Adventures In Bilingualism – English vs. Engels

Raising children in The Netherlands has been interesting. Mainly because it has allowed me to watch helplessly as our daughter’s ability to speak Dutch slowly catches up with mine, and then overtakes it at alarming speed. She was already correcting my Dutch at the age of three.

However, she has had an unfair advantage. She is after all half Dutch. Having a Dutch mother (my wife) and a British Father (me) has made it fairly easy for her to pick up elements from both languages in fact. She hears the two languages all the time.

So imagine our surprise when we discovered that she can already speak more than just Dutch and English. She can actually speak three languages (technically four). It all started when I complimented her on her English one evening over the dinner table.

“I don’t speak English,” she informs us while trying to wrap spaghetti around her fork.

“But you’re speaking English right now,” I inform her just in case she hadn’t noticed. It turns out I was wrong.

“Nee, Papa,” she replies, looking annoyed, “I am speaking Engels. I don’t want to learn English.”

I’m not sure if she is cross because of the language thing or because of the non cooperative spaghetti but I decided not to press the matter.

“Oh, okay. Should I stop speaking English to you then?”

“Yes. No more English. Only Engels,” she replies as she tries using her spoon to scoop up spaghetti.

“Okay, I will only speak Engels from now on,” I promise. It seems like it will be an easy promise to keep, as long as it doesn’t require me to speak English with an over exaggerated Dutch accent from now on.

Satisfied with our new agreement our daughter returns her full attention back to her bowl of spaghetti. She quickly gave up on the fork and spoon and resorted to using her fingers. That would have been the end of it if another thought hadn’t occurred to me.

“What about Dutch and Nederlands?” I ask her, “Which one should we be speaking?”

She gives me the kind of look that suggests I have just asked a very stupid question (or maybe it was just because I had interrupted her mid spaghetti slurp).

“Oh oh, Papa,” she shakes her head in disappointment the second the spaghetti strand has disappeared, “I can speak Dutch and Nederlands. Het maakt niks uit.”

“Oh, ok. So you can speak three languages? Dutch, Nederlands and Engels but not English.”

“Ja,” she nods, happy that I am finally able to understand such an obviously simple concept. She starts dangling strands of spaghetti above her open mouth. I take it as a sign that the conversation has reached its natural conclusion.

Since that evening she has finally agreed to speak English as well as Engels. She has even started learning a few words of Frisian, which of course means she is also learning Fries. Soon that will be six languages to my one and a bit.

At least I am able to speak more Dutch than our one year old son (for the moment). He can only say five words: Mama, Papa, kijk (look), dag (hello/bye) and klaar (ready). However, I would not be surprised to learn that he is already pronouncing those five words more accurately then I ever will (in both Dutch and Nederlands).

12 responses to “Adventures In Bilingualism – English vs. Engels”

  1. Alison says:

    Even my Dutch dog is trilingual. Though it’s fun catching him out when I finally learn a certain command in Dutch and realize he’s known it all along. He’s not happy that I finally learned how to say “drop it” in Dutch. My MIL speaks to him in speeds of Italian I can’t follow, but he seems to go along with it all.

  2. Carla Verkoren says:

    Very recognizable! In our case it is the other way around, with our two girls of fully Dutch parents in a completely American environment, but each week I have to remind them to to their ‘Nederlandse homework’ for the Nederlandse school. :-) (One of many examples..)

  3. Bill says:

    I too have a three and a one year old kids so I find these posts quite funny. Keep theem coming!

  4. Haha very nice to read!! I don’t have kids yet but I can definitely imagine how fast they could overtake my Dutch as a British native.

  5. Peter says:

    Great story. Never argue with the wisdom of a three year old.

  6. amsterfamily says:

    “Het maakt niks uit” – makes no difference? Google tells me it means “it’s no big deal” but I don’t always trust Google Translate…. Great article!

    • Stuart says:

      Thanks. I sort of translate it as, “No problem.” or, “It’s ok.” At least that is how my daughter seems to be using it and my wife has not corrected her yet.

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