When playing with their Barbie dolls, my two little girls switch between Danish and Dutch every two minutes. The oldest one can be a bit bossy sometimes, but her little sister recently learned to stand up for herself, so now they spend more time discussing their play. Their arguments are always in Dutch, but as soon as the dolls start talking, they switch to Danish. It’s hilarious and also quite impressive to listen to. I guess one must be equally strong in both languages to be able to do this. I would certainly not be able to do it myself! My brain would go berserk! I need time to adjust when I switch between languages. It’s like my brain needs a warming up, before it is able switch to a new set of sounds and rules.
Once I am used to speaking a certain language with a certain person, I prefer to stick to it, probably because I have an older, less flexible brain. Also, as an adult, I am conscious of the things I say and very aware of the language I use. Last week a Swedish friend asked me to say something in Danish, out of the blue and just for fun, because he wanted to hear if he could understand what I was saying. I am not used to speaking Danish with him and I felt very uncomfortable. Another example: I have a German friend, with whom I either speak Danish or English. A while ago his mother visited him from Germany. I had to dig deep to find the right words, but I managed to speak German to her, which felt pretty good. Then my friend joined our conversation, and that felt weird because we spoke in a language we had never used together before.
As a family we always speak Dutch at home, although we sometimes throw in Danish words if we can’t find the Dutch equivalent quickly enough. These are often words related to school, like flyverdragt or lektieklub, or food, like kammerjunkere or æbleskiver. But it also happens at other occasions. Last week our son went on a hyttetur with his spejder friends, and when our car breaks down we call the vejhjælp. But apart from specific words like these, we stick to speaking Dutch at home. Speaking any other language than Dutch to my children feels strange and artificial. On top of that I firmly believe in the importance of always speaking my mother tongue with my children. That’s how I can express myself best.
When we are among Danes however, it suddenly feels awkward and impolite to stick to this firm belief. I am very conscious of the fact that I speak a language most Danes don’t understand. I definitely don’t want to make other people uncomfortable or give them the feeling that I am deliberately excluding them. That’s why I usually switch to Danish as soon as there are Danes around. My two little girls on the other hand couldn’t care less. Countless times have I picked them up from børnehave, where I found them chatting in Dutch together in the sandbox, not bothered by the fact that they were surrounded by a bunch of Danish-speaking kids that didn’t understand a word of what they were saying. When we take one of their friends home, I usually ask my girls to speak Danish to me and to each other, but somehow they don’t really see the need for it. They can talk to a friend in Danish and ask me for a cookie in Dutch in one sentence – in one breath almost – not noticing that the friend misses out on half of the sentence. On the other hand, they did seem to see the need for speaking Danish to a little dog we met last week. It was obvious to them that a dog living in Denmark only understands Danish, not Dutch.
I must admit I am secretly proud of my two little girls and their ability to switch between their two languages. I am thankful that after almost four years in Denmark they still speak Dutch so well. And I don’t just say that because it comes in handy when one of them comments on a fat lady while standing in line at the supermarket. Although, during moments like that, I feel almost relieved that they speak Dutch, as it saves both me and the fat lady in question a lot of embarrassment! But I am mainly thankful because Dutch is my language and it is important to me that my children speak and understand my language. I guess this is the challenge of every parent with a bilingual kid: how do you make sure they don’t lose their mother tongue, while you at the same time help them adapt to their new language and culture.