Tuesday Tips: Introducing a second language in a single-language family

Babyccino Kids
Over the years, I have received a few requests to explain how it is possible that all four of my children speak English, even though we live in the Netherlands, we solely speak Dutch at home, and, from the age of four, they attend public Dutch schools like all other Dutch children. Our children speak and understand English — maybe not fluently like a native English speaker, but they can follow and initiate conversations on a very functional level without problems. So here’s what happened.

My husband and I are both Dutch, born to Dutch parents and raised in typical Dutch villages in the south of the Netherlands. We met through mutual friends when I was in my final year of my study in Delft, and less than a year later we moved to New York together, the beginning of a 7-year adventure of living abroad in three different countries.

Sara and Pim were born when we lived in England, and by the time we moved to Amsterdam, Sara was 2 years old and spoke both Dutch and English. At the time we weren’t sure if we would stay in the Netherlands, so to keep all options opened we entered Sara in the nursery of the British School of Amsterdam when she turned three.

She stayed there until she turned four, and then started a Dutch primary school here in the neighbourhood. The reason for this was very much a financial one — Dutch schools are state funded whereas the British school is a private tuition with steep yearly fees.

That year in the British school was so much fun for her, with so many great activities for a three-year-old, that we have repeated this for all of our children (Casper is currently attending the nursery of the British school — he will start the Dutch primary school in the fall). So what we (sort of accidentally) have done, is to make use of the fact that the British school offers a nursery from the age of three, whereas Dutch schools start at the age of four. The private fees that we pay in that bridge year we would have otherwise paid to the Dutch daycare, so financially it didn’t make much difference. And the big bonus is — they all got a really nice kickstart in English! So this is how we activated their second language.

To sustain their English, we have done a few things: we have always worked with English speaking nannies or baby-sitters; we let the children watch un-dubbed (English spoken) films, and even though we don’t speak English to our children, we do read to them in English (for instance, I’m currently reading Harry Potter to the bigger children, and I do so in English).

The result is, that our kids continue to speak and understand English pretty well. I actually have also noticed that they pick up written English quite easily as soon as they comfortable read in Dutch. What also helps their language development is meeting up with our English speaking friends. Like last summer, we spent a week camping with Emilie and her girls, and the children were super comfortable speaking English all day.

So here you go, this is what we have done, and it seems to work. Do you have any tips about introducing a second language in a single-language family? If so, please do share, we would all love to hear!

xxx Esther

PS Photo of a memorable trip to Belgium with the entire Babyccino clan. Still a favourite!


Comments (12)

January 26, 2016

This is really interesting, we have a similar but reverse situation in the UK. My husband is Dutch and although English is very much our first language we made a pact when our eldest was born that he would speak to him only in Dutch. He picked it up as easily as English and is comfortably bilingual now (he is 7). My husband has been bit lazier with the younger two boys, but after a bit of nagging on my part they are now catching up! It seems to be that by each of us only speaking in our mother language they are able to compartmentalise easily and not get confused. We also let them watch Dutch language movies and are always trawling for decent dutch books for our eldest (Harry Potter at the moment!) Sadly my own Dutch is way behind…!!

Esther in Amsterdam
January 27, 2016

Ha! Maybe you should ask your husband to speak Dutch to you too! 😉

January 26, 2016

We are french and english but we live in Vietnam. The kids have exposure to the 3 languages equally so far ( they are 18 months. I am putting them to french nursery half day very soon. The reason for that is that i believe in order to be fluent in french you have to attend school whereas i believe english to be easier to learn even though you don’t attend english schools. The kids have a vietnamese nanny and their dad will keep speaking english to them. So i’m hoping their french will be the strongest language followed by english and then vietnamese. It’s facsinating to see them coming up with new words in all languages every day. Cant wait to see what they’ll chose to speak between themselves. Probably a mish mash of all!

January 26, 2016

Thank you for this article Esther. This reminded me of us 🙂 We have a very “mixed” family. I am half German, half Ecuadorian, brought up bilingual Spanish and German. I met my Irish husband when I studied in London but we moved to Germany after 5 years. We have two children, I speak only German to the kids and my husband only English. We are very lucky to live close to my parents, so the kids picked up Spanish from their grandmother pretty well. We have an English school nearby and thought of sending our kids there, but the school fees were just too high! Like you we have tons of English books, watch English films and visit my husbands family regularly. Our younger daughter is now going to a state primary school, which is bilingual German/Italian and we are fascinated at how quickly she has picked up the new language and how much she enjoys speaking it. She is very proud to know a language we don’t 😉 Not only do the kids benefit from being fluent in English at school, but I think its so important to be able to communicate with the family abroad, also in Ecuador!

