When Bilingualism Creates Confusion

Raising a child bilingually is not easy—especially when only one of the parents speaks the other language. I have tried and so far, when it comes to producing bilingual offspring, I’ve not been as successful as I’d like. The older two understand the basics, but speaking it is a whole different story. So now, I’m trying to be a better Dutch parent for the third one.

Being able to use two languages is a wonderful gift. I find it stimulates me to think more about words: their meaning, their etymology, and how I use them. Sometimes the way I express myself in one language is not appropriate in the other. Other times, I say something—unintentionally—very funny (according to my husband). On and off I find there simply is no accurate translation for a specific word, and no matter how hard I try, everything I come up with falls short.

I speak mostly Dutch to my youngest, and she seems to switch between English and Dutch almost seamlessly. It’s amazing how the brain of a child works. She has already figured out that speaking Dutch to other people besides me is not particularly useful. And for the most part she is able to name the things she knows in two languages—but it can get confusing.

For instance, the Dutch word for “squirrel” is “eekhoorn,” which sounds very similar to “acorn”. But an acorn falls from the oak tree and is something the squirrel eats.  In the Netherlands however, the “eekhoorn” eats an “eikel” from the “eikenboom.” Anyway, my point is that keeping the acorns and eekhoorns apart is tricky business.

And not just for my daughter. There are pages of discussion on the internet dedicated to the etymology of these words. I am no etymologist, but I’ll try to break it down. “Squirrel” comes from French through a Latinisation of the Greek word “skíouros”, meaning “shadow-tailed.” How appropriate! However, there used to be an Old English word for squirrel, “ácweorna,” which resembles the Dutch “eekhoorn” much better. “Acorn” stems from Old English as well (æcern), and for some reason the English decided to keep that one but do away with “ácweorna.”  Why? Was the French word for acorn not appealing enough? Because it would have been a lot more convenient if they’d kept the ácweorna and dropped the acorn. Just saying, my two-year-old would love to have a word with whomever was responsible for this linguistic inconvenience.

Besides squirrels, we also see a lot of deer in our yard. The Dutch word “dier” is pronounced very similarly, but it means animal. So when I mentioned the word “dieren” to my two-year-old, she immediately ran to the window. After not finding what she was looking for, she asked me, a little offended, where the deer were—like I duped her in some way. Also, in the “dierentuin” (zoo, literally: animal-garden), you will find many animals, but where I live, no deer.

When she needs to go to her chair at the table, I tell her to go sit on her “stoel,” which is not the same as a stool, but it definitely sounds the same. In this case, it’s usually the context that clarifies what I mean—as it often is in language. But again, it’s confusing.

There are a few Dutch words I don’t use when I talk to my kids. The word for “cat” in Dutch is poes, which, not surprisingly, sounds quite a bit like “puss.” Dutch also has the word “kat” but it’s used less frequently. Still, I’m sticking to “kat.” Having my two-year-old enthusiastically screaming “POES!” through the neighborhood when she spots the neighbor’s cat, would probably raise a few eyebrows. Especially since she is prone to add a “-y” to her nouns, like doggy…

The word that always cracks my daughter up is the Dutch word for skunk. The Netherlands doesn’t have skunks. A skunk is a North-American animal, and the word “skunk” has Native American roots (from “to urinate” and “fox”…in case you were wondering). In Dutch, the skunk is aptly named a “stinkdier,” which basically means…Stink animal! And if there’s anything a two-year-old can relate to, it’s being stinky.

So far, the skunk has only made an appearance in our bedtime books and not in our yard. I like wildlife, but I hope it stays that way. After all, a skunk is a cute, furry animal. Throw an inquisitive two-year-old in the mix, and she may just find out why a skunk is called a stinkdier.