Mackindergarten: Mind the barrier
Here’s a thing. We’ve just been told that, despite our six-year-old son being born and raised in Denmark, he is not bilingual. He’s English.
Even watches Ramasjang
It all started about a year ago when my wife raised concerns that he was not pronouncing his Danish words as precisely as a kid of his age ‘should’ – and that his sentence structure seems a little off. He mentally translates his words from English into Danish. So we investigated further.
Before he started school this year, børnehave helpfully arranged for him to see a children’s speech therapist. We were given several assessments before and after he started school. That’s when the therapist dropped the bombshell: he has the Danish skills of a kid two years younger than he is.
We were confused. He went to a Danish vuggestue and børnehave. His mother and his Danish family have been speaking Danish to him since he was born. He watches Ramasjang. He understands everything. So how did this happen?
His emotional language
Well, years ago we were told by a linguist that if you truly want to raise bilingual kids, one parent must only speak in their language, while the other only speak in theirs. But the reality is that’s not the reality. I don’t speak Danish, so at home my wife and I speak English.
We watch a lot of TV and films in English and my son has naturally gravitated towards these cartoons and films. Long story short, nearly seven years later, English is the dominant language in our house. He tells us he much prefers speaking in English. It’s his emotional language. It’s how he truly expresses himself. It’s who he is.
Hard to cast blame, surely
Is this my fault? Well, as I’ve written before, I have my reasons for speaking in English – one of which being so my kids can speak it. It’s half of their cultural identity and it’s a damn useful skill, globally-speaking. But it looks like we accidentally overcorrected.
Then again, my daughter doesn’t have the same issue; she switches between the two at the right level for her age. So you can’t tell a child which language to prefer. This happened organically and might be just how my son’s developing brain operates.
Is my wife at fault? Of course not. As any parent of young kids will attest, you do whatever works to get through the day. We communicate in the easiest way to understand each other. We have always communicated in English: we met in London, and it’s my livelihood.
She wasn’t going to insist that from now on it would be a Danish-only home. That would be madness. And frankly, if she had, I wouldn’t be here. But here we are. And we have work to do.
May encounter turbulence
Right now, our son finds school tough. But we didn’t want our kids to go to an international school (another story) and we trust this Danish school will no doubt help him catch up. We trust they’ll meet his needs and then at home we’ll make him feel supported and nurture his self-confidence. But we didn’t see this coming.
Do I regret the situation? Not at all. He’ll get there and when he’s older and truly bilingual in native Danish and native English, he’ll have a very good advantage.
But this chapter has given us a fascinating insight into navigating the many challenges of raising international kids.
About Adrian Mackinder
British writer and performer Adrian Mackinder (adrianmackinder.co.uk) and his pregnant Danish wife moved from London to Copenhagen in September 2015. He now spends all his time wrestling with fatherhood, the unexpected culture clash and being an Englishman abroad
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