January 26, 2016

My husband and I are Americans living in Barcelona with our 3.5 year old son. Even though we both speak fluent Spanish (my husband natively, I didn’t learn until college) we both speak to our son in English. In Barcelona, the official language is Catalan but almost all children end up learning Spanish as well through TV, friends, and school. For financial reasons, our son attended public daycare from the age of 15 months (all in Catalan) and now attends public school which is compulsory here and begins at age 3. His Catalan is actually much better than his Spanish but since the two languages are so similar, he mixes them frequently and some pretty odd constructions come out of his mouth. However, his dominant tongue is English which I have chosen to stress not only because it feels natural to me but also because the quality of English instruction here in Spain is so poor (I teach English here, trust me).
I do have to say that he’s a bit of a late talker. This could be the result of his personality (he’s an introvert) or it could be the result of the three languages he hears on a daily basis. Everyone assures me, he’ll work it out in his own time and so far, they’ve been right!

January 26, 2016

We are American, I am teaching American Sign Language to my children- so very different than a vocal language. But I have found videos that help teach it that my kids enjoy, I focus on new words and incorporate those into sentences, then explain them if needed, and lastly I will stop ‘voicing’ and only sign. To help my children not rely on hearing any words. Their grammar in ASL is not good. But when they get more into the Deaf community they will get corrected, as will I. We are learning together.

Esther in Amsterdam
January 27, 2016

That is so interesting! Thanks for sharing!

January 27, 2016

Thank you so much for sharing Esther. Both myself and my husband are Koreans and we are exactly at this point on what are we going to do with English. I have spent my youth in England so learning English was natural. And although I didn’t speak much English in my teens when I went back to the UK for university it just came all back. My husband has once commented that I lack in urgency since I havn’t experienced how painful it is to learn a second language when your old. Now we have a English speaking baby sitter and I also try to speak to them in English as often as possible but once read that parents speaking two languages may result in confusion. Did this never happen to your kids?

Esther in Amsterdam
January 27, 2016

My husband and I both speak Dutch to the children. Unless we are hanging out with English speaking friends — in that case we speak English, also to the kids. And if we read an English book to them, of course! x

January 27, 2016

Very interesting article on one topic very dear to me. Thanks for posting!
I read a lot about this topic and I encountered so many comments around me while doing what I did, but this is my experience and I admit, I am a tad proud of how my kids got to understand and speak English as a second language.

I am Italian, living in Lake Como, Italy. I have two kids of 6 and 9 years old and we live in a 100% Italian family (not so much like the Sopranos, but we are all Italian, daddy and cat included! :-).
I learned English when I was a teenager (I was so keen to learn it that I asked my parents to send me to extra classes!) and then I went to Uni in the UK and US and worked in London for 2 years.

Since the day my kids were born, I have spoken mainly English to them. In the family we speak mostly Italian and they hardly ever speak English to me. They go to a School with more hours of English than the average school, but nowhere near a bilingual or International school.
When their love for the TV/youtube started I have let them watch cartoons mainly in English. I have read many English books to them.
So that was mainly it! And now they understand and speak English.
The great thing is when we travel and meet people who do not speak Italian and they feel at ease in interacting and talking to them 🙂

Of course they do have their strong Italian accent, but I am so glad I gave them the chance to speak English and to open up to more opportunities to interact with people from different countries.

I read once that kids brains are smart enough to choose who to speak what language to, and it is quite so: to me, since they well know I’m Italian they never make the effort of replying in English, to other English/American people (even if these people know Italian) they always reply in English if addressed in English.

Elisabetta – Italy

January 28, 2016

This is such an interesting article. I am from India where ever state has a different language, unfortunate growing up in the hub business city of Mumbai, English is my first and spoken language, Hindu my national language is something I had to learn when I started working. My husband is from another state and speaks the laureate of his state with his family although they do know English, it is secondary to them and they only conserve in English for my benefit when I visit them. I am picking up and understanding their language, and I have been making my husband promise me that when we have kids, he and his family will converse with them and hopefully me by then in their language. I have read often that it is always an added benefit for children to learn and soak more than one language.

July 3, 2017

[…] going into the regular Dutch education system at the age of 4. (I have written more about this here.) We felt it was a great way to kick-start their English. Quite handy, we thought, with so many […]

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