Stories of Life: Speaking Dutch

Last week the city of Copenhagen announced it will have all 5-year-olds do a language exam, to check their language skills. This brought the Danish People's Party to suggest that immigrant parents, for example those speaking Arabic, Urdu or Turkish, be encouraged by both the municipality and teachers to speak Danish at home. Their suggestion was rejected by other politicians.

It is of course not only immigrant children who may have problems. A recent news report reported that even ethnic Danish children can have language problems, when they're brought up by au-pairs who don't speak the language. However a Danish child is much more likely to spend time with other Danish children, hear Danish on radio or TV etc.

The following article was written by Marij Uijt den Bogaard , a former social worker working for the Antwerp municipality. She was fired after writing reports warning about radicalization in the Muslim community. The article originally appeared on Brussels Journal in Dutch, and I bring it here with my translation.

The issue of language learning is not something all Turks ignore. In a study about Turkish marriage migration done by Antwerp University, one woman raised in Belgium and married to a Turkish man was asked about her child's language skills:

Interviewer: Do you think your child will have trouble with Dutch?
Response: I don't think so, but I will first speak with my child Dutch at home, because anyway she will learn Turkish from her surroundings.. we live here and thus we must speak Dutch.

This view was echoed by other interviewees. It is a sad state of affairs when a child growing up in Antwerp will never hear Dutch spoken on the street. It would be even sadder if the parents assumed their child will learn Dutch nonetheless.


She laughs and says, "Naturally I'm happy that my daughter can go to childcare, but there's also a disadvantage, she learns Flemish there!". I look surprised at my colleague, a young mother with a baby daughter. We're drinking a cup of tea together, and as often happens by female colleagues we speak about the children. My colleague, of Turkish origin, grew up in Flanders, Turkey is the land of her parents which she knows of vacations, but she sees it as a problem that her two year old daughter repeats Dutch words at home, words that she had been taught with much patience at the nursery.

"But don't you want your daughter to learn Flemish?" I ask,"It's good if she will soon start kindergarten." But my colleague doesn't agree. For her it is obvious that as a parent you first teach your kid Turkish. Only once Turkish is spoken well, then it's Dutch's turn. "The school takes care of that," says my colleague.

The effort that the nursery expands to teach toddlers some Dutch is thwarted at home to benefit Turkish language development. Because this, and not Dutch, decides who your are, where you belong.

Curious as I am, I ask for the reason. My colleague herself speaks Dutch well. Her husband, who had come five years ago from Turkey, doesn't yet. You would think that speaking Dutch correctly, also at home, creates possibilities for her husband, who can't find work because he "doesn't speak Flemish" and for her daughter, who will start kindergarten in six months.

"But Turkish," she explains to me, "is a part of your identity, therefore is it important that kids first learn to speak Turkish and not Flemish. More than that it's the language of the family, uncles and aunts, of newspapers and television, of stores and mosque, Flemish is really barely spoken among Turks, this way we keep our identity alive in Flanders," explains my colleague.

Naturally there's nothing wrong with people being proud and wanting to stay with their origins, but what if these "customs" cost society dearly? Because the opinion of my colleague is not marginal, in most Turkish and Moroccan families language is seen as part of the identity and children are deliberately not brought up in Dutch. The consequences, a bad start at school, dropping out by secondary school and going on the job market without a diploma, are never seen as related and that is strange because it seems to me logical that there's a connection between language development and learning problems.

Naturally the beginning civil servant is taught, during the obligatory course of intercultural education, how you should look at this and all other problems. With a film about the first generation of Dutch in Australia sitting next to Dutch cuckoo clocks musing about Dutch food civil servants learn that there's nothing wrong, since you see, Dutch do it too!

It's not like that; but you can't object aloud during the obligatory training. Because unlike the Turks and Moroccans, the children and grandchildren of that generation don't speak Dutch anymore, because their identity in the new land must be maintained by the language.

Their descendants barely differentiate themselves from Australians, they don't shop at their own stores to buy Dutch cheese at any cost, and they read more than just De Telegraaf. Neither do they watch Andre Van Duin every evening by satellite. The social life of their children is not limited only to other Dutch. Neither do they go to work with clogs because they think they must. After the first generation the Dutch in Australia are completely integrated, and that's they way it must be because whoever doesn't work is not truly welcome.

But beginning civil servants in Flanders regularly get this film served up, to urge them to understanding. The two year old daughter of my Turkish colleague is not really helped by that, but she will be if a colleague would point out that speaking Dutch at home would possibly give her husband more opportunities for work and in any case give her daughter a better start in education.

Because everybody says that everything's ok nobody dares to speak straight out to Turkish of Moroccan parents, although this is important to many children.

Naturally education contributes greatly to language development and it's a part of your identity. But it's not the school's job to be fully responsible for language education. That is really up to the parents, who should make sure that their kid can develop as much as possible and will have the best starting point that they can offer as parents. That both parents are fluent in the language is an absolute condition that can't be reached just through an integration course. More Dutch should be spoken in the family, more Flemish television and newspapers, books! A mentality change is needed by many Turkish and Moroccan parents, towards Flemish society.

It is in a child's interest to develop their Flemish at home as well, starting from birth on! Childcare workers don't know what to do with all the children for whom the "other identity" is most important at home. Naturally the comparison that parents make between their own situation and that of their children doesn't hold up. The second generation got a lot of extra help and attention and that was possible because there were much fewer of them than the case is now with children who don't speak the language.

But also for the second generation there were consequences, despite of that. My Turkish colleague-civil servant, who now diligently "cures" her daughter of the language, did not finish her higher education, and she blames her poor language development on the nuns who let her and her friends talk too much Turkish at school! If we want more Turkish and Moroccan children to do better at school, we must talk with Turkish and Moroccan parents about the concept of identity. Only when the parents are convinced of the importance of the Dutch language for their children, will there be better results in education and work.

Anybody who comes in contact with young parents should emphasize the importance of this. Young children should be checked if they react to simple words or not. And if not, there should be measures to show parents what their responsibilities are. What we shouldn't do in any case is not to conduct this dialog on a large scale. Or continue to talk about discrimination and racism as the only causes of learning problems. The reasons are also due to the "new Flemish" themselves. It is time to start an open discussion about it, beyond the grumbling about respect and understanding, beyond the Turkish and Moroccan identity.

Sources: Berlingske Tidende 1, 2 (Danish), Copenhagen Post (English), Antwerp University study (Dutch), Brussels Journal (Dutch)

See also: Antwerp: Daring to tell the truth about radicalization

1 comment:

John Sobieski said...

If your plan is to live as a parasite on the host infidel country, this makes perfect sense to me.