I think that if both parents are French, or French speakers, it is crazy to speak English just because we live in an English-speaking country. Our language is still French, in this case, and it’s the same in any other language. My daughter has friends whose parents are Catalan, so they speak Catalan at home, and I find this completely normal.
P1: So when I had him in Palmerston North I had Kiwi friends, but when I was with him, on my own, since he was my first born, I talked only German to him. So when he started the Steiner Kindergarten in Palmerston North he couldn’t speak English at all. But he learnt it in three months, and he was fluent. That’s fine but I suppose that’s already the decline of the other language I think. I can remember when I talked German some mothers at play centre would say, you know, “but we don’t understand what you are saying to the child!” so they felt slightly offended or something. So I actually talked in English to him but this wasn’t probably right either.
Q: Do you think that because you were brought up with the French and English, do you think it had a positive impact on your schooling?
A: Yeah. I think especially with languages and anything with words. I think I’m more proficient even in English, than if I had just been brought up just with English. I don’t know… I had more of a learning and an understanding of language and words in general. Even if I look at a big word in English that I don’t know then I can think: “Oh that looks a bit like that word in French, so it’s probably from French” and then I can guess what it means. I can sort of figure that out. And other European languages I think too, would be easier to pick up.
Q: How well did you achieve in school in general, and in English as a subject?
A: Umm… really well actually [laughs]. It’s sort of my ‘thing’ really, languages.
Q: A recent government report said immigrant parents should speak English at home all the time so that their children could learn English better. How do you feel about that? If your parents spoke English at home, maybe all the time, do you think your English language proficiency would be improved?
A: I don’t think it would make much of a difference. Cos I reckon, even at home, the amount you communicate with your parents at home compared to the amount you communicate in English to people outside of home is way bigger than usual. Cos your parents have work. And I think if that happened – if my parents spoke more English than Korean – my Korean would just die away. Cos they’re the main source of Korean I use.
Q: As she needs to learn several languages, do you think it influences her schooling? I mean learning languages occupies her time.
A: I believe learning a language happens in daily life, you can learn it in every moment. So I don’t think there is a conflict between learning a second or third language and schooling.
Q: How has that bilingualism, that Dutch influenced your English at school, do you think? Or did it have no effect?
A: Yes that’s a bit difficult to… for me, to figure out. For example when I… I went to preschool before I went to primary school and there, for the first year, I did not want to speak at all. I did not say a word. And the teacher there was rather worried and told my parents: “You really have to take her to a speech and language therapist.” And my parents said: “Nonsense! At home she never stops! There she rattles on!” But I don’t know if that was simply because I was shy. Because I was very shy when I was a little child. Or because I did not know the language well.
But when I had a friend at preschool, then I just rattled on in English so I had no problem. Yes I have no idea what caused it. [not speaking for a year at preschool].
I think that the fact that the children… although they did not normally speak Dutch, but that they learned Dutch… that cognitively it was very good for them. All four have… do their university studies at A, A+ level. Very well… and they were good at school… and I believe that is thanks to being bilingual. My father used to say that learning languages was “good gymnastics for the brain” And I am sure that because the children went from Dutch to English and back again… read a book in one language, and in the other language… that that was very good for their cognition.
I fear a lot of people still think: “Oh now we are in a new country and now we have to speak English.” And I have seen that even with people my age and I see it with parents of other language communities who come to me as ESOL tutor: “Shouldn’t we speak English with our children at home?” And it is not always easy to convince them: “No, continue to speak Korean or Dutch or whatever at home. That English will come at school.” Many parents appear to think: “Now we are here we have to speak exclusively English.” I fear this is still the case although things are much better now than 20 years ago.
But I have also seen that some teachers, primary school teachers at school, see those children who come from elsewhere as a problem. Then they come to an ESOL tutor like me and say: “No wonder the child cannot keep up, they speak Chinese at home.” And I think “Those teachers have not quite kept up with new developments. It isn’t because the child speaks Mandarin or Korean at home… It is not bad for them”. But when some parents get feedback like this from the class teacher… they no longer know what to do. They will believe the teacher and try to [speak English at home]… so then you get broken English as a home language. So the children lose their heritage language, but don’t get English either. Very sad.
We have three sons. The eldest spoke most Dutch as I spoke Dutch to him. Then it became a problem. When he went to childcare centre he already spoke Dutch as we had been back to the Netherlands. He spoke in full sentences. He went to childcare centre and the teachers there did not understand him. And he wet his pants because he had to go to the toilet and they did not understand. He cried and he cried. Look, then you think… and I was in the play centre and the supervisor said it was impolite of me to speak Dutch.