Friday, September 17, 2010

profile: English and Danish in Denmark

Meet another bilingual family, this one living in rural Denmark! Karen, the mom, is American and works as a freelance English teacher to business professionals. Her husband, Niels, who is Danish, is an energy engineer. Their daughter, Christina, four years old, enjoys drawing, building with Legos or wood blocks, singing and playing instruments, biking, collecting worms, and helping her parents bake. Christina is growing up bilingual in English and Danish. Thanks for answering my questions, Karen!

What languages are spoken by the adults in your household and at what level of proficiency?
We both speak English and Danish fluently. Niels lived in the U.S. for many years. Karen has been living in Denmark for over seven years, and completed the government-provided schooling to learn Danish, and then has worked in the Danish workforce since then.

What languages are you exposing your child to, and how?
Christina is exposed to Danish and English in the following ways: Karen speaks English to her. Niels speaks Danish to her. We parents speak English together, unless in the company of other Danes. This is what we've done since she was born. She has monolingual Danish-speaking grandparents, aunt, and preschool.

English is very common here, though the people in farming and smaller businesses aren't good at it. The preschool is in a small town, but nevertheless has several children of non-Danish backgrounds, many of whom are bilingual. No other bilingual Danish/English, however. Christina is proud of her English abilities, such as they are.

Why do you want your child to know more than one language?
She needs to know Danish because we live in Denmark. We want her to know English because Karen is American, and Christina has American relatives. Fortunately, English is also an extremely useful language to know, so it has appeal to most people.

How well does your child understand the different languages? How has their language use evolved as they grow?
Christina understands both languages perfectly. She speaks Danish at an age-appropriate level, and speaks “Danglish” to me (Karen). She is only recently saying sentences with more than one or two English words in them to me. I made a point of her focusing on English last year after we'd visited the U.S for a month. While there, I expected her English to develop, but there was only a little improvement. So when we got home, I started working with her in a more purposeful way.

After some initial reluctance, she became more enthusiastic about repeating after me, and saying the words or sentence she'd just said in Danish again in English. I now have stopped focusing on it so much, but praise her when she says something right in English. Her speaking fluency in English is nowhere near her speaking fluency in Danish. From what I've observed, she has dramatically cut down using English words to Danish speakers, and somewhat increased using English words with me.

How have you been able to expose your child to the cultures where the different languages are spoken?
Christina is exposed to the Danish-speaking culture in her daily life, and she has been to the U.S. for a month when she was a little over 3. Her American relatives have been here to visit for 2 weeks when she was 2 ½.

What resources and activities have been most useful to you? What, on the other hand, has not been useful?
Reading books in English have been very helpful, but most especially getting English nursery rhyme and song books. She took a much greater interest in saying those rhymes than anything before, including me singing to her.

It was not useful to press her too much to speak English. She would state that her tongue was tired. When I backed off, she was more responsive.

What challenges have you faced as you raise your child with more than one language?
The challenges have been with my feelings. I was reluctant to use English in public, but after reading a couple of books about raising children in a bilingual household, I followed the advice to not make the secondary language feel like a secret, or something that's only used at home. It's proven helpful to me and to her development and confidence in it.

Do you have any advice for us?
Use whatever resources you can find to make it easy and fun. Be patient, and don't expect the child to become equally fluent in both. I've had to let go of that desire, and it's made me more relaxed about it. Be willing to be the interpreter at all times if there are others around who don't speak the second language, and don't make it seem like a burden to anyone involved.

If any of the adults in the household are non-native speakers of the language they use with the children, please tell us a little about how that works for your family.
It works well, because Niels is so fluent that there's never anything said that he wouldn't understand. Christina will sometimes compliment him on his English.

What do you think parents, caretakers, teachers, and/or researchers need to know about teaching a second language to children?
It's always an advantage to get to know another language. It makes many things easier to understand, such as cultures, lifestyles, ways of thinking and attitudes. It supposedly helps with other brain development, though I can't attest to that. It should be as inviting as possible; i.e. one language shouldn't be used solely to discipline. There should be some connection to the language, through songs or holidays, etc. As an English teacher, I feel that grammar lessons are tedious and a turn-off. Teaching by example and repetition and real-world situations tend to be far more effective, whatever the age.

Sarah here again: I love your attitude, Karen, how you're not putting pressure on Christina and yourself to make her "fluent by five" or anything like that, and how you're focusing on making English as appealing to her as Danish currently is. I wonder what it will be like for her when she starts taking English classes in school--will she realize all of a sudden how cool it is that she understands English so well? Thanks again for sharing!


  1. I enjoy reading your posts such as these. I will be forwarding to a friend living in Denmark.(also bilingual) she is from Guatemala(lived in the states) and her hubby is Danish.

    I like the little girl's response.."her tongue is tired."

  2. I know how she feels... my tongue used to 'feel tired' when I first moved to Spain (I'm British and lived there for 9 years; I've since returned to the UK but am still fluent in Spanish). This was an interesting interview to read as I'm currently considering a move to Denmark with my 2 year old son (who speaks remarkably fluent English currently).

    1. What an unusual perspective you bring--thanks for sharing, and good luck if you do indeed end up in Denmark! I bet your son will pick up Danish faster than you will. :) Do you use any Spanish with him currently?

  3. I'm an Expat living in Denmark with two young children. Like Karen, I found the most helpful approach to teaching the secondary language is by reading to them. The biggest challenge was finding enough english books in the little town we live in. So I started renting english books through a company called and they mail them right to us. So we read every night an English book and a Danish book! It's been a lifesaver. Thanks for the great article!

  4. I would like to say that this blog really convinced me to do it! Thanks, very good post.