, (where all the kids learn together at the same level, have almost no homework and go to have lunch at home everyday) and the high school is really a big one. Everything changes. And it starts all with the Cito toets. The Cito is actually not only one exam (in some schools they use different examination tools, Cito is the biggest and most common one at the moment). Cito is a standardized testing system used for the very first groep 1 till groep 8, where the pupils are being ranked by their cognitive and academic achievements. In groep 8, the teachers look at the Cito results from previous years, and they look at the social-emotional development of the child, and they advice which type of school suits your child the best. Dutch high school educational system is characterized by division, according to the level of abilities of the pupils. And then you as parents, and the child, start looking for schools, and their different educational curriculum, and choose one.
Sounds simple? Well, it is not that simple. Because each high school has its own way of teaching, each school offers different kinds of support, extra curricular activities, foreign languages or practical skills. My daughter and we have visited quite a few school till we decided upon the one we think fits her. And it is hard, because it happens at such a precious age (hello puberty), and the differences will be felt. Because after the summer break my daughter, like all her peers, will have to deal with a new teacher for each subject, moving from one classroom to another, work in projects, and foremost make tons of homework and presentations. The transition is not soft. She and all of them, will be growing lots next school year. They will all need to make new friends, get used to new class dynamics, they will learn to plan, and again make lots of homework… they will learn a lot.
But, there are still some time till then. I remember the first time she went to “basisschool” when she just turned 4, and now she is ending her primary school years, getting ready for the unknown yet “middelbare school” ones. Packing her backpack for school camp, rehearsing her lines and songs for the musical, planning her summer, getting almost ready to take the next plunge. No it’s not about reading and writing anymore, it’s about the big things. As for us, the parents, there is a Dutch saying “small kids, small problems, big kids, big problems”. Oh wel…
Congratulations, you’re raising your children to speak two or more languages. Maybe you have questions. For example: “Am I screwing up my kids for life?” or “How on Earth will I ever manage this when parenting is so overwhelming and I have to do it in two languages?”
I’m here to tell you: “Don’t do it.” Your kids will be so confused that they’ll end up not speaking any language properly. They’ll have language delays, no friends and will surely end up in prison.
OK, by now you probably have noticed that I’m joking, right?
So here’s the truth: it will be amazing. Yes, really. I promise. And how do I know that? At almost four, almost six, and seven, my kids are fluid in Polish, German and Dutch. And they surprise me every day with their linguistic abilities. In fact, I’ve never been very confident about my parenting skills, but I knew that I can raise my children to speak three languages. Because to me, it was the most natural thing to do.
I was born in Warsaw, Poland. When I was three years old, we moved Cologne, Germany where we stayed for two years. I attended a German kindergarten and learned to speak the language like a native. After we came back, we still spoke Germany every Sunday, at least until my brother was born. He couldn’t speak German so we stopped. But I kept the knowledge of the language alive, through school and lots of TV.
Moreover, my parents are multilingual themselves. My mom spent a big part of her childhood in the Netherlands (what a coincidence, isn’t it?) She went to the International School of the Hague where she learned to speak English. My father was raised in France. Both of them still speak the languages they learned while abroad. And they also learned other languages along the way.
At home, I grew up in a highly multilingual environment. My parents listened to the BBC in English. They argued in French which I didn’t speak then. At some point, my mom taught me English using “Winnie the Pooh” which I knew by heart in Polish.
And all the time, German has stayed with me: I chose a secondary school with an intensive focus on this language, and then studied it at University. During a student exchange program in Hamburg, I met the man I’d later marry.
When I was pregnant, my mother-in-law asked me “Which language will you speak to your daughter?” It’s funny but that question never even occurred to me. Besides, when there are strollers to be bought, clothes to be picked… and did I mention I was still in Germany at that point but my husband moved to the Netherlands? We had a whole international move to plan on top of that. So please forgive me if simply assumed that I’d just start talking to my daughter when she made her arrival and see what language came out.
But my mother-in-law’s question made consciously decide in favour of Polish. Not because I couldn’t raise my kids in German. It was just that my husband was already the designated German speaker, so I could teach my kids Polish.
The reactions we got from extended families were varied. My parents were happy to have multilingual grandchildren. My in-laws were worried they wouldn’t understand theirs. The joke’s on them though because my kids are fluid in all three languages. And my eldest is learning English at school.
So how are we raising our kids? We’re consistent, but not obsessively so. We show that we respect each other’s languages. My husband even took a Polish class to better understand his children. We’re very confident in our choice to raise the kids with so many languages, even though we’re completely at a loss in other areas of parenting. We’ve gotten some ridiculously ignorant comments, which we were more than happy to ignore.
Since their German and Dutch are being taken care of at school, the whole responsibility for Polish falls on me. To get some help, I hired a private Polish tutor. I teach them reading and writing in this language and I even downloaded a Polish schoolbook for my eldest. Yes, it’s a lot of work. But yes, it’s also worth it because as soon as they can read I can give them Polish books to devour, which will make my workload somewhat easier.
