This is the second in a series of articles on real families who are embracing and incorporating cultures and languages into their lives. If you you would like to be featured, send us a note. Today’s post is written by JR Hammerschmidt, US American mother of 2 adorable little girls, who is living in Belgium.
I live in Belgium with my family, which includes my husband and my two daughters, an 18 month old and a 6 year old. Belgium is a small country in western Europe, bordered by four different countries: Germany, France, Luxemburg, and the Netherlands. At the crossroads of so many different cultural and linguistic influences, Belgium is a very diverse place. Dutch, French, and German are the three official languages here. We live in the Dutch-speaking city of Ghent.
Both my husband and I are foreigners in Belgium: he is German, and I am US American. Before we came to Belgium, we already had a mix of our two different languages and cultures at home. It was our hope that our daughters could be at home in Germany and in the US, and that they would feel a sense of belonging to both places. I speak English with them, and my husband speaks German. I like to bring bits and pieces of my favorite experiences of the US into daily life with the kids. Most often, these are little things that I myself enjoyed when I was young, like homemade macaroni and cheese and Amelia Bedelia books.
Our journey became more complicated when we moved to Belgium. We wanted our daughters to enjoy the very best of Belgium, and for that reason we wanted them to learn Dutch. Having struggled with foreign languages ourselves, we both appreciated how difficult and how useful it could be to learn a new language. Since neither of us is a native speaker of Dutch and since we already have two languages at home, we decided to send our oldest daughter to a local school, where she would be immersed in Dutch for most of the day. I was afraid that, with three languages in her daily life, she would fall behind the other children in her age group in school. But I’m happy to say that my worries were unnecessary, and it has gone remarkably well for her. Maybe it helps to already have two languages at home. Or maybe it’s easier for children to adapt to new demands and new environments than it is for adults. Whatever it is, the results have been wonderful. My daughter blends in happily with her Belgian classmates, she explores Belgium on her field trips, and she is getting a great education here. She has started studying French at school, and she comes home proud of her new abilities, excited to tell us about the words she has learned.
Like so many parents, I have thought a lot about my daughters’ education and it is very important to me. I learned from the wisdom of my own parents, who invested so much time and energy in my education. I’ve also gained some important experiences teaching at university, both in the US and here in Europe.
I think that my philosophy can be distilled down to two main principles. One is that the best learners are the ones who love what they’re learning; self-motivated students are happy students. And the second principle is expressed so well by Wendell Berry in the book A Place on Earth, where he writes: “Nobody can discover the world for somebody else. Only when we discover it for ourselves does it become common ground and a common bond and we cease to be alone.”
There is so much value in children doing and experiencing things for themselves, and this is something that my own knowledge and experience can supplement, but not replace.
I try to incorporate both of these principles into my daughters’ lives, which is a constant but also a very rewarding challenge for me as a parent. For example, last month my older daughter came with me on a trip to the Netherlands. She recently learned to ride her bike, and so we ventured out for a ride and explored some flower fields together.
This was so much fun for both of us, and it was a learning experience, too. There is a wonderful culture of bicycling in the Netherlands, which my daughter got to experience firsthand. She noticed how good the bike paths were, and she noticed how many people rode their bicycles all around us. We also talked about how the Netherlands is a very flat country, which makes it especially pleasant to ride a bike there. If I only told my daughter that Belgium is bordered by the Netherlands, this would be a very abstract idea for her. She might know that the Netherlands is a different country, but what does that really mean to a 6 year old child? When she can connect her experience to the place, then it becomes an entirely different kind of knowledge for her. She remembers it better, it means more to her, and she develops her own understanding of it.
This came back to me in a very special way when, on a weekend trip to the flower market in Ghent, my daughter picked out a bunch of tulips to bring home for me. She chose very unusually shaped orange tulips that I had admired in the Netherlands, something that I had since forgotten. But she had remembered! Moments like that remind me that children so often observe and absorb more than we realize. Living in Belgium grants us opportunities like these to connect to other places, and we feel very fortunate to be able to do things like visit the Netherlands with our children. Above all, though, our perspective on the world around us is something we try to apply more broadly: it is as much a way of seeing things as it is a way of doing things. There is so much we would like to learn and to know about that is not easily within our reach. But that won’t stop us from trying!
If you have additional comments or advice for me, I’d be glad to hear it. You can find me on Twitter @JRHammerschmidt.