Saturday, March 13, 2010

Profile: Nic's multilingual family in Belgium

Here's a multilingual success story to inspire us all! Nic and his wife live in Brussels and raised a trilingual son who is now in his early 30s.

Nic grew up in Belgium with parents who spoke Flemish (Dutch) and had a grandmother and grandfather who spoke French. In his Dutch-speaking school, he was already learning other languages--French (two hours per week beginning in grade three or four), Latin (grades 6-12), and English (grades 9-12). At age 14 he moved to bilingual Brussels (Dutch and French). At age 15 he started attending a 90% French-speaking sailing camp, to which he returned on weekends and in the summers and became a bilingual sailing instructor.

Other ways in which Nic was exposed to other languages as a child and teen included vacations in Italy; listening to English, French, Spanish, and Latin American radio stations on a short-wave radio; watching television in Dutch and French; and studying German for a year in college. He then began working in a bank which required him to use several languages, including German Yiddish, so he started reading in German because he needed it. He eventually obtained his masters degree in political sciences and international politics from a Dutch-speaking university.

Nic's wife is similarly multilingual, but via a different path. She had French-speaking parents and grandparents who emigrated to Dutch-speaking parts of Belgium during World War Two. Her parents learned Dutch at school and at work. At age 16, her father was abducted to Germany where he then learned German. He had also studied Latin. Both of his wife's parents continued to study French in school after moving to Dutch-speaking cities.

As for his wife, she went to school in Dutch from preschool through grade 12, also studying French, English, Latin, German, and ancient Greek (whew). In college, she continued with French, Dutch, English, German, and Latin, finally receiving a masters degree in Romance languages and a postgraduate degree in pedagogy. She is now a French teacher.

When their son was in preschool, they spoke only Dutch with him and he attended a Dutch school, while his maternal grandparents spoke strictly only French with him. During his time at a Dutch elementary school, they spoke French at home and on vacation in France (they rented a bungalow in the same village every summer, so he had French friends he saw each year). He also picked up some Italian during spring break vacations in Rome.

Their son studied more languages in high school (Dutch-speaking): French, Latin, English, and German. They also encouraged him to work on his English at home via subtitled English movies and television series. He then spent six weeks in the United States as an exchange student at age 17. He attended a Dutch-speaking university and ultimately obtained a PhD in mathematics (for which he defended his dissertation in English). He now teaches math at a high school and is married to a woman with a similar language background (French-speaking family and elementary school followed by studies at Dutch schools).

I'll let Nic tell you the rest in his own words….

Why did you want your child to know more than one language?
This is a bilingual country; the European Union is multilingual.

How well does your child understand, speak, read, and write the different languages?

  • Speaking, writing and reading Dutch: 100%
  • Speaking, writing and reading French: 100% but writing is becoming less perfect since he graduated
  • Speaking, writing and reading English: He did his PhD in English, wrote and presented PhD-level papers in English (with French and Dutch summaries).
  • Goes to several professional seminars in English-language environment, uses Dutch and French daily.
  • Speaks alternatively French and Dutch with his wife (as we do).

How were you able to expose your child to the cultures where the different languages are spoken?

  • French: family, vacation, books, magazines, television, movies.
  • English: Student exchange and media (books, magazines, television, movies).

What challenges occurred as you raised your child trilingually?

  • Keeping in mind: each language has to be connected to one and only one environment until he is really fluent /that language. No language switching until he's good at it.
  • Each year, when coming back to school after vacations, his Dutch grades were down.

What resources and activities have been most useful to you?

  • Multilingual family
  • Multilingual country
  • Latin at school gives an excellent base to study other languages.
  • Reading entire libraries of books.
  • Subtitled movies (spoken and subtitled in the language to be learned)
  • Long (1 month) vacations in France, his friends there
  • Our own multilingual background was very useful.

What do you think parents, caretakers, teachers, and/or researchers need to know about teaching a second language to children?

  • Each language has to be connected to one and only one environment until he is really fluent in that language. No language switching until he's good at it.
  • Never underestimate the capacities a child has to learn/adopt a language "naturally."

What do you wish you had known when you started? What, if anything, would you do differently now?
Considering the success we (principally my wife!) had, we would do it in the same manner.

Answer your own question now--what did I not ask about that you would like to comment on?

1. As said above: never underestimate the natural learning capacities of a child.

2. But keep in mind that 15% of a given population is reported to have difficulties learning the mother tongue and seems not to have the capacities to learn a second language.

3. Language lessons at school are good but there are NOT enough of them: my wife is a teacher and knows she isn't able to get her classes to be really fluent in two hours per week. I would recommend more language-oriented student exchanges. My own experience, being "dropped" as a 15 yr old adolescent in a 90% French speaking sailing camp and being a bilingual instructor there, helped me a lot. (I learned an extended vocabulary of French vernacular too, of course.)

4. My parents had a great library and subscribed to various magazines and media. I haven't read any Harry Potter but my wife assures me they're a boon to get children reading. I read other books in my teen years.

5. There's one problem I do not see a solution to: contamination between different languages.


  1. Wow--who else is jealous of how much easier it is to learn other languages in Europe than in the US?! (I couldn't take a foreign language in school until 9th grade--age 14.)

    Merci beaucoup, Nic, and felicitations to you and your wife on raising and maintaining such a multilingual family!

  2. Sarah, I was thinking the same thing! and they don't have to fight language prejudice there!

  3. Whoa, this is great to hear - and gives me much hope for the future as I've recently been wondering whether our kids will actually ever use their 'other' languages.

    But it all makes me miss Europe where learning other languages is so much more expected (for example, just to graduate from grade 13 in high school, I had to learn 2 other languages), and trying them out can be much easier as you may live in driving distance to various other countries. Sigh...

    Thanks Nic and Sarah!

  4. On the other hand, we could have it much harder--in a comment in a recent post, Liavek pointed out how difficult it is to learn another language when you live in a monolingual developing country with many more pressing concerns and many fewer resources.

  5. I'm so jealous! I only wish that I could have been exposed to so many languages!

  6. Mar 13, 2010 6:19:00 PM
    Jeanne said...

    Sarah, I was thinking the same thing! and they don't have to fight language prejudice there!
    Well, actually, there is a lot of language prejudice in Belgium! When we moved to Brussels, since I knew French, I used to speak French to French speaking people. I got remarks from my Dutch speaking friends: "You have to be proud of your language and speak Dutch everywhere to defend it." (I got remarks of this kind in Canada too, when speaking English to French speaking Quebecois)

    In Brussels it's safer to start a conversation with a stranger in Dutch: A French speaking Walloon will forgive you easier your "mistake" when you switch over to his French after a few sentences.
    Dutch speaking Flemish may hold some grudge if you do not address them at once in their native language: it's all politically tainted (and Belgian politics are very complicated)

  7. Thanks for clarifying that, Nic. I suppose that whenever a country has two or more official languages, people are judged and criticized based on which one they choose to speak. (Would a "neutral" country like multilingual Switzerland be the exception?)