Dealing with a bilingual child
Wilco van Herpen ISTANBUL - Hürriyet Daily NewsWhen I came to Turkey 13 years ago I was a bachelor and did not have any idea that one day I would get married to a Turkish woman and have a family. Five years ago I got married and almost four years ago our daughter, Şira, was born. For my wife, Gonca, and me it was a wonderful enrichment of our life.
The same year as Şira was born, I unfortunately lost my mother. She was suffering from cancer and I went to the Netherlands to be with her during the last months of her life. It was such a difficult and cruel time. On the one hand my mother got the wonderful news that Gonca was pregnant but she could not enjoy it because she knew that she would never see her grandchild. On the other hand I wanted to be happy because Gonca was pregnant but because of the situation with my mother I could not enjoy it as much as I had hoped.
After Şira was born I had to face another problem: jealousy. Gonca’s father and mother of course came to visit and help us during the first hectic weeks of Şira’s life. But every time I looked at them when they were hugging or holding Şira I got very angry. They were enjoying this time with their grandchild; my mother could not. It really took a lot of self-control and even a couple of tears but finally I was able to give those emotions a place and now it is a joy to see my parents-in-law playing with their grandchild.
Dealing with the language
Now Şira is almost 4 years old and there are new problems that I am facing. Like so many other foreigners in Turkey who are married to a Turkish citizen, one of the questions in my mind is how to deal with the language. From the day Şira was born I have spoken Dutch with my daughter, but just speaking Dutch is not enough. So every time I went to the Netherlands for my holidays I bought heaps of Dutch children’s DVDs and children’s books. Because of my consistency in speaking Dutch with her, Şira does understand everything I say but her mother tongue is Turkish.
I surfed the Internet and spoke with friends in the same situation, and my final conclusion was that every website you visit and every friend you talk with gives you different advice, so for me the whole situation became more confusing. We had to find our own way to teach and stimulate Şira’s Dutch.
Gonca is a very understanding and creative mother. Whenever Şira learned a new word, Gonca insisted on repeating the newly learned word in Dutch as well (Gonca knows quite a few Dutch words). “Anne [mother] says kitap but in Papa’s [father’s] language it is boek [book].” This is how Şira’s vocabulary increased day by day. But a child needs practice. I spoke with a lot of friends to get some advice, and the best advice I got was not to force your child too much. It must be fun for her to speak and learn the other language. Once you start pushing too much the child will start disliking the language and maybe even hating it. Give yourself some time. Generally these children suddenly, at an age of 5 or 6 years, start speaking (in my case) Dutch. So nowadays I take it easy again. When Şira tells me something she does it in Turkish. But always my reply will be in Dutch.
Travelling with Şira without her mother
Two weeks ago I went with my daughter to the Netherlands to finally carry out an idea I had had for a long time. My idea was that if I would go to the Netherlands with Şira but without Gonca, Şira’s passive knowledge of the Dutch language would be transformed into active knowledge. I would, after being in the Netherlands a few days, leave her alone with my sister’s family and Şira would have to use the words that she already knew but never used. For Gonca this was a big challenge and it took her quite a while to get used to the idea of letting her daughter go for a week, but about a month ago Gonca suddenly asked me when I was going to go to the Netherlands with Şira. The same day we made the reservations.
At Schiphol airport my sister was waiting for me, and 45 minutes later I was in our village. The first couple of days I stayed with Şira at home but after that I went out to do shopping or to meet friends.
Şira stayed with my sister and her children and they did their own program. When I was not around she had to speak Dutch; there was nobody around her to translate or to help her. During the seven days I stayed in the Netherlands her Dutch improved incredibly.
There is not something like a golden rule for teaching your child(dren) a second language. Every child is different and has a character of his or her own but the most important rule is to be patient. As a parent you have to be creative and adjust the system to your child’s character. Do not be scared though, your child’s brain is like a sponge. It easily absorbs all the information and yes, maybe your child will start speaking at a later age than other children but do not worry; everything is going to be all right. The most important rule for the parents is to be consistent in speaking the language.
If you decide to raise your child bilingual do not for any reason whatsoever speak a language other than your native language with your child. If you compromise and just for a short period of time decide to speak Turkish you are going to be the “loser.” After that period your child will ignore your language and just respond to Turkish.
Şira, by now, knows the difference of her mother’s and father’s languages. When I was at my parents-in-law’s house a while ago I was preparing fish. I needed some more flour so I asked Şira in Dutch if she could get the flour. Şira went to her grandmother and asked, in Turkish, for it. This is the beauty with children. For them it is so natural to hear different languages and to switch in between them.
Last year in kindergarten Şira started with English lessons, at four years old she is already learning three different languages. According to Georgian life philosophy, the more languages you speak the richer a person you will be. I think Şira will be a very rich person later.