Bringing up bilingual baby: when one language is stronger than the other

A little bit of Dunglish is part and parcel of being bilingual

Kleine Munchkin passed the one-year marker last month (it’s amazing how the time flies!), and she’s hitting all those milestones that come with it. She started walking in November, she recognizes people and objects, she’s more independent than ever, and, yes, she’s started talking.

So far – in addition to baby babbling – we’ve got Mommom, Papa, MoMo (aka Elmo), and caaaaaaa. To clarify, that last one is ‘cat,’ spoken with that nasal, flat, piercing ‘a’ we Americans are so (in)famous for.

She sees the four-legged, whiskered animal outside and we hear “caaaaaaaa!” She spies one on TV and we hear “caaaaaaa!” She points to pictures of them in her books and gleefully shouts “caaaaaaa!” Ask her where the kat is, however, and she looks at you like you have three heads.

Houston, we have a problem.

The goal is to raise her to be bilingual: Dutch and English. We’re using the one parent, one language module in which one parent speaks one language with the child while the other speaks the second language with the child. In my dream world, she’ll be native in both.

But now she’s indicating that she understands English but is still extremely fuzzy on the Dutch.

If you leave the room and close the door behind you, she’ll bang on the door until you come back. To make sure I don’t slam the door open in her face, I started asking “may I come in?” before very slowly and very carefully opening the door. After a few times, “may I come in” became her cue that whoever had gone out was coming back, and she’d scoot out of the way.

The first time my husband saw it, he thought it such a novelty. “Hey, it really works,” he said with amusement. So he gave it a try.

“Mag ik binnenkomen?” he asked.

No response

“Kleine Munchkin, mag ik binnenkomen?” he tried again.


He sighed. “May I come in?”

And Kleine Muchkin squealed in delighted anticipation and scooted away from the door.

It makes sense. I work from home, so I’m home with her all the time. I’m constantly talking to her, asking her things, reading to her, singing to her. My husband does all these things too. But he works 40+ hours a week, sometimes coming home late because of office events and networking activities. And then there’s the occasional overnight business trip. Because of his work schedule, he’s rarely able to join us when we head to the US for a week or two.

We have the exact opposite issue that so many Dutch/expat couples I know do. Usually, because of daycare, time with the Dutch-speaking parent, frequent visits from the Dutch grandparents, and more exposure to Dutch in general, the children speak Dutch flawlessly, but struggle a bit with English.

But because she doesn’t see her Dutch grandparents as often, because she spends most of her time with native English speakers, and because her Papa can’t be home with her as much, English is definitely her stronger language.

So I’ve taken it upon myself to give her the Dutch language exposure she needs. Here’s what’s been working as well as some ideas I got recently from the InCultureParent article 29 Tips for Raising Bilingual Kids.

Making the most out of my husband’s time with her – When he comes home, he becomes the main parent. He feeds her, bathes her, gets her in her pajamas, reads to her, helps her brush her “teeth,” gives her her last bottle, and puts her to bed. He also takes her one day during the weekend and they do things just the two of them. Not only does this help with her Dutch, it also gives them some great Papa/dochterje bonding time.

Watching Dutch television – I’m not a fan of the TV, but there are some fabulous educational programs out there for kids. To discourage endless, mindless TV watching, I buy those shows on DVD and we watch one episode each day. But I make sure it’s a Dutch language show. My favorite: Dora the Explorer. It’s interactive, making it great for kids. As a former teacher, I find lots of educational value in it that I see lacking in so many other television shows broadcast here in the Netherlands. Plus, in the Netherlands, Dora speaks Dutch and English, so she gets input from both languages, with an emphasis on Dutch.

Encouraging more Oma and Opa time – My husband’s parents are older and live about 40 minutes away (which is really far by Dutch standards), so they don’t see her much. By comparison, we Skype with my parents a few times a week and see them almost every month. This help strengthen her English as well as her relationship to my parents. So I’m trying to take her to Oma and Opa’s more often and encourage them to come visit her more frequently. I’ve also introduced them to Skype, which they’re starting to get the hang of. This helps with her Dutch but also strengthens her relationship with her Dutch grandparents.

Listening to music – Think about how you learned your native language. You learned all the kid songs and nursery rhymes. Music makes things catchier and easier to memorize. It sticks better and you’re likely to find yourself singing the songs without even realizing it. That’s why teaching those songs at home and at school is so important. I was singing the ABCs by the time I was 18 months old. Music also helped me learn Dutch. I don’t feel that it’s right for me to be singing those songs to her because I’m her English source and may teach her the wrong pronunciations, but I can play the music for her. Whether it’s Jan Smit, Trijntje Oosterhuis, or a kinderleidjes CD, I always have Dutch language music playing in the background for her.

Taking classes – Every Monday, Kleine Munchkin and I go to swimming class at the local pool and on Saturdays my husband takes her to classes at the Little Gym. Not only are those kinds of things great for motor skill development and social interaction, but she also gets further Dutch exposure. So, even though I take her to swimming, she hears instructions from the juf in Dutch. Bonus: we both learn something new each week.

Hiring Dutch childcare – Yes, I work from home, but anyone with children knows that you don’t get anything done with kids around. To ensure that I’m able to complete my work and meet my deadlines, I’ve hired Dutch-speaking babysitters. One comes for three hours on Mondays and Thursdays, and the other one’s here for four hours on Tuesdays. The girls only speak Dutch with Kleine Munchkin and it’s great for her to be exposed to other people.

Broadcasting the Papa Show – This one I haven’t tried yet, but Hubby and I are going to work on it tonight once Kleine Munchkin’s in bed. What you do is video the minority language parent reading, telling stories, singing and talking. Then, when that parent’s not around, you show the video. Kleine Munchin will see and hear her Papa in what is now her minority language. This is particularly great during business trips or for when Hubby will be getting home after Kleine Munchin’s already gone to bed, so that she’ll still be able to see and “spend time with” her Papa.

Breakin’ out the electronic toys  – We have oh so many of these. Toys that sing and talk and play music. We have them in Dutch, and we have them in English. But recently I noticed that all her Dutch language toys are up in her bedroom and her English language toys are downstairs in the living room, where she spends most of her time. There’s a reason for this. As new toys come in, my husband moves the old ones up to her bedroom. Whereas the gifts she gets from friends and family in the US are mostly electronic, the ones from Dutch friends and family are mostly wooden. So in the living room right now, we have all American electronic toys and Dutch wooden toys, with very few exceptions. Recently, I took most of her English speaking toys up to her room and replaced them with the Dutch speaking ones. Now at least when she presses those tempting, noise-inducing buttons, she hears more Dutch.

Getting out and about – Another simple way to expose her to Dutch is taking her out. To the playground, to the drugstore, on a grocery run, out for a coffee/apple juice. I may not be speaking Dutch, but the other people around us will be.

I realize she’ll probably never be equally strong in both languages, but there is a real need in our situation to level the playing field at this juncture. Luckily, being the English-language parent doesn’t mean I can’t do little things to expose her to the other language we want her to learn.

What are some other things parents can do or that you do yourself to show some more love to that minority language?

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