Parents of multilingual children share their experiences about educating their children at Dutch schools
Natasja, mother of Noah and Luca.
My husband is Dutch, and I am originally from Denmark although I grew up in the UK. I came to the Netherlands in 2007 and we’ve been living in Maastricht all that time. We have two boys, currently 6 and 2 years old. We made a conscious decision not to speak Dutch at home – before our kids were born we always spoke English, and once we had kids we were confident that they would be fine in Dutch, given that they would go to a Dutch daycare for 4 days per week. So my husband speaks English to the kids, I speak Danish to them, and the common language at home is English. Having said that, we notice that Dutch is by far their strongest language. We do not insist on a ‘correct’ language to use, we respond to whatever they say by speaking English/Danish back at them; we have chosen to prioritise communication over strict trilingualism, therefore we don’t mind which language they address us in.
It’s not ‘one size fits all’: value individuality
It is important to find a primary school which is experienced in bilingualism and what bilingual children need in order to develop their language skills properly. If bilingual kids go to school with no experience in this matter I could imagine that various problems may appear there, such as unintended negative comments which might hit kids’ self-esteem and ultimately reduce their interest and motivation in keeping up their other language(s).
I think the method a school uses and the quality of the teachers is why it is so important to make an informed and considered school choice, one that is consistent with the parents’ overall parenting philosophy (not only as it relates to languages). My hunch is that schools which value individuality in kids are probably more suited to multilingual children, because they inherently accept that it’s not ‘one size fits all’
Dubious conversations with some schools
We are very happy with the school we chose, but we had some dubious conversations along the way which implied that some schools did not understand bilingualism or did not know how to deal with it. We wanted our oldest to go to a Dutch school because we don’t want him to be an ‘expat’ in his own country. Our approach was to look at almost every school in a reasonable radius from our house, or between our house and our work (for logistical reasons).
Two experiences stand out. One school insisted that no special approach would be needed for our son because the school starts English instruction at 4. They did not seem to grasp that even at 4 our son would already have a huge advantage, and that learning a second language is different from having a language as a mother-tongue. They did not have an adequate response when, after they showed me what the 4-year olds do (learning names of body parts), I pointed out that our son could already do that at 3. There were things we both liked and didn’t like about this particular school, but to me this lack of understanding was a real issue.
Another school was more understanding (perhaps because they have a higher percentage of bilingual kids) but did not have a good plan for how to deal with this – they actually suggested that our son could be the teacher’s helper during English class, without any critical reflection on what this might do to his social relationships. Neither of these two schools seemed to consider that boredom (resulting from being forced to learn things he already knows) could be detrimental to our son’s interest in his languages. In the end we went with a school which, whilst not having a concrete plan they could present to us at the time (because English lessons are started later there), seemed willing to think along with us and consider that our son might need to be exempted from standard English classes in order to do something more productive; e.g. I indicated to all schools that we’re fortunate to be in the position to hire a tutor who could work with our son separately perhaps on English grammar and writing (so that he would be doing English during English class, but at a more appropriate level). All we need is a school to be willing to understand that this would be more in our son’s interest than sitting through an English class that will bore him.
I can imagine that if you arrive in Dutch school without any preparation and you do not speak the language it can be tough. We are fortunate that, even though we don’t speak it at home, both my husband and I obviously speak Dutch, so we are able to understand what he is learning in school and able to help him if necessary. Also sending my son to a Dutch daycare helped him to get better prepared for Dutch school.
I don’t know if I agree with the fact that CITO tests are based on monolingual kids, but it would not at all surprise me if CITO tests have been developed without consideration for multilingual kids – this is very much in keeping with Dutch political and societal views of ‘integration’ of migrants. Luckily our son has not had any problems with the CITO tests yet.
Keep on using your languages
Our son started in year 3 this year, and at the start of the year it was made clear in a parent-teacher evening that learning to read is something that requires repeated practice, also at home (evenings/weekends). This is something I worried about, because we are currently focusing on learning to read in Danish and English, and would not want to break off this objective in order to focus also on Dutch at home. The teacher was understanding and basically told us to continue what we’re doing, unless a problem arises.
Teachers need to accept that multilingual kids have other needs than monolingual
As parents of bilingual/multilingual children we need understanding and a willingness to think outside of the box. Teachers need to accept our kids for who they are, and understand that they have different needs than monolingual kids.
It would be wonderful if primary schools could offer extra-curricular programmes, at least in English. I know this costs money, but I think many parents with the means would be willing to pay for this. At the least, primary schools should not force kids with an English background to sit through English classes with their peers (the same goes, by the way, for primary schools offering other languages like French or Spanish, and having students with those backgrounds in the classroom)
Therefore, choose your school carefully. Think about what is important to your family and what kind of person your child is, and make sure you find a school that not only listens but also really hears you.
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We are starting a new series of articles devoted to the issue of bilingualism/multilingualism at Dutch schools. Parents of bilingual/multilingual children will share their stories and tips. Do you also want to share your story contact us via: firstname.lastname@example.org and in the title of the mail write: My story.