Raising a Child on Many Languages

Amie: “Cold! Coooold.”Mama: “What does Baba say when it’s cold?”

Amie: “… Thanda!”

Mama: “Yes! And what does Mama say?”

Amie: “… Koud.”

Multilingual family

We are raising Amie on no less than three languages.  Her Baba (dad) speaks Bengali, her Mama Dutch, and since Baba and Mama don’t speak one another’s language very well, they communicate to one another in English. She also hears English at daycare, on playdates, in the street and through music.

One language per parent in theory

Our first intention was to keep the languages separate: I would speak Dutch, Baba Bengali, and she’ll pick up English when we interact with the rest of the world. The “one language per parent” approach to raising a child multilingually appealed to our academic sense of order and organisation. We felt it makes sense, in theory. But in practice , it soon turned out,  it’s not that easy.

Switching languages in practice

It is difficult for me to turn to Amie and say something in Dutch just after speaking in English with her Baba. Not speaking much Dutch except to her and occasionally on the phone with family and friends in Belgium, I’m just not that fluent at the switch. Also, whereas doing that is supposed to keep the child’s languages separate in her mind, I think it would just confuse her.

Who are you talking to?

I’ve also observed that, very often, I would say something to her that was really meant for her Baba . This happened especially when she was still an infant, and we were trying to expose her to as much language as we could without expecting a reply. For instance:

“Hey sweetie, don’t you think it’s your Baba’s turn to change your diaper?”

{Come to think of it, this is still a frequently used sentence in our household.}

Natural languages

The issue of Amie’s growing language skills is a fascinating one: she picks them up so effortlessly, so naturally. I have much to report, especially these days, now that she has just turned 20 months and is chatting up a storm, adding new words and grammatical skills to her repertoire every day. Based on my experience with her and the books I’ve been reading, I hope to write some articles on the topic soon.

Saving the planet, at home


Our concern for nature and, more generally, the state of the planet, has grown over the past couple of years, and I don’t foresee an end to our worry. Especially since having a child, we’ve been trying to make some changes. For instance, the day we realized we were pregnant, we switched over to organic, banning junk food, coke, and any kind of medication not absolutely necessary (i.e., painkillers for the head ache, cold medicines, etc.).

Reasoning in error

But unfortunately, for many of us, the recent and quite sudden explosion of realization that we are making the difference, for the worse, has not been coupled with a corresponding realization that we can make a difference, for the better.

A big part of the problem is an error in our reasoning, or fallacy, called the “Fallacy of the Heap” or “Sorites Fallacy”. It is also called the Bald Man Fallacy, because it follows the form of the following  (fallacious) agument: Al isn’t bald today. Surely, if he loses one hair today that won’t make him go from not bald to bald. And if he loses one after that, also that one won’t make him, suddenly, bald, nor the next one, nor the next… So, no matter how much hair he loses, Al will never go bald.

In the long run…

Similarly this one trip in the car/airplane; this one extra load of laundry/dishes; this one plastic bottle of water/toy; this one light bulb… won’t make that a difference. But of course, with regard to climate change and the natural predicament, one less hair on our heads does make us bald, in the long run.

{I am fascinated with that clause: “in the long run”, but that’s for another time, another entry, if not another blog. It’s what I am writing my doctoral dissertation on: what “the long run” means to us, in the scheme of things, and whether we can change that meaning.}

Making the difference here and now

In any case, we drafted a list of changes we can make, here and now, in our home, to stop from going bald. We call it the “Here and Now List”.


