I'm bi-lingual. Born in Nederland and at the age of 8 went with my parents and siblings to start a new life in Aotearoa/ New Zealand. I had already been privy to being a student at primary school in Nederland, and can honestly say, that I had a reasonably extended vocabulary for my age group. My only English words I learnt prior to leaving were, 'Yes, no and please'. Things like 'My name is..' were easily learnt as they sound almost the same in dutch ( mijn naam is..)! One could almost 'cheat' as the difference in pronunciation is slight.
I was 8 years old and very uncertain of myself. To actually communicate with classmates was unthinkable. I was scared of saying the wrong things, expressing myself with words unfamiliar was a definite no-no! I coped, I grew, I learnt. Many will have helped me along the way, both teachers and fellow students alike, to come to grips with my new language. My parents were advised to not speak dutch at home- so we children and obviously they too, would blend in and become the model new citizens we needed to become.
I picked up the kiwi accent without any bother at all. The 'th' sound gave rise to some teasing. That, I have to say, was probably the hardest part of learning to get it right. And, following the advise my parents were given- dutch was almost never used at home. I say almost, as we still communicated by letter with family and friends- so we received letters in dutch. We had a few dutch friends - and it made for comfortable coffee and tea sessions for my parents. As children we tended to communicate in English only but we could easily understand the Dutch language.
Then we moved back to Nederland. To re-learn one's native tongue is quite a challenge. It fits like a glove- yet is feels as if one is swimming in the wrong pool. You know you can - but you doubt your ability to stay afloat. The languages mingled and became entangled. The 'new' words, the extended vocabulary, hadn't grown in the years we had been away. I had matured but my language skills hadn't. Catch up time. Does one think translate - or think in the language one speaks? I have come to realise my method is to think English and speak English when visiting Down Under. And I reverse this process when back in Nederland. I am told I have no accent in either language- which is quite a compliment. Not sure why that is- maybe the secret is, that I don't translate in my head. I use one language at a time.
From my experiences, the to-ing and fro-ing between New Zealand and Nederland ( I returned again staying almost 30 years this time), I now understand the inner conflict many refugees have when settling in a safer environment with the possibility of being repatriated at a later date. How deeply ought they to immerse themselves in the new language, customs and history of this new but maybe temporary homeland? For the children it is a given, they will adapt. Give them the opportunity to speak or at least understand their own mother tongue - they will pick up the verbal aspect again when placed back in their old surroundings. I would make a plea however for the parents- learn the language of your new homeland - and become enriched by it's customs. When and if you return to your country of your birth you will be the richer for it.
I know my parents felt more part of the community as a whole by embracing the language - yet never forsaking their language by birthright. Your language: It is who you are. There is no escaping it. And why should you want to? By becoming bi-lingual it broadens one's horizon, extends one's vision and helps you understand the world around you. I work hard at keeping both languages alive. It has enriched my life in so many ways. Not to mention that my children and grandchildren all communicate in English - and not in Dutch. Next year I will have the opportunity to teach one of my grandchildren more about his heritage when he comes to visit his oma. And yes, there will be the odd Dutch language sessions to help him feel comfortable in company - so he can in some small way feel more part of the group and less and outsider.