25 February 2015

Respect the Other Language

It's not easy being the foreigner. It's easy to feel frustrated by the official forms, notices, and garbled PA announcements that even native speakers can't understand. When you're out in public you might feel embarrassment while stuttering through this new language; you can get curious looks or hear comments from strangers when you talk to your kids in your own language; and feel like you always end up on display, like you might as well walk around with some sort of sign post detailing your origins like a natural history museum display. When you live and operate surrounded by your native language you don't have to think about these things - but when you become the foreigner you wonder how you never realized it before.

Home becomes a sort of "language safe zone." Once you close the door, no one else has any idea what's going on or what language is being spoken and you can relax (unless, of course, some stranger calls at the door). For us, time at home is also a time to work on keeping the Little Man's English up - he's still learning after all - and there's plenty of grammar and vocabulary to discover and master. For us, it's essential that he does well in his English, not just for the future, but also so he can communicate with his extended family. It's also part of his family history and identity, having that first language is a huge part of who we are. Most people I talk to understand this, even if they've never had direct experience raising kids in another culture.

But even in a country that prides itself on speaking multiple languages, I've come across a few people that have clearly communicated that our native English isn't important. Early in Little Man's peuterspeelzaal (toddler play class) experience, the teacher wanted to discuss his progress. He was still shy as he'd been in the class just a few hours a week for only a few months, so he wasn't speaking much in either English or Dutch at school. I hadn't started taking formal lessons, so I couldn't string a reasonable sentence together in Dutch either. The teacher knew we were new to the country and didn't speak Dutch and so held the conversation in English. She then told me, in English, that I should only speak Dutch at home with the Little Man. I was too surprised at the time for a witty comeback, but I managed to tell her (in English) that until I also learned the language it wasn't possible to keep whole conversations going in Dutch. That was the first time I had that conversation, but it wouldn't be the last - which was also in English.



We're glad that we no longer hear those comments, and in Little Man's new school there is a great respect for the diversity of the students, which they're invited to share with their classmates. It's a refreshing change. But I've heard similar stories from other expat parents. People from all sorts of language backgrounds have been told, "If you live in this country, you should only speak this language." Fortunately, for me and my friends those experiences have only been caused by certain individuals and we've been able to ignore their unrealistic "advice" - but those encounters leave a bad taste in your mouth.

So I'm here to ask you: try not to be that person, okay? There's so much more to language than just using different words. Telling someone to ignore their native language is telling them to deny their identity, heritage, family, and comfort in their own homes and to hide those things from their own children. There's nothing wrong in encouraging someone to learn the language of the country they're in - but you cross a line of basic decency when you tell someone to abandon their native language in the process. Have respect for that person, where they came from, and what they speak. It's as simple as that.

6 comments:

  1. I'm glad I live in a "melting pot" which does not have this issue and people accept that people have their own languages. I simply cannot imagine having to abandon my native tongue completely!

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    1. Most of the time, it's really not an issue, but there are some people that have their opinions without having put a whole lot of thought into it. I've heard similar things in the States, and to be honest, I should have said something stronger at the time. It's been an eye-opener in that respect!

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  2. Ahhh yes I love when people are surprised that me and Fredrik communicate in English to each other and try to tell us that is wrong. We met in England so obviously spoke in English and then the first three years of our relationship we lived in the US so that is what our marriage is based on and all of a sudden speaking in a different language would change the whole dynamic of it.

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    1. I have a friend who is Serbian and her husband is Dutch, but they met in college in the States and continue to talk to each other in English. That apparently throws people, but she said the same thing as you - it's how the relationship started and would change it to break from how they got to know each other.

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  3. I have been with my Dutch boyfriend for almost five years so even though having kids is not in our agenda for the next five years or so, it's something we have definitely talked about and we both agree that I should speak my native language, Finnish, to our future kids, should we have any. What's interesting though, and mostly super annoying, is that sometimes his family will say things like what you have heard. That I should speak Dutch to my kids… and that I should speak only Dutch with my boyfriend. I could, but English has always been our language of choice so suddenly switching to Dutch only would feel very artificial.

    Coming from a country with two official languages and a lot of bilingual families, I have heard and seen a lot about how to raise a child in that environment and it's always agreed that the family, or the parent, should speak their own native language to the child unless that child has developmental issues with language and speech. In that case they should speak the language the child hears in their every day environment, granted they can speak it fluently themselves. One can't pass on a language they haven't mastered.

    Thankfully one of my boyfriend's sisters is studying to become a speech therapist so she is starting to understand my point of view from what she learns from her books. :D

    Oh and I would also love it if Dutch people didn't make fun of my native language… Sure it sounds strange to them but hey, I don't make fun of their language. At least not to their face ;)

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    1. Thank you for everything you shared here! Especially with your experience growing up, I just have to shake my head that anyone would try to tell you that it's not proper or the best choice to have a bilingual household. At least your boyfriend's sister is starting to come over to your corner! =) For me, it all goes back to the idea of, "everybody just chill out, especially if it doesn't directly concern you." Thanks again for sharing!

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