  1. use the car less: bike! walk!
  2. buy organic foods and as much locally grown (and processed, etc.) food as possible(read “The Tale of Two Tomatoes“).
  3. buy local books (no more Amazon purchases! pay the extra buck and support the independent bookstore). Yes, the UPS truck drives by anyway, but mine might be the package that puts an extra truck on the road.
  4. don’t preheat the oven, unless when cooking poultry, meat or fish (bacteria!).
  5. don’t preboil (e.g., when cooking pasta, potatoes, etc.).
  6. don’t let pots/pans boil away and fill only with however much water is needed (e.g., when making tea).
  7. when doing dishes and laundry, use lowest temperature possible.
  8. run dishwasher when it’s full. 
  9. when doing dishes, fill sink; don’t run tap.
  10. one cup a day (as much tea/coffee as you want, but in only one cup).
  11. when brushing teeth, don’t run tap.
  12. recycle even the smallest piece of paper, the tiniest plastic cup.
  13. call up junkmail/catalogue companies and request being taken off their mailing lists
  14. even better: reuse. Even better: reduce.
  15. set up exchanges with friends, especially for those babyclothes and toys.
  16. use only the minimum of paper napkins/towels, at home and at restaurants (visit “These come from trees“).
  17. no to cardboard, styrofoam or plastic cups (bring own resusable cup).
  18. paper or plastic? Neither! (bring own canvas bag to shop, they’re stronger and much more stylish anyway – amusing/disconcerting article on the topic).
  19. don’t buy bottled water (according to the Whole Foods “The Whole Earth Weigh-In” pamphlet), “80% of the 25 billion single-serving plastic water bottles Americans use each year end up in landfills.”)
  20. when buying something, consider its packaging (lots of plastic? Nah, thanks!).
  21. use “green” cleaning products.
  22. replace all alight bulbs with compact fluorescent lamps (CFL), even the one in the fridge.
  23. flush toilet only after big job (just keep the lid closed) (if no guests are around).
  24. those diapers! > switch to g-diapers.
  25. those pads and tampons! > switch to DivaCup.

Get over the taboos 

Most items on the list are straightforward and easy, the last three might not be. I was as squamish about poop and blood as the next person… until I gave birth and started changing daipers. So I reconsidered the cultural taboos that made me recoil from excrement/menstrual blood and the honest consideration of their cost to the planet. Really, those 18-20 billion soiled, plastic and chlorine-bleached disposable diapers and those 7 billion bloody tampons and 13 billion bloody sanitary pads sitting in landfills in the US alone (and counting)… are they that much less disgusting? 

An organic list

Our list needs to grow, item by item, as we tick it off as accomplished, and your comments and suggestions are very much appreciated.

I would love to add many more items, but they might not be feasible in our set-up. For instance, we would love to

  1. compost organic materials (all those veggie peels and egg-whites and chicken bones I’m throwing in with the plastics!).
  2. grow herbs and veggies, but we don’t have a garden and there is very little direct sunlight in our basement appartment: find a solution.
  3. not buy any more leather shoes, handbags. Bags is easy, shoes less. Find some alternatives, preferably that don’t involve more plastic.

If our circumstances can’t be changed, of course we adapt. I remember my mother-in-law’s protest to our organic-food-resolution: “what if it isn’t available? What then?” Well, then we’ll just have to starve.

You can have proof!

We believe that if we make these simple, feasible adustments, we do make a difference. Seems like we can even have some proof of that, with the Be-Green Carbon Calculator.

Maisy by Lucy Cousins

cover Lucy Cousins Doctor Maisy

Amie (19 mos.) is enamored with Maisy, the adorable mouse created by Lucy Cousins (Candlewick Press).

“Maaa-isy Maaa-isy,” Amie calls. Then: “Mama read!” or “Amie read!”

Simplicity is the norm

The stories are short and sequential. The language is sparse, and keywords are repeated often. The bright colors filling large fields surrounded by black lines appeal immediately to a young child’s eye. There is no superfluous detail in the imagery and a minimum of background. The 2D perpective and the simplicity, even stiffness, of the characters too ensure concentration upon the essentials.

A role for the reader

Sounds boring? Not so. There is plenty to do for the caregiver introducing and reading the books to the child. That’s what I, personally, like best about Maisy.

  1. There is a great deal of play with contrasts between action and rest, dialogue and description, humor and seriousness. This asks for a lot of voice modulation and even gestures (“Yawn…”, “Boom!”, “Here, chickens!”).
  2. Often the reader needs to elaborate or even add a key event to the story. In Doctor Maisy, for instance, the actual crash of Maisy bumping into Tallulah isn’t pictured, and it’s best to do a little song-and-dance yourself while you turn to the next page, which features both creatures alreadysitting down on the floor.  The minimality of the stories certainly leaves plenty of room for growing as the book and the child grow older.
  3. The story lines are very recognizable to the child: breakfast, bedtime, farm animals, driving a bus, gift-giving (“Thank you, Maisy!”). They are great openings to discussions about parallel situations in the child’s life.


In short, reading Maisy with your child is bound to get you interacting with your little one. If only because you’re reading it for the hundredth time and you need to spice it up for yourself!


And this is Maisy’s biggest plus: these are stories for small children, those crossing the border from infancy into toddlerhood. There is adventure, friendship, small (pretend) illnesses, nothing more abstract than that, and plenty to discuss in their newly acquired voices and words.

