Ask the Expert: Bilingualism Q and A with Eowyn Crisfield

November 08, 2012 By Editorial Team Comments

Amsterdam Mamas' expert on bilingualism answers questions from the community. 

Q: My son is growing up with multiple languages. Is it possible that he learns three languages at the same level (as good as native)? How many languages can a child master?

A: Children can master more than two languages, provided that they have enough input. However, the more languages you introduce into the mix, the less time there is for each language. Most commonly, children with three or more languages have differing competence in each language. The ones they use the most (school language, for example) will be the strongest, and the ones they use the least may have a more passive than active competence.

Q: We are only introducing two languages to my two-year-old son, Dutch at daycare and English at home. Right now, he speaks mostly Dutch words since he hears it at daycare, living in Holland with Dutch family and friends, and when we allow him to see some cartoons. The only exposure is when I speak to him in English and when my husband and I talk to each other. Should I be concerned that my son is not speaking more English? How much of a language is “enough”?

A: He can certainly be fluent in both Dutch and English, but only if you plan for adequate input. This means that he must hear enough English to process and understand how it works, and have enough chances to use English to practice the active skills. It is important to plan for opportunities for input and output if you want to have a child who is fluent in both languages.

Q: Would be helpful to have my 6-year-old son get some extra tutoring in Dutch? We have lived here 2 months and he has started in class 3, but he speaks no Dutch. I want him to learn as quickly as possible so he can make closer friendships and catch up with school work, but I don't want to overload him. How much is too much?

A: Generally speaking, the older a child is when they start school in a second language, the longer it takes for them to “catch up” and the more work they have to do to get there. You should concentrate on two things. Firstly, go over your son’s school work with him (without overloading him) in English, to help him with comprehension and make sure he is learning in English what he doesn’t yet have the language skills to learn in Dutch. Secondly, if you want to help him improve his Dutch more quickly, I’d advise having someone (even just a teenager) come to play with him in Dutch, rather than tutor him. This is a low-pressure way to help him improve his Dutch and learn to play in Dutch so he can participate at school.

Q: My son is now 9 months and I have been consistently talking German to him. I am fluent in Dutch, but don't want him to learn it from me, as I still have small grammatical errors. He has been attending a dutch daycare for 4 days a week since he is 5 months old. Will the Dutch from the daycare be sufficient for him to attend a Dutch school or will he need additional language exposure? I am thinking about reading Dutch books to him but don't want to confuse his language understanding, as he is associating me with the German language. Should a parent speak a non-native language with a child?

A: Most children who attend crèche in Dutch will learn well enough to attend school in Dutch. While extra input can be useful, it shouldn’t be at the expense of his home languages, so you should continue to use the home language if you want your children to master these languages.

Q: My husband and I are both English, but since we intend to send our son to a Dutch school, I was wondering how he will learn to read and write in English? Should we let him concentrate on learning in Dutch at school and back off on the English reading and writing, or teach English him at the same time? When to introduce secondary literacy?

A: If your son is going to go to school in Dutch, he should learn to read and write in Dutch first. Secondary literacy will follow usually within 2-3 years, he will be able to transfer most of the Dutch literacy skills to English when he is ready. At this point, you may want to work with him on certain aspects of English like spelling and grammar, and ensure that he reads age-appropriate books in English.

Q: My husband is Dutch and I Norwegian and we have a two-month-old baby girl. Each of us will be speaking with her in our own mother tongue, but when my husband and I are speaking to each other we always speak English. Is this a good way to go forward? What about when the three of us are all in a conversation together?

A: Generally speaking, the only input that is useful to babies and small children for language acquisition purposes is direct input – adult-child. This means that in the early years your daughter will not pay attention to what you and your husband are speaking together, so you don’t need to worry about English. Focus on her Norwegian in the early years, as it is a minority language, and she will learn Dutch from her father and from school. She may start picking up English from listening to you when she is older, and if not she will learn it at school.

Q: I'm Dutch but my partner is Italian and together we speak English. I heard you need to be very strict but already now I find it hard to only speak Dutch to my 6-month-old son. I throw in some English here and there when we are all together. Will that confuse him too much or can I just let it come naturally?

How strict you need to be depends on your language goals for your family. If you want your children to speak Dutch to a native speaker level, you need to ensure enough input for that to happen. Also, although it seems early, your son is right now figuring out how the different languages work and so being consistent will help him establish a strong base in Dutch – if you are mixing with English it is difficult for him to work out where the boundaries are, and what belongs to which language. In my opinion, it’s better to be strict in the early years with your language use, and when you see that your child understands the difference and can use both languages clearly you can relax your “rules” a bit.


Eowyn Crisfield is a Canadian-educated expert in teaching English as a second/foreign language, teacher training and bilingualism, with a BA in TESL/TEFL and an MA in Applied Linguistics from Concordia University. Over the last 19 years, she has lived and worked in France, the US, and the Netherlands. Since 2003, she has specialised in the area of parent and teacher education for bilingualism. Find her at OnRaisingBilingualChildren.

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