Welcome back to Language Learning Stories.
Language Learning Stories with Kirsten Hombroek
My guest today is Dutch, English, Spanish and Catalan speaker Kirsten Hombroek.
Kirsten was born in The Netherlands but moved to Australia as a young child. Now she is back in Europe with her own young family (first living in Barcelona, and now back in the Netherlands). Kirst is using her diverse language skills every day and watching her young boys develop their own multi-lingual ability.
I hope you enjoy this interview with Kirsten, as much as I have.
Thank you Kirsten!
Language is more than just a collection of words and rules. It’s so intrinsically linked to a person’s identity, their culture.
You have lived in a few countries – tell us a little bit about your background?
I was born in the Netherlands and moved to Australia when I was four. After my first solo overseas trip when I was 18, I settled and lived in Amsterdam for about a year or more. I met loads of different people from all over. I then travelled back to Australia, settled in Sydney’s northern beaches working in tourism, eventually, I moved overseas again at age 26. My intention was to live and work in Edinburgh but then I fell in love with Barcelona – and also a local Catalan boy! So apart from a holiday years later, I never made it up to Scotland! We eventually moved to Brisbane, and then Melbourne. But last year we moved back to Europe with our two young sons – first Catalonia and now the Netherlands.
What language is your mother tongue? What language did you learn second/third?
Kind of a funny question for me, my first few years I spoke Dutch but then quickly it was replaced with English and now I’m re-learning my mother tongue. Spanish is my other language, though I also understand a fair bit of Catalan.
Have you been on any language learning trips?
I would say all my trips to Catalonia and the Netherlands helped build my level of both Dutch and Spanish. When I was young I also spent time in France, but I think French has now been completely erased, well apart from the obvious words and phrases.
I also loved learning Mongolian during a longer trip camping and travelling around that beautiful country.
I remember some advice you gave me when I first started learning Chinese – and you said record/video myself speaking as a very beginner, as you will enjoy looking back at this as I improve – I did that you know! How did this piece of advice help you with your language learning?
I’ve actually forgotten that little tip! It’s probably less about learning and more just for the fun of tracking your language as it evolves. I remember seeing old footage of me as a 4-year-old when I only spoke Dutch, it was fascinating for someone who sees English as their native language. It was like a Kirsten from a parallel universe. A version of me that I’ve left behind.
I also found an old video of my husband the first year we met speaking English. I thought it was funny how I couldn’t even remember him speaking that badly. He’s so fluent now (I also remember the massive English dictionary he took along on our first date! Life just before smartphones and google translate..).
Language is such a fascinating mechanism. Recently I saw an MRI scan of a person speaking in their native language, the way our tongues work to make all the sounds, it’s incredible. Imagine if you were able to have a before and after MRI scan!!
Try a new you, in a new language. Its kind of humbling, scary and exciting all at the same time!
You’re living in The Netherlands now with your husband and two boys – how is your Dutch? How do the kids go with learning their 3rd (or 4th?) language?
We love our new life in what sometimes feels like an old fairytale come to life. The Dutch countryside is lush and pretty – everyone cycles, there are animals and old farmhouses everywhere. And we eat way too much cheese and licorice! I have an unusual relationship with Dutch. I’m quite fluent in understanding spoken Dutch, but then with a basic level of speaking, reading and writing.
It’s been fascinating to watch the language experience of our children, in particular, our 4 year-old son Otto. Last year he spent half a year in a local school in Barcelona, improving his Catalan and then picking up Spanish. Then this year, he started at a local Dutch school but not knowing one word of the language. By the 4th or 5th month he was so comfortable with Dutch we were both a little green with envy! I think the secret to his success has been – he has no shame at all, he just wings it! That and he’s surrounded by young Dutchies, most of whom don’t speak any of his other three languages. Basically, if he wants to play, he has to learn!
What tools/resources are you using at the moment to improve (or maintain) your languages?
With Spanish, I had a tonne of books and even went to university to improve my level. But nothing really compares to being immersed in a language. I thank my in-laws and friends for patiently listening to my awful Spanish and helping me to improve.
Other handy resources: Netflix, radio, newspapers and magazines. Netflix is great because you can switch around the language settings for audio and subtitles. Online radio is handy as background to cooking, working or whatever – it helps tune your ear. Newspapers and magazines are perfect for keeping you motivated – bite-sized information that is current or usually something you’re interested in. So great for developing your vocabulary.
Also if you’re still saving up for your next overseas trip, you could do other things at home like meet up with a native speaker for a language exchange. It helped a lot when I first moved to Barcelona. Or join a Meetup group, its always nice to find patient people who don’t mind helping you, especially if they need to improve their English.
Are there any methods you are using for the kids and their Dutch language? And for keeping up their English and Catalan? What languages do you speak at home – to Marc and to the kids?
Otto’s teacher and a speech specialist both were clear on the following – only speak to your children in your native language. Let them learn Dutch from locals instead. We had heard similar advice before, that you go with one language per parent/carer/adult. They’re less likely to mix up languages that way. Though I wonder what people think here in our small town, listening to us speaking different languages between the four of us. Sometimes Marc and I also throw in some Spanish words. It used to be our go-to language in Australia if we were trying to have a more private conversation on the tram or in a shop.
So maybe that's my best advice for Australians, try harder to be less Australian - if that's even possible! 🙂
Do you have any language plans/focus for the future?
Apart from Dutch, in the future, I will focus more on Catalan than Spanish, it’s such a beautiful language that has struggled to survive under the darker days of Spain. There is this misconception that it’s a dialect when in fact it is its own language, as similar to French as it is to Spanish. Its the language of my husband, his family and now my children.
Language is more than just a collection of words and rules. It’s so intrinsically linked to a person’s identity, their culture. Makes me wonder about all the many Indigenous languages disappearing across Australia. Wish we embraced that more as a country.
Lastly, do you have any advice for aspiring multilingual parents and families? Anything you wish you’d done but didn’t? Or anything you are happy with how it has turned out?
I think languages feel like different people, you do have to let go of your old self a little – that is something I probably struggle with the most. Sometimes you just have to wait a while before you can make a joke, or swap the bland and predictable small talk for something genuinely interesting!
And of course, if you have the chance. Spend as much time overseas as you can. And maybe not London or somewhere where it might be as easy. Try a new you, in a new language. It’s kind of humbling, scary and exciting all at the same time!
Last week I met my first Australian in nearly a year and a half away from home. She was way more local than I was, she threw me a bit when she said I sounded South African in Dutch. I chuckled but then I thought, wait what?? How can that be, I was born here!! But once I got over my ego, I realised I couldn’t really understand her Dutch either. And then I thought it’s probably the Australian in us that’s getting in the way. All that mumbling, eating of words, not articulating sounds… So maybe that’s my best advice for Australians, try harder to be less Australian – if that’s even possible! 🙂
Sometimes you just have to wait a while before you can make a joke, or swap the bland and predictable small talk for something genuinely interesting!
A huge thank you to Kirsten for this beautiful interview. Kirst is such a wealth of knowledge when it comes to learning and using languages. I hope you enjoyed reading about her experiences.
Read all of my other Language Learning Stories interviews here.
Please leave any questions or comments for Kirsten below! Have you also come back to your ‘mother tongue’ language later in life? Are you raising your children in a multi-lingual environment?
We’d love to hear from you.
Until next time,