Monday, 28 November 2011

Third culture kids: learning their mother tongue.

As I was on twitter tonight I realised that the tweets I was sending were mainly about language learning. So I thought that's what my blog post will be on today too. As you know I am an (adult) third culture kid. Born and raised in Africa but with Dutch blood. There are many advantages of growing up abroad but one of mine is that I was raised bilingually. We spoke Dutch at home and English at school. It was very tempting to mix English words into our "home" language but my parents had clear rules on that one. Especially when we as kids were quarreling we had a tendency to switch to English.

Now I am living in a Dutch environment but to this day I enjoy speaking English with by brothers and sister. We don't do it all the time but is feels so "comfortable". Even on the telephone we just switch from one language to the other.

It's good to have a family language plan. A language expert writes about it: Family Language Planning - A Tool For Success.

So what was my parents' plan? I'm not sure but here are a few things we did:

  • Wrote Dutch letters to our family
  • Sang Dutch children's songs, especially on long trips in the car! My mum knew lots of songs and loves singing. Songs like "Hansje Pansje Kevertje die klom eens op een hek..."
  • Carried kilograms of children's books in our suitcases when returning back to Africa. This was in the time before you could order books through the internet.
  • Were members of the children's library in Harare, Zimbabwe (that was 366 kilometres from Bulawayo where we lived).
  • Had Dutch lessons during the holidays. As kids that was terrible, but now I am terribly grateful!
  • Read many Dutch children's books.

I just want to encourage parents raising multilingual children. Please don't give up. I know it takes effort but know that in the long run your children will be grateful. Recently I have spoken to third culture kids who cannot speak their mother tongue well and they really regret it. A good site for information on this topic is Multilingual Living. Read this good advice on their website: 10 things you should NEVER say to your bilingual child.

Here's some food for thought on this topic:
  1. Make language learning fun.
  2. Don't listen to people who think that speaking the native language at home should be stopped.
  3. Be patient. Being patient is the key for your child to build confidence in a second language.
  4. Find material that helps with the language learning (like DVDs, computer games, books, CDs).
Want to read more? Bilingualism and growing up abroad.

Do you have thoughts on this topic? Parents do you have advice for other parents? Third culture kids do you have something to add? Please share your comments. (Photo thanks to Griet, Morgue file).


  1. Wonderful post, full of great suggestions. The one I'd add is really inherent in everything your parents did (and you recommend): model the emotional importance of learning to speak the language. Children want to do what they see, so it's a very positive incentive. If parents make any topic tedious, what child wants to learn it?

  2. Hi Linda, thanks that's a good suggestion. I did not think of it. I do think having fun with language is very important. Tell family stories by the fireplace or during a picnic, reminiscing of the past and of the adventures you as a family have experienced together (in your mother tongue!)

  3. Also, it's important for those living in countries where the main language is their native language too branch out and learn one of the other languages in the nation they're living in. If you need a reason, many studies have shown the benefits intellectually of being bi-or multilingual.

  4. Zikomo kwambiri, that is thank you very much (in Chichewa, the main language in Malawi). Thank you for the comment. It is good to learn local languages too, even better if parents model that as well. The problem is if you move often there can be several different local languages involved. In Malawi I learned some Chichewa, in Bulawayo, Southern Zimbabwe some Ndebele and when we lived in Mutare, eastern Zimbabwe the local language was Shona.

  5. nice information. Thank you for sharing it. Thanks Packers Movers