Your kids will learn Dutch!

While you parents are busy trying to decide if it is worthwhile to sign up for that Dutch courses, your kids will probably be absorbing the language. In fact they may even be speaking it faster than the time it takes you to make your decision to learn or not to learn the language!

Why children pick up languages very quickly

Children have the innate ability to pick up languages very quickly, much quicker than adults. There are two main reasons for this:

- Kids do not have the sound and contextual associations with words that we adults do - they do not understand words in the context of other words (i.e. "watering can" is related to "plants"), making it easier for them to pronounce new sounds and words.

- Children are more likely to try to speak another language - even with mistakes - because they lack complex social anxieties and are less embarrassed by their pronunciation / grammatical errors than adults tend to be.

Kids are like little sponges; they can absorb and pick up languages from their environment through listening to their peers, reading Dutch (picture) books, and even watching TV.

By using body language and sound fluctuations as tools, children can tune into the non-verbal communication with the objective not to learn Dutch, but rather to understand the storyline of a television programme; to understand what Marit (the classmate with the "cool" purple dress) is saying on the playground etc.

They do not experience the same pressure (at least initially) that adults do to speak at a certain level (e.g. to write a business letter in Dutch for work, attend a graduate course or pass the IND's integration exam).

Expat children will learn Dutch

That said, it is very likely that right now your expat children are learning Dutch whether you intended them to or not. And for the most part, there are only benefits from this. Your children will be able to communicate easier in the Netherlands, they will have a leg-up when it comes to making Dutch friends and they may even be able to clue you in at times when you do not understand what is going on!

In addition, there are numerous studies supporting the fact that multilingual children develop a greater vocabulary thus also enhancing their native language repertoire. Plus they may even score higher on standardised tests than children who speak only one language. Furthermore, kids who grow up speaking more than one language grow up to have job opportunities available to them in multiple locations - a true asset in today's increasingly international economy and work environment.

Adjusting to speaking Dutch

Despite the fact that children tend to pick up new languages with ease, do not forget that your kids may be having a difficult time fully adjusting to speaking Dutch and that language acquisition, even among very young children, does take time.

It can be emotionally exhausting trying to communicate in their non-native language and on top of that, expat kids have can have further difficulties just adjusting to their non-native lifestyle. Therefore, they may have some emotions and frustrations to express.

How to help your child

If your children are having a difficult time with the language or seem frustrated by suddenly having to communicate in their non-native language, try to remember that emotions and expressing frustrations / difficulties are usually more easily expressed in one's native language. The same holds true for kids.

Allow your children to speak in their native language whenever they feel comfortable doing so, especially when it comes to their feelings and emotions. If they are enthusiastic about learning Dutch, be open (even if you are not so sure you will ever learn it!). By supporting your children they will not only develop confidence to speak a new language, but also try new things in other areas of their lives.

Take note that some expat families may keep their lifestyle quite separate from the Dutch society and culture. Therefore, if your children are NOT exposed to the Dutch language, you need not worry if they are not learning it. After all, it would be strange to pick up a language without being exposed to it.

However, if your children are exposed to Dutch and you feel that they are having difficulty learning it, and this is not due to a social-emotional disturbance, take into consideration that things like learning disabilities and / or hearing problems could be a reason. Talk with your child's teacher(s) to find out if other areas of intellectual processing are affected.

If you feel that your children's language difficulties stem from more social or emotional sources having to do with what they are going through, bear in mind that there will likely be some other red flags that you have noticed such as behavioral issues, withdrawal etc. If this is the case, you may want to seek professional support in order to allow your child to overcome the difficulties he / she is facing.

Kate Berger


Kate Berger

Kate Berger, MSc Psychology, has a strong passion for helping expat children (and their families) make the most out of life in the Netherlands. Kate founded the Expat Kids Club...

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