From time to time the question is brought up to what extend immigrants should learn to speak the language of their new home country. For me personally, this brings up a new question: to which extend am I, myself, an immigrant? This is a complicated question that could easily evoke a debate. It is not my intention to start a debate here, but I do want to share some of my personal experiences with you.
More than once it has happened to me that someone asked what language I speak at home, Danish or Dutch. I always backfire the question and ask what they would do, if they moved to the Netherlands. Would they then switch to speaking Dutch at home? They obviously wouldn’t. Language is very personal. In a foreign language you are not able to express yourself as eloquent and accurate as you are in your native language. With my own family, I want to share my deepest feelings. In my own house I need to be able to spontaneously shout out my happiness, anger or irritation. I can only do this in my own language.
Back to my original question: am I an immigrant? Most Danes see me as a well-adapted European, born in a country fairly similar to Denmark. On the outside, I could almost pass as Danish. I sometimes dress a bit more colourful than Danes do (while writing this I am wearing a bright pink sweater) and occasionally I don’t stop for a red traffic light when I ride my bike, but that’s about it. But sometimes things are not what they appear to be. Just because I seem very Danish on the outside, doesn’t mean I always feel very Danish on the inside. When my children bring home Danish books from the school library, I feel no urge to read them, because reading out loud in Danish just feels awkward and artificial. When I find myself in a situation where I need to pronounce a word with more than one unpronounceable sound, to avoid frustration I ask my son to order a valnøddebrød for me at the bakery. And when I am at a skole-hjem samtale, a half-yearly meeting between teacher, pupil and parent, I sometimes need my children’s help to find the right Danish words.
So yes. I am an immigrant. I have made an effort to learn the language and integrate in the culture and I am pretty good at it (if I am allowed to say so), but I am still an immigrant.
For an immigrant-mom the biggest challenge of all is that at some point her children will lose the connection with their country of birth and start to feel that they belong in their new home country. My kids are becoming more and more Danish, both on the outside and on the inside, while I remain very Dutch. I realize that this is maybe the main reason for me to hold on to Dutch language and Dutch habits: I don’t want my children to alienate from me; I want them to be like me. There’s no doubt that learning the language of your new home country is extremely important, but not at the expense of your native language. Your cultural heritage, your habits and the language you speak all define who you are. To me these are essential things to hold on to and to pass on to my children. That’s why I will always speak Dutch at home and encourage them to do the same.