Q&A: What if a bilingual child’s majority language is not as advanced as the minority one?

by | Dec 4, 2014 | Coaches, Non-native language, Q&A How to motivate a bilingual / multilingual child to speak a family language, Ute Limacher-Riebold | 0 comments


I’m American and speak English to my children (now aged 12 & 9). We live in the Netherlands. My husband is Dutch by birth (and speaks Dutch to them), but his mom is Spanish/Catalan and his dad is Czech/Slovakian (but also speak only Dutch to the kids). Telling you this because nearly everyone involved has grown up at least bilingual, but none of us know how to ‘fix’ this problem we’re having.

When my oldest was little, I made sure to immerse her in the English language thru books/activities/playgroups as I ‘knew’ once she started school, Dutch would become her primary language. I wasn’t as strict for my 2nd (of course). Problem now is that even though they attend a normal Dutch school and have Dutch friends, apparently their mother tongue is still English (say their teachers). They are having some difficulties at school. My daughter’s vocabulary is much better in English. She can express herself nearly without difficulty. In Dutch, where she does most of her speaking, she is stilted. She’s embarrassed. I encourage her to read as much as possible, but it’s hard to force her (and I find her secretly reading English language books).

My son is more complicated as his English is really not great. He speaks throwing in words from whichever language pops into his head. His pronunciation in Dutch is not good and his word order is messed up and as social as he is, it’s becoming hard for him. He’s noticing that he’s having trouble expressing himself.

I don’t feel like me switching to Dutch would help as I speak with an American accent. Also, the kids DO get immersed in only Dutch for about 1.5 weeks per month as I am a flight attendant and am simply not there to speak English to them.

Ever heard this happening? I feel guilty that they have this problem!! How did they get this way when I’m the ONLY one speaking English to them?? More importantly, how to correct this?

Thank you!


Dear Candace

Thank you very much for bringing up this issue. As parents we can’t really influence our children when it comes to language preferences. Your children seem to consider English as the more dominant language in their life, despite the fact that they’re living in the Netherlands, their father speaks Dutch to them and they attend a Dutch school. Even if their grandparents would be able to even add 4 (!) more languages to the picture, they “only” – and exclusively? – talk Dutch to your children too. May I ask how often they get to talk to their grandparents per week? Generally speaking, your children’s bilingualism seems a bit “out of balance”.

I’d like to ask you a few questions to make sure that I fully understand your situation.
– Am I right if I suppose that your son is the youngest?
– Your daughter’s vocabulary seems to be more elaborated in English than in Dutch, whereas your son struggles with English and Dutch, right?
– Is your daughter’s Dutch perceived as “stilted” also by her peers (and teachers), or is this your personal impression?
– How does your husband perceive her Dutch and does he agree with what the teachers say?
– You say that your son is code-switching: does he do this with everyone? Does he mix the languages also with monolinguals? Code-switching is not a bad sign, on the contrary. I wouldn’t worry too much, unless this is really affecting your son and you (or friends, teachers etc). If it does, I would advise you to ask a speech therapist who has experience with bilingual children.
– You mention that your son’s pronunciation in Dutch is “not good” and that his “word order is messed up” and that this is affecting him. Was this always an issue?

I’d like to point out two things: first of all, “being” bilingual is a process and constant work. There are phases where one language becomes more dominant, but this can also change. We don’t always know the reason for this: it can be because peers use that language (peer pressure), because the child prefers this language for some reason (feels more comfortable with using it) etc. Second, the language we use forms an important part of our sense of who we are, our identity. Parenting a bilingual child means also to parent a child who feels comfortable speaking more than one language.

I understand that your children’s level in Dutch is starting to affect their academical achievements and the way they perceive themselves. I’d like to find out why your children prefer English to Dutch.
– Are there other non-native speakers in your children’s classes? If yes, it could be that they feel more comfortable with those children because they also speak other languages and like the feeling of being “different”. If not, by prefering English they may try to isolate themselves for some reason.

You don’t mention if you noticed their language preference and them having some troubles with Dutch only recently or if you observed this before, when they were younger.

Please don’t feel guilty: I don’t think that you did anything wrong. You did a lot “right” actually, because despite the fact that English is the “minority” language in your current situation, it is the dominant language for your children. I don’t really see how you could increase the exposure to Dutch: your children are already in an almost full immersion situation. – I have the impression that your children perceive that Dutch is not as valuable as English. What is your opinion about this? When you talk about the languages you speak at home, what do they say about Dutch? Personally, I would focus more on emphasizing Dutch with the help of your family and their friends.

As your goal is to have two balanced bilinguals, I would really ask you to not forbid your daughter from reading English books: you surely want her to keep on reading in your language. For the same reason I wouldn’t advise you to switch to Dutch.

I’m looking forward to reading your answers to my questions and to discuss this further with you, and, if you wish, together find a strategy to support your children with improving their Dutch.

With very kind regards,

Ute Limacher-Riebold

Ute Limacher-Riebold

Ute Limacher-Riebold is a researcher, writer and an independent Language Consultant and Intercultural Communication Trainer at Ute’s International Lounge. She has a PhD in French literature and a Masters in Bilingualism and is a trained Speech and Language Specialist. Ute combines her knowledge in linguistics and intercultural communication, and her experience as multilingual and multicultural, who managed to successfully adapt to other languages and cultures, Ute made it her mission to translate research into evidence based, easy-to-apply tips for parents, families and practitioners, to use in everyday life. After Italy, France, and Switzerland she now lives in the Netherlands with her Swiss husband and three multilingual and multicultural children. Ute is fluent in English, German, French, Italian, Dutch and Swissgerman, and understands Spanish and Portuguese.


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