Tower of Babel

In my country, language is a touchy topic. We officially have 3: Dutch, French and German. But it’s not like in Luxembourg or Switzerland, we don’t have to learn them all. As a result, even if we are a super tiny country (30.000 sq meters, but diplomats will say “a country of modest size”), there is a sort of frontier, a fence due to language. We don’t communicate too much and thus cleavages and misunderstandings happen. It’s sad and I really hope our administration would address more this issue instead of cutting or polarising the country even more.

This being said, I’m far from a good example. I’m French speaking. I Took English as first extra language at school, then Spanish at university. I did all my 22 years of studies without any encounter with the other official languages of my country. High five! How is that possible??? Then I had to go work in the capital, Brussels. Suddenly my boss was Dutch speaking, as was 3/4 of the department. All the meetings were under the principle «everyone speaks his own language », a very good including principle. But I didn’t understand a word of Dutch and I could as well be in China in a renewable energy meeting, I had no clue.

How did I arrive there you will ask? Funny story. The Belgian law forbids to do a job interview for most civil servants in another language then the one of the applicants. The law is very good to protect yourself from having to learn something new. I got into my interview in French, they asked if Dutch was a problem, I replied « Not at all » meaning literally I don’t have a problem with the language. Ok, I might have played a bit on words on that one. They thought I could speak Dutch, and I got the job. So here I was on my first day at the office in this meeting all in Dutch. Just like in my actual diplo-wife life, I had to smile a lot and look like I understood everything. But smiling only kept me afloat for a couple of weeks, I had to learn Dutch. Turns out, there was a young Dutch guy working in the same department who was – strongly – inclined to help me learn, by marrying me. 

We ended up having 2 children. We decided to take advantage of our differences and to raise them in both languages. 30 years ago, people were reluctant to do so. And even doctors were saying we shouldn’t raise kids in a bilingual way because it will cause slower minds. 

Times have changed and we live in a globalized world where you cannot speak only one language. Nope, not even you Americans! 

Raising kids in a home of multiple languages isn’t easy. But it is funny. I speak French to the kids, my husband Dutch, they watch TV and communicate with the world in English, learn Arabic at school and Tagalog with their nanny. They certainly spoke later than the rest of the kids. I remember back in Belgium; people were implicitly telling me Agnès had a problem for not speaking yet. Nevertheless, I knew it would come later but in both languages! If you decide to do it, first rule is “DO NOT LISTEN TO OTHERS” and don’t let yourself be discouraged. Kids are real sponges; they will sort it out. It’s probably the same about all education topics anyway, but your bilingual kids are having quite specific challenges. They are learning completely different sounds. Bilingual kids hear double the vocabulary and half often (did you get it?). For Agnès it was still easy she only was in a bilingual home where the dominant environment was French, but Jack has the same challenge in a house with 4-5 languages. He’s still struggling with it at 2,5 years, but we are going in the right direction.

The difference here is that I am surrounded by parents who are all in the same situation. I don’t know one 4 year old who isn’t speaking 3 languages here. So apart from one Einstein baby, which you of course get to meet, doing full sentences at 12 months in two languages, all toddlers are fighting with words like Jack. Which is kind of reassuring as a parent. 

As they grow old, these kids mess up sentences. Agnès usually puts a bit of English in her French sentences, and she can’t properly tell the difference between Dutch and English. It’s completely normal and it will fade away. Just tell them which word belongs to which language so they can do a proper “box” for each language. 

Also, we had one rule: Everyone speaks his own language, kids adapt and reply in the same language addressed to them. It worked fine. But somewhere in the way, the French school explained to Agnès that her American friends will never speak French if she doesn’t talk to them in French (turns out the French school is full of English and Arab speaking kids and according to my daughter they are cooler than the French, so she hangs out with them). Don’t get me wrong, they are right. But it’s funny how they won’t apply their principle to them learning English, but that’s another debate. Thanks to them, now she decided I should speak French to everyone so they can learn. Clever kid. But I can see our Indian gardener is quite lost.

From the first day I found out I was pregnant with my second child, I wondered which language they would speak between them. My husband and I speak French (and no more escaping to English if we don’t want the kids to understand), so I assumed it might be French as it is the dominant language. No. Turns out now, they speak a mix of English, French and Dutch (in that order). For some reason the Dutch is quite popular when it comes to candy (snoepje) and ice-cream (ijsje) (probably linked to my husband’s way of dealing with kids).

What is really great with this languages journey is that I’ve lost one of the biggest misconceptions that I had: “You are not the same person in another language”. As If you couldn’t be the real you in another language. I had this feeling with my husband in the beginning. He was so sweet when speaking French and when I heard him in Dutch, he sounded like an aggressive prison guard. Of course, some languages sound sweeter than others. And according to your own ears, you’ll be attracted to one more than another. But this is the key factor: your ears! Sounds you heard as a child will help you consider some languages as comforting and others as an attack because it sounds oddly unfamiliar. I grew up with a bit of Italian and a lot of Americans around. This made me mellow for Italian (and Italians but don’t tell my husband) and fascinated by the American accent. It has been proven that you physically can’t even hear some sounds in other languages if you have never been confronted with them before. You then have to properly train your ears, like a muscle, to hear these sounds. I relied a lot on that principle for my journey of learning Dutch saying that my ears weren’t ready yet, however, after two kids being raised half in Dutch, I’m fine now (except for the dreadful dialect my father-in-law is speaking of which, 10 years later, I still have no clue and I don’t think I ever will).

I’m quite happy to think that thanks to this crazy life we live now, the ears of my children are on an Olympic level. They’ll be open to hear everyone and try to communicate with everyone. They are called the Third culture kids. They’ll have issues, like everyone, and probably issues linked to their lack of fixed roots but at least they won’t have issues about languages or dislike someone for speaking another language!

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