Question

Hello,

I am Franco-Mexican and my husband is Dutch. We have two daughters and live in the Netherlands. I only speak Spanish to them, my husband only Dutch, and together we speak English. This works perfectly for us, they don’t mix up, but… lately my oldest only speaks Dutch to her sister (my youngest does not speak yet, she is 17 months but she understands all), I get frustrated or maybe sad to see than maybe she will only prefer to speak Dutch, or that between them will be only Dutch.

I realised that to marry my husband would have many repercussions, not only am I far away from my family, my daughters will not have the relation I had with my grandparents, but also now I have to deal with the fact that they will communicate in other language. I am afraid that in the future they will only speak Dutch, or that Dutch will be the main language at home. I am not good in Dutch so that is an extra worry. So, maybe I am able to follow them now, but later there will more problems.

In a way I am afraid I will not understand what they are saying between them or not able to correct them. But also all the repercussions. I don’t want one language to be the first language. Or is there always a first language? Between sisters or brothers, do they choose a language? Or how does this work?

Thank you,
Maria

Answer

Dear Maria,

Thank you for your question, which I feel is a very important one for you, stretching beyond the question of which language your daughters choose to speak with each other. Marrying someone with a different family heritage and language, and moving to another country are big changes in a person’s life and, as you say, will require a lot of adjustment.

You do not mention how old your elder daughter is and whether she is already attending nursery or school and in which language. Children always tend to take the path of least resistance, so when it comes to languages, they will choose whichever language they feel most comfortable in speaking. If your elder daughter talks Dutch for the majority of the time (e.g. at nursery, in playgroups or with friends, plus with her father), then this is most likely the language she would naturally choose to speak to her little sister as well. Even if she is not yet attending daycare outside the home, hearing Dutch on the television and around her in shops and when you are out and about, can be enough to tip the preference to Dutch.

You will be the person to pass on your language and the love for it and the for the culture it represents, so I recommend that you try to create as positive an environment with the language as possible. Play, sing and read a lot in Spanish with your daughters. Set up regular Skype calls with friends and family so your they get used to speaking Spanish also with other people. Have Spanish music playing in the background and, if you watch children’s programs together, choose ones where Spanish is spoken (you can find plenty of these on YouTube). Also make use of all the available online resources – check out for example this list from Spanish Playground.

With your elder daughter, speak about the importance of Spanish for you, her and her sister. Tell her how important her role is in making sure that her little sister also learns Spanish. Make her part of the team to teach the little one Spanish. You could also introduce a doll or teddy which is quintessentially Mexican and create a pretend play where the doll or teddy only speaks Spanish (you would be surprised how willing kids are to accept this concept).

Also, take your girls “back home” as often as financially viable so they can get immersed in the language and learn to appreciate the language as something that “everybody” can speak.

With regards to your concern about not understanding them in the future, you do not mention how long you have lived in the Netherlands. Just as your daughters will learn Dutch, your own language skills will also improve with time, don’t you think?

You ask whether there is always a first language. Not necessarily, especially when children grow up in a wholly bilingual environment, i.e. both languages are spoken not only in the home, but also in the surrounding community, kids can be so-called balanced bilinguals, with no preference as to language. However, as you live in the Netherlands with no significant Spanish-speaking community, this will most likely not be the case for your daughters – unless you can find a Spanish-speaking nursery/school for them to attend.

By being great role models, speaking our languages and being proud of our heritage we can pass on this knowledge and attitude to our children. We can discuss the importance of maintaining a family minority language and perhaps agree on some house rules “always speak Spanish with mummy”, “watch cartoons in Spanish”, but we cannot do is to determine which language the bilingual siblings will eventually decide to speak with each other in the future. If we request that they only speak the minority language with each other, they may comply when we are present, but the likelihood is, that they will soon switch to whichever language they prefer.

I do understand your worry, but please, concentrate your energy on making Spanish a true home language which your daughters are proud of and which they want to continue speaking.

Wishing you the best of luck!

Kind regards
Rita

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