Amie no longer needs me to fill in the blank in Doctor Maisy. She sits down on the sofa next to me and reads to her Bear: “Maisy run down (s)teps! No(t) so fast! Crash Maisy Tallulah! Boom! O no Maisy hu(r)t nose! That(‘s) better!”

Articles: My Natural Birth, Parts I and II

I’ve uploaded the first two articles in a series about the natural birth of my daughter (now 19 months ago).  I always wanted to get to the bottom of my (seemingly contradictory) desire for a natural birth. Writing this series has been a great opportunity to explore my hopes and fears about the beginning of my own motherhood and some of the issues that most if not all pregnant women struggle with. I hope you find these articles enlightening. I’m working on two more and will post about their publication here on the blog.

Here are the introductions to the first two articles:

There are many reasons for wanting a natural birth, and there are many reasons for not wanting it. Whatever the choice, a mother needs to ask herself: why do or don’t I want a natural birth? What is it about me, that makes me choose either way? This kind of self-knowledge is important if only because it makes us responsible for “our births” and because it can teach us respect for the decisions of others and thus overcome our divisions within and amongst ourselves.

When you’re pregnant, you’re extra sensitive to psychological pain. It is a good – and difficult – time to take care of the past (and present), to get ready for the future.

Her nose


Yesterday in bed, while gazing upon her sleeping face – so close by, her breath stirring the little hairs on my cheek – I wondered:

“Whose nose will she have?”
Her nose still has the infant’s buttonlike quality, but it is slowly taking on a character of its own. Just like the rest of her face. Last week I glimpsed the change. Was it that her hair lay longer and straighter after her bath (it’s curling only in the back now)? Or because she had that sleek palor after an illness (a bad cold, don’t worry), which made her seem… older? Or the look in her eye, with a deeper understanding behind it, and more difficult questions?

So will she have my big, pointy European nose? Or her Baba’s broader, flatter Asian nose? A bit of both? (Hopefully not all of both!)

Will she be kind? And good?

The anwer is simple:

She will have her own nose.

Everything in its time

(Written in Fall 2006)

I like to eat what the season brings to the market. I like to get food straight from the farmer. If the June rains washed away his winter plantings of brocolli and the deer ate his tomatoes, I’ll eat kale instead. Amie and I visit the Farmers’ Market every week. I like talking to the farmers and their apprentices, trying to imagine what their lives are like. I let them know my appreciation for their produce and their work.

I like the weather. I point out for Amie raindrops in a puddle, the warm sunlight on her skin, and the clouds in the sky – she always looks at them quizzically, a bit awed: what is she thinking? When the wind startles her, stealing her breath away, I cry: “de wind, Amie, het is de wind!” like it is a friend or a relative from afar, paying us a surprise visit. I can’t wait to show her the snow, how it dances. I have pointed out snow in picture books, and offered her the sign (fluttering fingers as your hands slowly zigzag down). I will be watching her reaction closely, the first time she sees snow.

I like shops that close on Saturdays and/or Sundays. They take time out for their families, for spirituality, what the heck: for themselves, their lives. No doubt they lose money, and I find it admirable that they value their personal lives more than the greenback. I think all shops in the States should close one day in the week, like most do in Europe. Then everyone gets a break: owners, employees, and consumers alike. It would be a day of rest and family, and we wouldn’t take products and producers for granted.

Meanness: I don’t get it

Is this the next generation of parents?

My toddler is asleep in her chair on the back seat, I’m sitting in the driver’s seat, and the car itself is sitting in the parking lot of the local shopping center/cinemaplex. My husband has just walked into the art store. We were lucky: we parked right in front of the door, 100 meters away.

A car pulls up and parks on my right. Out come a young couple: 25-ish, maybe older. The man, opening his door, slams it against the side of our car, then notices me. I give him a look: “was that necessary?” He stares at me with undisguised aggression, then looks behind me, and notices my daughter.

He gets out, slams his door as hard as he can, and then, as he walks slowly to the door of the store, keeps pressing the lock-button on his key. His car goes BEEP-BEEP-BEEP twenty times. By the time he has reached the door, he turns around and checks us out. My daughter is awake and crying – her usual 2-hour nap has been cut down to 20 minutes. He smiles, turns, walks in.

Would you agree that that was mean, and immature? Not funny, not aw-let-it-go-kind-of-irrelevant, but actually scary? Is this the next generation of parents?

I’m sorry, I don’t mean to be so pessimistic. But some days I can’t help it.