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15th February 2020

Growing up bilingual

Learning a language from your parents gives a very different understanding of a language from those taught in school
Growing up bilingual
Globe Photo: Amy Humphries @Unsplash

Over half the world’s population is bilingual, meaning that the majority of us can speak two languages fluently. Growing up bilingual in Dutch and English – I learnt Dutch from my mother and English from my father – I have discovered the joys and the difficulties that come with being bilingual, but of course everyone has their own, individual experiences.

There are differences in learning a language as you grow up and learning a language in class. With Dutch I have learnt the language by picking up phrases in conversation rather than learning the grammar. So, my Dutch comes naturally to me without much thought, but I am unable to translate and construct sentences accurately as my grammar is intuitive rather then learnt. However, as a student of Spanish and Japanese, whilst I am able to translate and construct sentences which are grammatically correct, my fluency is prohibited as I learnt the colloquial phrases from a textbook rather than from the native speakers. Having grown up bilingual I have learnt that the best way to learn a language is through being around native speakers and in this way your brain is able to adapt to the language.

Growing up bilingual developed my language skills, I often visit my family in Holland and at the same time live in the UK so I have always been exposed to both Dutch and English. As a result, my brain naturally interchanges between the two languages without much thought. Curiously, I have found that my identity and character changes between the languages. Whilst I am more reserved and calm when speaking English, I become far more honest and direct when speaking Dutch, which I suspect is mainly down to the different cultural norms. British are stereotypically regarded as, almost too, polite, like apologising to someone that has walked into you. Whereas, the Dutch are known to be blunt and direct.

Whilst my language might change between languages, I have sometimes struggled with fitting in and knowing what I identify as. As a child my Dutch was stronger than my English and I often mixed up the language. As a result, I found it difficult to interact with other children. However, I do not fully fit in the Netherlands either as I neither live there nor know the cultural norms as well those who have been brought up there. It can be difficult to have these different identities as I lack a sense of belonging. Nonetheless, I prefer to see myself as a part of both cultures, rather than part of neither.

Bilingualism is spreading across the world and one day I think most people will be able to speak two languages. Whilst bilingualism has its its benefits and difficulties, it is undeniably a gift and will continue to benefit me and others in the future.

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