Being (bilingual) parents with a different nationality inevitably raises the question of which language to raise your kid in and which language to speak at home. When we started dating C and I spoke mainly English (because my Spanish was barely good enough to ask where the closest panadería, or bakery, was. To illustrate, when I came to Spain I wrote an email to the local field hockey club in my best Spanish to see if could join, and C, as responsible for the club, replied in Spanish but below that “in case you don´t understand I will repeat in English”, so I guess the Spanish was just politeness to thank me for the effort).
But after a while I insisted on just speaking in Spanish because I figured otherwise I would never learn. (I clearly remember my Spanish language teacher on my second day in Spain saying that as long as we didn´t have a Spanish boyfriend this whole language immersion thing wouldn´t work, we could study as much as we wanted but if as soon as walked out of the class to hang out with our international friends, to call our boyfriends and family at home we would never really learn. Well let´s just say I was a very good student who did her homework and here we are 8 years later!)
However, after having the bichin I wanted to switch back to English again in the house. So yeah, I guess I am not very consistent with my homework. I was very clear that I wanted to speak in Dutch with the bichin and for him to learn my native language despite of living abroad. Although Dutch is not the must useful language in the world (yep, understatement I know), it´s important to me that he will be able to speak with the family back home and also since he´s half-Dutch it´s also part of his heritage. (Besides, despite being pretty trilingual I have serious issues doing baby-talk in a foreign language so for me it´s obviously much easier.) C understands quite some Dutch which also helps in the decision because then at least he knows what we talk about and is never really left out of conversations.
Bilingual or Trilingual?
So, mom would speak only Dutch to the bichin but for dad it was a more complicated choice. Since he is pretty much bilingual (Spanish-English) due to long periods in Australia / the US and we figured that the bichin will pick up Spanish anyway with the family here, in the daycare, at school and just on the street with kids, we thought English would probably be the most useful. Add to this the fact that I am not particularly impressed by the English level here, and the choice was easy. (To be fair, it is getting better since schools are making a lot of efforts but let´s just say it´s a long long way until we will get close to Scandinavian or even Dutch levels of English)
So three languages from birth on. At first I was a bit worried that this would be a bit much and too confusing for a little kid but two things completely took these worries away. First, we spoke to a close friend who is a phonetics expert from the UK and she told us she would definitely recommend it and that it would be so much better to start from birth naturally than by introducing it later by going to English classes etc. Second, I read the book Raising a Bilingual Child (can definitely recommend it, even if you´re not near-native in another language but would like your child to learn another language, it´s super interesting!) where a lot of research is described and no negative effects whatsoever are found for the child. In the first years children are most receptive to learning languages and since they need to learn one new language anyway (every baby needs to learn their language right) it´s not much extra effort to learn two or even three or four languages at the same time. As long as the child has enough exposure to the languages it can only benefit them.
One Parent One Language
And hence, here we are: I speak to Dutch to the bichin, C speaks English to him and the
home language is English as well (although out of habit sometimes we slip to Spanish to each other, but to the bichin we´re quite consistent). Apparently there´s a fancy name for what we do: “One Parent One Language” (or OPOL) and the community language (Spanish in our case) will be learned outside of the house. So for example the children book collection we have is a mix of Dutch and English and dependent on who brings the bichin to bed the bedtime story is in English or in Dutch. (Some of the bichin´s favourite bedtime stories: Poesje Nel (in Dutch, you might think it´s
weird that there´s such a freaky cat on the cover, I definitely did, but kids love it), Guess How Much I Love You (which we have in Dutch), Happy Hippo, Angry Duck , and The Going-To-Bed Book (both in English and under $4!) All four of these guarantee that the bedtime ritual starts with a big grin from the bichin, he loves them!)
Since he can´t talk yet I can´t really say anything about the results of this approach but what we do notice is that he understands basic stuff from all of us: whether it´s me asking for a kiss in Dutch, his dad asking him to point to the “Blue star nightlight” in English or his grandparents talking about the sounds their clock makes in Spanish. So far, so good.
What do you think about raising a bilingual, or trilingual, kid?
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