My name is Monique. I’m from the Netherlands originally and living in Australia with two children and my partner who is Australian. At the moment I’m a little lost as to what is the right bilingual system in particular with our youngest boy.
He does not get a lot of communication at all from my partner as he is on nightshift a lot and when he is available he tends to grunt and mumble and not be very involved. I’m a stay-at-home mum at the moment so most communication comes from interacting with me. But this January coming 2017 he is starting preschool where he will learn to read and write.
I talk a lot more English with him now because I feel he needs to have a bigger language exposure for now in English. I worry if I don’t that he will get left behind in school. So that means that the Dutch language is not spoken much. Our family lives overseas.
Basically my question is how can I prepare him properly for school and still teach my own language? What would you do in this situation? We do have a seven-year-old girl who is doing well in school and can speak reasonable Dutch with her grandparents when they come over. But then again she just seems much more motivated and interested in language, reading and I never worried about her doing well in school.
Thank you for your question about how you can support both of your son’s languages, Dutch and English. As you mention that your son is starting preschool, I presume he is now about four years old. Your concern is that your son’s English skills will not be good enough for his preschool start as he is not getting much exposure or interaction in the language, apart from what you speak with him.
You ask me what I would do in such a situation. Well, I have actually been through something very when my daughter started school at the age of six after our move to the U.K. She did not have any prior knowledge of the language, but we chose to continue speaking our minority languages (we had not only one, but two of them in the home). We did not switch to using English at home, but trusted that she would learn the majority language at school.
Indeed, she did – it took about three weeks until I noticed that she started to grasp what was happening at school, and after three months she started to speak and it was onwards and upwards from there. Of course, she was initially not on par with the other pupils, but it did not take her long to catch up once she learnt English. Of course, every child is different, so an outgoing, more talkative child will more likely pick up a language faster than a shy one. However, both types of children do learn a language when immersed in it for several hours a day.
You do not mention how much your sons speaks English at the moment – my presumption is that he already knows and understands a lot more than what my daughter did. I can understand that you want to support your son at his school start by speaking more English to him, but what you do need to keep in mind is that the more English you speak with him, the more he gets used to this being the language of communication between the two of you. Once he starts school, English will very soon take over as the dominant language for him, and your struggles will not be with English, but with maintaining his Dutch.
Have you talked to the teachers at preschool about this? My daughter was lucky to attend a school where everyone was supportive and both teachers and other pupils made an effort to include my daughter even if she initially was not able to communicate or understand everything. The preschool may already have experienced similar school starters and should be able to reassure you.
If you can arrange that he participates in a playgroup prior to starting preschool, this would be a good way of making him more used to an all-English environment and speaking English with other children. If you do want to speak more English with your son, then choose certain days or activities for this. By using English only in specific situations, it will be easier for you to go back to Dutch-only once your son is more confident in the majority language.
What you could is for example to read to him in English and discuss the books in English afterwards. This way you reinforce any new words that you come across in the books. If he watches cartoons you could also do this together, and again – afterwards speak about what happened in the programme.
Hope it all goes well, and please do ask any follow-up questions below.
Rita RosenbackRita is an author, Family Language Coach, blogger and speaker, who was born into a bilingual family on the Swedish-speaking west coast of Finland. After studying languages in Finland and Germany she worked as a university teacher, translator, interpreter and manager of multinational teams. Rita is now a full-time writer and coach and has been living in the U.K. since 1998. Rita is the mother of two grown-up multilingual daughters, who are the inspiration for her book: “Bringing up a Bilingual Child”, an easy-to-read guide for parents, where she navigates the reader across the “Seven Cs of Multilingual Parenting: Communication, Confidence, Commitment, Consistency, Creativity, Culture and Celebration”. Currently English and Swedish are Rita’s main languages, but she instantly switches to Finnish or German or to her Finland-Swedish dialect when the opportunity presents itself (and when push comes to shove, she can communicate in a very basic Punjabi). Rita is the creator and driving force of this website, and she gives talks and holds workshops for parents and teachers on the topic of bilingual children. She also coaches families on how to make the most of their languages and raise their children to become confident speakers of the chosen languages.