When cows go boe – raising a bilingual baby


When people ask me about being a bilingual family, I often find that what I’m really answering questions about is biculturalism.

In the ten years that I have known my husband, our different languages and culture have been one of the cornerstones of our relationship. So it was natural that we thought our child should also enjoy the best of both. Before our son was even born we were discovering new differences concerning pregnancy and childbirth. In the Netherlands, my husband’s native country, many women labour at home and a ‘kraamzorg’, or health visitor, spends up to a week with them, doing everything from feeding support to doing the washing. In the UK, fathers are granted two weeks paternity leave (and therefore ample time to rediscover the washing machine and dishwasher, don’t you think, ladies?). Here there are more choices for women around how they want to deliver their child (especially when it comes to pain relief – Dutch midwives are more in favour of biting down on a piece of wood than reaching for actual medicine).

We had always planned to teach our child two languages, but we didn’t really give too much thought as to how before our son arrived.  On reflection, there are so many aspects of the last 18months that have been, frankly, hilarious. In our house, for example, cows can go ‘boe!’, chickens can go ‘tok tok’, and goats might go ‘meh’. This has led to some wonderful moments. My son roaring ‘Boe! Boe!’ to the cow herd at the farm and scoring adoring smiles from other visitors thinking that he is playing peekaboo. ‘Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes’ has been another eye opener because in the Dutch version, ‘mouth’ is omitted. This has resulted in our son getting the ‘ eyes, ears, mouth and nose’ bit all mixed up on more than one occasion.

We have made a huge effort to proactively use both languages with our son and it is thrilling to see him understand us both, and of course our respective families when we Skype on Sunday afternoons. And before he could even crawl he was out exploring the world on the most iconic of Dutch symbols  – the bicycle. Our son loves going cycling with his father, and merrily sings his way around St Albans, hooting ‘hi!!!’ at all passers-by. Most importantly for my husband, our son seems to have a natural affinity to supporting Dutch teams in every sporting competition known to man and will happily sit with his orange t-shirt on  during matches; whereas I am proud as (British) punch when he wolfs down marmite sandwiches at lunchtime.

I’m certain that there will be the odd cultural clash to continue making things interesting –for instance while we initially thought ‘double the languages, double the celebrations!’, in reality some celebrations have been harder to recreate because we don’t live in that culture full time. Sinterklaas is a wonderful Dutch tradition aimed at children, but how will we ensure that our son enjoys it to the full when Sinterklaas isn’t celebrated or even widely known in the UK? Another example is birthdays. In the Netherlands people don’t sing ‘Happy Birthday’ as we know it here.  So there’s always a bit of awkwardness when everyone breaks into very different songs – all at the same time – at birthday parties. It’s also inevitable that one language and/or culture will be slightly stronger than the other, and the regular travel back and forth for visits requires time, dedication and finance from both sides of the family.

For all that though, we can offer our child a wide awareness of the world – of travel, food, cultural traditions – and potentially more opportunities for creativity and professional success.  Well worth the extra time and effort, don’t you think?

[Post written by Jess, one of our Women Aloud members]

We want your words! If you’ve got something to say, please get in touch with me – laura@womenaloud.co.uk


1 Comment on When cows go boe – raising a bilingual baby

  1. Love this thought-provoking article Jess. Would be lovely if more nurseries embraced all of the many different cultural celebrations as a way of introducing world awareness from the very beginning. Am sure it would lead to our children educating us!

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