Google+ Authentic Parenting: Losing Language

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Losing Language

I never understood how parents could not teach their children their native language. Much less lose their own native language. And yet you see it rather often in expats who have settled in a country that speaks a different language then their own.
As we became parents, we knew we would be giving our daughter the gift of growing up bilingually, she would be talked to in Dutch by me and in French by my bilingual husband. Since my husband and I speak Dutch to one another, losing my language was never an issue. It never even occured to me that it might be possible.

Three and a half years ago, before our daughter was even conceived, we moved to Cameroun, a francophone country in West Africa. That's where we were living when our daughter was born. When she was a little shy of 6 months, we were ordered to move by my husband's head office, destination unknown. Due to the financial crisis, the project he was working on had been put on hold.
We found ourselves moving in with my parents for a couple months, and eventually moved to Ivory Coast, another francophone country in West Africa.

So now, after having lived for close to four years in francophone countries, surrounded only by francophones, with only the daughter and my husband to speak Dutch to, I find myself substituting words with French ones. I catch myself speaking French to my daughter.
Often it is a direct result of being arround other french speakers and not wanting to offend them. But slowly, sneakily, it starts happening when I'm alone with my little girl too. I have to be really focused when I talk to her to not have some stray french words and phrases seep in.

I don't want to lose my language. I don't want her to not know her mother tongue.



  1. Oh, that's sad. :( I think that's just what happens, though. I majored in Spanish in college and took a linguistics course for which I had to buy a dictionary for words that were a Spanish/English combination. It's so natural to start inserting words from the common tongue of where you live. Anyway, I hope you are able to continue strong in the Dutch.

  2. First of all, I had no idea your main language wasn't english! How amazing. At least it is amazing to me - an American that is woefully monolingual - (con espanol muy poco). HoboMama is also raising her son bilingual and has some awesome resources on her blog. (I'm sure you know it but )

  3. I've been thinking a lot about this topic lately. I speak Spanish and English but my American husband only speaks English. After 8 years of marriage I just don't speak in Spanish much. I feel like I have lost a bit of my language. Now that I have a baby, I find it hard to remember to speak Spanish to her. We'll just have to keep remembering to use our mother language while we mother.

  4. @Martha please do speak Spanish to your daughter, such a wonderful language and such a great gift you'll be giving her. And it might become your secret language which is super sweet
    @Paige, yes, well it's actually only my third language. Thank you for the compliment. I knew about Hobomama's German experience

  5. I am so much with you on this one ! When living in the USA, I was living with a family and I had to speak American English all the time, I started to dream in English, I even spoke English to the dog ! And when I was back in France, I had trouble to talk to my parents and find the right words in French.

    Now, I know that wome words just don't exist in French and some don't exist in English. So I like it that I can talk both langages with my partner, so I can share my thoughts accurately with him.

  6. @Martha - please start speaking to your daughter in Spanish! Learning more than one language is so important in this global world (economy!).

    I am French Canadian and my husband is English, we do the One Parent One Language (OPOL), I just speak French to her, no matter where we are (even amongst just English people) and my husband speaks English. Our daughter is 18 months and is learning both languages at the same time. She comes out with new words almost every day now and we never know if it's going to be an English or a French one.

    The ability to learn 2 languages (or more) at a younger age is easier and we hope that this will inspire her to learn more, or at least have ease to learn more languages later on.

  7. This is also my fear. I am my son's only English reference. Although English is easy to find in the media, I worry that speaking with Mom won't be very interesting when all his friends and neighbours speak Spanish. And as my own Spanish decays as I focus on his English environment, I realize that bilingualism does require conscious effort.

  8. I remember attending a reading of an author who writes novels in English. She's a German native, and someone asked if she had a hand in the translation of her works into German. She said no, and that she doesn't ever feel like writing in German, either. She said she left Germany when she was 18, and her German language skills are still very much that of an 18-year-old, not mature or nuanced enough for her taste anymore. I thought that was so interesting — this idea of leaving your language at a certain place in life and moving forward in a different one. But also a little sad!

    I imagine that you and your daughter will reconnect with Dutch the next time you're in a Dutch-speaking context. It seems like if you're being so intentional and aware that you'll take advantage of speaking it again when given the chance.

  9. Lauren, indeed, we do make giant leaps when we are on holiday, the both of us. And the use of French words in my Dutch gets erased efficiently if I am in Belgium for a month or so. But those occasions are becoming rather infrequent.
    Plus I don't think we'll ever live in a dutch speaking country again

  10. We have the same problem here. I'm German and my husband is English and we speak English. I sometimes sing to my baby in German but we're talking one Verse of each of the 4 nursery rhymes I know. :(

    I know I need to speak to her more and I want her to be able to speak to her German family but it's so difficult. I am having problems already forming a correct German sentence and I've forgotten so many words and it's only been 4 years!

    Hope you can hold on to your Dutch! :)

  11. My husband is Irish and I am Spanish living in London now. I speak to my children age 4 and 22 months in Spanish all the time and all cartoons and books in Spanish, I also find that sometimes I do not know the word but I just looked it up in wordreference and if it is not there I just search and search until I find it, never say a word in English not even in front of their cousins, I translate what I say to the cousins if need be.
    I have also made an effort in listening the Spanish radio, television and reading books in Spanish. I am now 18 years outside Spain and I am re-learning my own language and enjoying it!

    It becomes natural at the end.


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