Question

Hi,

My wife and I have so far adopted the OPOL strategy. Her native language is English, mine is Dutch, which is the majority language since we live in the Netherlands. Our two children have a clear preference for Dutch. They understand English perfectly well, but don’t usually speak it.

We’re now considering switching to “minority language at home”, which would require me to speak English at home to the kids (3 and 8 years old). I’m hesitant however, since my English is not perfect (though I do consider myself to be fluent and have been speaking English every day for the past 15 years at home and/or at work) and I certainly have an accent.

I’m also a bit concerned about changing strategy mid-way and it feels a bit awkward to not speak my native language with my kids, though that may just take some getting used to. It may help getting the kids to speak more English, which I’d highly value.

Any advice you could give; e.g. is it wise to switch strategy in these circumstances?

Thank you,
Bart

Answer

Dear Bart,

Thank you for asking this question. It happens very often that multilingual families switch from one method to another, or combine them because situations change and, like you observed, children may not actively speak one of the languages we want them to become fluent in. By choosing to speak English to them, you will certainly increase their need to talk it, and this seems a very valuable strategy.

My question is: do you live in an area where your children could go to playgroups or after-school clubs, or meet other English-speaking children? Having to speak a language with peers is a very successful way to make children speak and improve their language skills.

If you don’t have this opportunity where you live, you may want to introduce English with your children at a slow pace. You could start by talking English with them only during the weekends, when their mother is there too. It would become your weekend/family language and it would make it easier for your children. This would also allow you to keep on talking Dutch with them during the week, which surely will help them as well – thinking of helping them with their homework etc. (I suppose your children attend a Dutch school?). Please try to introduce it in a way that it is interesting and fascinating for your children. It will make the change easier for all of you. For example, you could choose an activity you all like and start “sharing it by talking English” only for a few hours or half a day and then increase the exposure time.

If then, after a while, speaking only English at home feels natural to you – and your children agree, i.e. respond to you in English – you can still decide if you want to switch to English or keep some Dutch-talking-days. I wouldn’t worry about the accent: children are very good at filtering and usually don’t copy it if they have someone else (mother, extended family and maybe friends?) talking with a native accent to them on a regular basis. Also, listening to English songs and learning rhymes, reading English books (there are some apps and sites where they can listen to stories online), will surely help them become more confident too.

Before skipping Dutch completely, I would ask you to consider the following: would you feel comfortable to talk English when you are with your Dutch family? How would you speak with your children when in a Dutch environment? Also, if your children attend a Dutch school, you may want to speak Dutch with them when their Dutch friends are around. Like you say, by talking 100% English with them you may not feel comfortable.

Therefore, I would advise you to try to introduce English slowly and see how your children react. You can tell them overtly why you are doing it and that you want it to be fun for all of you.

Please let me know how it works. In addition, if you are looking for English-speaking playgroups or families in your area, let me know by commenting below. I live in The Hague area and know several groups in Delft, The Hague, Rotterdam, Utrecht, Amsterdam and Almere.

Ik wens jullie familie heel groot success met het tweetaalige opvoeden van je kinderen!

With very kind regards,
Ute

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