And if I feel overwhelmed by it all, I think of my parents, who raised me with so many languages (I now speak Polish, German, English, French and Dutch) while both of them were working. They used TV as a German-speaking baby sitter, only spoke German with me once a week. They knew nothing about OPOL (One Person One Language) or ml@h (minority language at home) or the time and place method. But they managed to successfully raise my brother and me with multiple languages.
According to many experts, it shouldn’t have been enough. But it was.
So dear parents, if you want to raise multilingual kids, take it someone who’s seen both sides of the equation. Raising multilingual children is hard work. But it shouldn’t drive us insane.
Note: this is me navigating clumsily in the realms of bilingual parenting. Not an advice whatsoever. If I’d like big words, I’d say don’t try this at home, but you’ll might have to. So let me know in the comments, theories, practice, shoot away!
I’ve been struggling with the languages lately.
Well, with my mother language. My children do understand both, Dutch and Hungarian well, but since we live in The Netherlands, they don’t speak nearly as much Hungarian as Dutch. They don’t sound like other 5-6 year old Hungarian kids. It’s all very understandable and “no wonder” – to me – but I do have a hard time explaining it to grandparents, my parents.
A hard time.
And I’m sure a lot of us had the firm belief – before actually getting children – that we would take advantage of the bilingual parenting, and the thousand and one positive effects of it as well – when it came to that. Living in a different country than our own expands our minds to other cultures and solutions, so it’s highly recommended (if at least for a while). Then you get kids, and you are still positive and enthusiastic – all the while you have a hard time keeping your eyes open. As those little feet start to run, not so subtle comments and advises might start to flow from “back home”. About remembering your roots, history of your nation, and gifting your beautiful mother language to the next generation.
Well, I for one, agree with them.
But why leave everything to one person? Let’s delegate here. I’d certainly would like to do all of the above, with the involvement of my parents and extended family – even friends with kids. It’s a big responsibility to be the sole language provider.
I say that, all the while I feel like I have been doing it all by the books (and will continue to do so):
- Talking in the second language at all times with the children.
- Reading in the second language every day.
- Playing a round of Q&A in the second language every now and then.
- Only watching TV-shows, movies in the second language.
- Having other children around can who only communicate with the second language (that’s a tough one).
- Taking trips and meeting with others who enjoy speaking that other language.
- Sending letters with snail mail to other Hungarian children who live abroad, in other countries.
But all this is not enough, as they are not forced to speak Hungarian with everyone. I’m not making them answer me only in Hungarian, because I want to communicate with whatever means we have. I want to teach the LOVE of this, the feeling of being understood, without the pressure “you have to say it right”. Am I nuts? Most probably.
Creating is always way out there beyond understanding
But I also don’t like the idea being left alone in this quest, all by myself, while it’s apparent that in mixed families it’s harder to keep the minority language alive. So family “back home” needs to step up.
But how, right? Distance is at play here, grandparents (at least my parents) find more than enough reasons not to travel, and with school being mandatory from age 5, we are also bound to dates.
Well, I’m not slowing down just because of some rocks on the road. Lately I’ve been asking around a number of Hungarian mothers living abroad as I felt the time has come for us to focus and try something new. They were big help – everyone had theories 🙂 We just throw ourselves in deep water, and we see how this will turn out – because so far there was only talk. Now comes action.
The first step is as follows:
- My parents do come to visit, and on a couple of days they take our daughters with them
- The kids and grandparents will be immersed into their little Hungarian bubble for a couple of days, and…
- A very good friend of mine and her own daughter will come to our house – and we all spend a couple of days together.
This is how it’s going to go down in the spring holiday, and we are all psyched. It’s really exciting for me, my parents, my friend. The kids of course (!) are more than okay with this, it’s actually funny, we talked about it like it was the most normal thing in the world. Of course they know everyone well now, do fly like birds, and have been practicing sleepovers for two-three nights with oma and opa. So, it’s all good.
When this first tryout works, we’ll go for the longer immersions:
- a week in the summer holidays, later two,
- an exchange later on with my friends and their kids,
- the focus here is on kids with whom the only mutual language is Hungarian. Those pen pals are in for a treat – they can be exchange students at our house, without all the usual bureaucracy.
All in the name of the second language.
Past experiences and the bright future
Myself, I remember I had relatives relatively far from home as a kid, so once (!) we’ve spent a week there with my sister without “papa-mama”. That was fun, although we were also older, maybe 8-10 years. And there were no language barriers, but it’s always exciting being without parents, isn’t it? It must have been fun for my parents too 😉
Being Hungarian means being restless and impatient for life, so (along with my parents) we can’t wait that long. My girls are now 5 and 6,5 years – and although they are super verbal (the older is speaking since she grew lips), and they do understand just about everything you throw at them in Hungarian, speaking is a different matter.
What are your practices, dear fellow mothers of the bilingual realm? Let me know in the comments! Talk about theories, your practices, experiences – I’d love to read your wisdom.