Friday, June 06, 2008

Should I learn Dutch?

When I first met the Belgianite at an international media conference in Cannes, France, we spoke English to each other, the only language in each’ linguistic arsenal we shared. It remained our common language over the years.


We moved to France a few years later and I had to work hard to improve my very rustic French. I can now say I feel much more comfortable and can proudly declare myself fluent in French as well; the Belgianite was already fluent in French when we met, but somehow we use this language only socially, when in presence of other franco-phones, out of politeness; as he often says, we don’t recognize each other in French!


When Milo was born we decided to adopt the OPOL method; so I begun speaking more Italian at home to Milo and the Belgianite unveiled his Nederlands-spoken persona, while keeping English for each other. Thanks to his French basis, personal acumen, constant exposure to me speaking to Milo and encouragement from my family, the Belgianite achieved also a pretty good understanding and fluency in Italian; you’d think that it would gradually become the family language, but the Belgianite is a jazzy cat, no pop material, and so, as much as he is captivated by the Italian language, culture and lifestyle, he does not like speaking Italian with me, for the same reason that we fell in love with each others’ English speaking facet (...and/or for fear of being corrected when making mistakes?). However, Milo quickly grasped on his fluency and sometimes addresses his dad in Italian (mainly out of lazyness, when he does not know the corresponding vocabulary in Dutch); the funny thing is that the Belgianite does not realizes that on these occasions he replies in Italian!


I never really needed to learn Dutch, in the sense that during trips to Belgium and with the Belgianite’s friends and family I can communicate easily using French and English; and even when I would tease the Belgianite and ask him to teach me the bad or loving words in Dutch, he never really felt at ease or particularly motivated. To this day, I still have to hear an
“Ik houd van u” (I love you): I never got it in Dutch! And when I did whisper that to him, he replied with a smirk: “You sound weird.” (I told you he’s atypical! That does not mean that he’s not affectionate, on the contrary, but curiously he does not like to use any other language but English with me).


I instinctively find Dutch a difficult language, with many unfamiliar guttural sounds and little common roots with any of the other languages I speak; I tried several times to actively learn vocabulary using some kid books we have that labels pictures in both Dutch and French, but got discouraged by terms such as 'gelukkige verjaardag' ( happy birthday, try singing that without twisting your tongue), 'vreugde' (joy), 'brandweerlieden' (fire men), to name a few…
Nevertheless, daily exposure and repetition worked wonders, forging a very useful mini-baby vocabulary which I manage to use with the monolingual toddlers each time with meet up with Belgian friends.


So far so good with our intricated linguistic arrangement….however, Milo is developing quite fast his Dutch fluency and I realize now that when he has a lenghty conversation with friends or the Belgianite, I grasp less and less. I hate having to ask: "What did he say?", he being my very own son! I mean, the way things are I’m headed to miss out on about 30% of my son(s) verbal output in the coming years and I don’t like it.


On the other hand I wonder if the kids would appreciate it at this stage: I still remember a few months back I once addressed Milo in Dutch saying one of those little sentences I know: 'zit je niere op je poop' (sit well on your butt); he looked at me in disbelief, his look meaning something along the lines of: "Are you totally insane? What the heck are you doing, you awful OPOL betrayer?!?!” He clearly was not amused by it.


So here is the big question: should I set myself to formally learn Dutch, once and for all?
The poll for my dear readers is open on the right-end side bar, feel free also to express your opinion in the comments section. Tot straks (catch you later)…

7 comments:

Anonymous said...

Hi, Claudia! If you can, you should learn Dutch, at least to understand your children when they speak to their father or relatives. But keep on speaking to them in Italian, because it is your mother language and theirs too now. Take care, Fabienne

Yom said...

Hello Claudia,

Glad to see you're blogging again. It's still very interesting for me to read about your kids' linguistic evolution as I have like you two boys with quite the same age and am speaking to them Italian in a francophone country.

The answer to your question is obvious I think. Yes you should learn the language! But I can understand it's not that easy, It all depends on your motivation...
I have tried myself to learn my wife's language since the beginning of our relation with not a great success. This a language from Cameroon with only a few existing books, with no official status making it quite difficult to have a formal learning. But still, while I'm completely lost with adults conversations, I can understand about 90% of conversations between my wife and my 2 boys and it's becoming more and more complex. I'm not sure that my older son would have spoken it so well if I had not shown interest and minimal comprehension of his mother's language.

But please, keep speaking English to each other with your belgianite, this is really a gift you're making to your children and it does not seem to damage their Italian and Dutch speaking abilities.

trilingual said...

Hi Clo! Glad to have you back!

You know, our situation is in a way similar. To me, French language feels so distant and difficult as it's different from English and Dutch *foreign languages I acquire*. But hey, I'm married to one, logically I should learn it more. Well, it's not that easy if you never live in a French speaking country. Like now, we just moved from the US to Germany. The fact that Joseph goes to French-German school, doesn't really motivate me to dive into French. We're living in Germany ... it's more urgent to learn the language of the environment, toch? Plus German is very close to Dutch, another reason to once again neglect my French. So far I'm learning French the same way as my kids *hearing my husband talks, french songs, etc*, but unfortunately with different results .. LOL.

In this case, I don't really know what suggestion I should give you :D

Sarah said...

What a dilemma! I think you should continue speaking Italian but also make a concerted effort to improve your listening comprehension in Dutch (without necessarily letting your children know). I suspect that as your children grow up and have lengthier conversations using more sophisticated grammar and vocab with your husband, you'll feel like you're missing out. That's the case with my husband, who is worried about when our son and our nephew and I will all be speaking French together and he won't know what's going on. (He's also worried about the boys plotting adventures and being clueless about it!)

Rather than formal lessons--you don't have much free time--maybe you can ask your hubby for summaries before and after longer conversations with the kids, listen in and read over his shoulder when he reads to the kids, find out some of what their favorite songs in Dutch are about, watch movies in Dutch with the kids (or use the Dutch audio option for DVDs of familiar movies), and set out to learn words and expressions that the kids are most likely to use. Doing a little bit every day will help you keep up, even if you never develop fluency in speaking--as you said, you don't actually need to be able to speak much Dutch in your daily life or with your in-laws.

So there's my two cents! Good luck with whatever you decide.

giovanni said...

I would suggest to improve your passive knowledge of Dutch so that you understand your kid(s) and Belgianite when they speak Dutch. I don't think you need to talk Dutch but when you do your beloved boys should encourage you, should say nice words to you and only correct you if that would increase your appetite for Dutch. So in the family you should agree on encouragement strategies!

It's interesting how language is related to emotions and perception of yourself and the other. You are lovers in English and not in Dutch or Italian... What does the Belgianite say or do when you whisper nice Italian words in his ear? Does he become frustrated he cannot do the same in Dutch? This would be another argument to learn Dutch!

Un abrazo

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