Running Ahead: Kids and Language Acquisition

September 13, 2012 By Kate Berger 0 Comments

Is your child learning Dutch? Child Psychologist Kate Berger MSc of Expat Kids Club explains why your child is likely to pick up the new language with ease, and what this means for you.  

Why Children Often Learn Dutch Quickly

Having made the big decision of which school to send your child to, international parents may be feel a sense of relief as the school semester comes into full swing. This relief may be short-lived however, as the next inevitable issue that often comes up for families living in the Netherlands is the matter of learning Dutch – for you and your child.

Are you planning to stay in the Netherlands for only a short period? Or is your family here indefinitely? These are questions to consider when deciding on whether or not to learn Dutch yourself. Your child, however, won’t necessarily think about such practical matters and, as a result of simply trying to make friends and “fit in”, they are likely to pick up the language with much less effort than will be needed in your case. No matter which school you’ve chosen for your child (an international environment or native-language school), you may find that your child’s exposure to the Dutch environment means that they are beginning to pick up the language without even trying.

Young children, especially, lack certain complex social anxieties that adults possess, and are less embarrassed about making pronunciation or grammatical errors when speaking amongst their peers, so they will be more willing to try to speak Dutch even if they make mistakes. In addition, for serial expat children in particular, research suggests that because they are used to relocating – and therefore have more experience with making new friends – these children will dive into personal relationships in a different way to children who have not experienced a similarly transient lifestyle. Expat children may often quickly jump into deeper levels of friendship – levels where it is OK to discuss personal opinions, and to disagree with peers. In order to communicate at such a level, such children need to be able to express themselves effectively, and often, as a result of this urgent need for self-expression, their non-native language (in this case Dutch) develops more quickly. Finally, aside from social reasons, children are more able to pick up any language than adults because they don’t have the sound and contextual associations with words that us adults do, making it easier for them to pronounce new sounds and words.

So your Child Speaks Better Dutch than You, Does it Matter?

Perhaps you have not planned on learning Dutch while you are here, or perhaps you are simply too busy. That is your personal choice, but keep in mind that your child might be out there absorbing the language without even trying, and it could bring up some interesting issues within your family life at home.

Practical implications

Living here in the Netherlands means it is very likely that your child will in some way become socially involved with Dutch children. When this happens, your child might want to bring their new Dutch friend over for a play-date. It may become difficult for you to be able to look after your child and their friend if you cannot understand the Dutch they are speaking to one another. Another example: Your child might learn about special Dutch holidays in school, such as Sinterklaas, and want to celebrate them at home with your family. Often there are Dutch songs involved, and since your child knows the songs and customs and you don’t, it might bring up some difficulties. You may find you have certain feelings about the fact that there is some (cultural) distance between you and your child.

Developmental implications

No matter where you are in the world, as a parent, the most important thing is that your child feels happy and safe in their environment. Family dynamics (things like trust, attachment, and love) become particularly important for expat families, as they rely on each other during transient times for comfort. In times of mobility, even those with normally high levels of confidence can experience a lack of self-esteem because they are starting over, culturally speaking, and have to re-learn norms, values, and re-establish a sense of self and purpose in their new environment.

Expat children often (re)develop their own self-esteem and confidence during transition times through their attachment to their parents or primary care-givers. Therefore, it is critical that parents are willing to be involved in the transition process alongside their child in these situations. If there is a gap between your child’s language development and your own, this could make certain aspects of your family’s support system strained. As you can see, this issue of To Learn or Not To Learn Dutch can become an important, and not-so-easily-resolved topic for foreigners in the Netherlands.

Worth a Try?

The bottom line is that if you want to make the most of your time here, however short it may be, there are many benefits to becoming, at the very least, familiar with the native tongue. Being able to understand what products you are buying at Albert Heijn, being able to make Dutch friends (the Dutch are terrific friends to have), and perhaps most importantly, being able to experience the same acculturation process that your child is going through so that you can bond as a family together and move forward into your new intercultural world – are all great reasons for learning some Dutch.

Furthermore, studies have shown that bilingual children grow up having more diverse career opportunities, and are more open to being involved in intercultural relationships, so by supporting your child’s new language acquisition here in the Netherlands, you are supporting them emotionally, socially, and setting them up for success! 


Child Psychologist, Kate Berger, MSc, offers emotional health services for expatriate children and adolescents in the Amsterdam area through her practice, the Expat Kids Club.


photo credit: Jon Ovington via photo pin cc

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