Mobile families: How important is the local language?

In the city where I live, 10% of the population are classified as “expats”. That means that they are usually on contracts of 2-5 years, although many stay longer (we have been here 10 years now…). One of the on-going issues for parents who move abroad with their children is how to approach living in a different language. Here are my top thoughts on this subject:

1. If you are a monolingual family, make every effort to have your child learn the local language. Bilingualism is a positive choice, and learning another language will be beneficial to your child in many ways.

2. The younger your child is, the easier it is to find ways for them to be exposed to the local language. Creche/day care, babysitters, play school, all of these are ways to include the local language.

3. Older children need more support, as they aren’t always confident about learning a new language.

4. Living in a culture where you can not interact with your peers can be isolating for children. As adults, we may be perfectly comfortable asking others to speak our language, but that doesn’t work for kids. Consider their perspective when making language decisions for your family.

5. If you choose against the local language, for whatever reasons, make sure you transmit to your children positive attitudes about the language and people anyway. And talk to them about why they are not learning the language. It’s where your kids live, they need to understand why they don’t understand…

I’ve been thinking about this topic a lot (subject of another post) because I am feeling that my younger children are not as comfortable with Dutch as I would want them to be. While we prioritize English and French in our family language plan, and still say “we won’t be here permanently”, I do want their Dutch to grow faster than it is. Tomorrow, I am attending an event hosted by a woman who has developed a “Playing is language” method for teaching children Dutch. She has the kids in her home, and does regular kid activities with them – playing, going for walks, etc. and teaches them Dutch through these activities. I’m thinking of trying it with my twins; I’ll let you know how it goes!

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2 thoughts on “Mobile families: How important is the local language?

  1. This is a very important topic, Eowyn. I think parents often forget that when their children start attending school not in the local language, they will feel isolated when in touch with local peers. Many expat families choose to send their children to Dutch daycare, crèche and then to international schools. But what about the regular input of the local language? You mention that even if you (and your children) know that you’re not staying forever, the positive attitude towards the local language and the local people and traditions (!) is crucial. And point 4 is very important: children need to fit in, to belong to the group and talking the language is only the first step in their attempt.
    I like the idea of your friend who did set up this group, but I am not very convinced that children will not consider it a “school situation” where they are taught to talk and do things by an adult… Will there be Dutch children too? If yes, how is the ratio Dutch – nonDutch children?
    Also, limitating the interaction of multilingual children to only one language can be very frustrating. I know this by my own experience. Those situations should be as natural as possible.
    I would love to know what experience you’ll make with your twins. – I choose another way to immerse mine into Dutch: I signed them up for several after school courses where they get in touch with as many Dutch children (peers) as possible. And we still meet their crèche friends regularly.

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