Fun as a Foreign Language

August 1st, 2017

Before I had children people often said to me that children learn foreign languages by osmosis, they “pick up a foreign language as easily as adults pick up a common cold”. I am Dutch, married to a Swede but our family is living in London, UK. To my mind that meant three languages ready to be absorbed by osmosis!

The reality was different. Our eldest son had Dutch as his first language until age three (when he started nursery). By then his brother was 18 months old. Between them the boys never spoke another language than English, from day one. A third brother was born and he was slow walking and talking. Mum (that is to say I and I alone) had enthusiastically divided up the day into three parts: speak Dutch all morning, speak Swedish all afternoon and then speak English in the evening when Dad comes home… Our pediatrician said that my ambitious scheme was totally confusing the youngest one who was barely speaking by age two. He told us to choose one language and speak it consistently to all three children. I followed his advice. By the time that Son #3 spoke fluent English there was no way the older boys were going to return to speaking Dutch. I would still try and they would say: “Get off it Mum, speak English!”



It is hard to say whether my original intention could/or would have paid off eventually. At the time my dream of three children being fluent in three languages was “downsized” to our youngest son speaking one language fluently enough to cope in school. If my husband had been Dutch I guess there would have been a stronger home language. However, he has never spoken anything else than English to the boys, so teaching them Dutch and Swedish fell to me. I even went as far as being involved in starting a small children’s choir at the Swedish Church with two other Swedish mums. I wanted my sons to be able to sing all traditional songs in Swedish. For a time they did.



Today all three boys are teenagers. Once Son #3 (now 13) started secondary school he showed a remarkable appetite for learning foreign languages. He excelled in German in school (in year 7) and added Mandarin (in year 8). He didn’t sleep the night before his first Mandarin lesson – he was so excited about getting started! However, the language he wants to learn most of all is Russian. A few years ago I bought him a snow leopard (large cuddly toy) and we called him Piotr, We cooked up a complex story about him being from Moscow with a dacha (summer house) in Siberia. To make the story more authentic we make sure he speaks Russian as much as possible! We were soon reaching for my Russian dictionary and on-line vocabularies to expand our range of Russian words and phrases. Things reached a point where my son demands that I ask him about his day in Russian, when he comes home from school. The excitement lies in choosing a few new words to learn every day, usually related to what happens to be going on in our own family life.


With Russian “covered” I began to wonder if the same method might work for Swedish. We recently bought a house in Sweden and my husband is interviewing for a job in Stockholm. Our sons may just end up going to school in Sweden in the future.

We expanded our (stuffed) animal family with a Wolf who promptly refused to live in London. And… you guessed right, he will only speak Swedish! We are spending all our school holidays in Sweden now and I am actively trying to get my son speaking Swedish following the same “method” we used for Russian. I cook up exciting stories and hide small treats but he can only unlock and access those by speaking Swedish.

I will admit that we have thrown some additional bargaining tools into the mix. In Sweden children traditionally eat sweets on Saturday. This is called “Lördagsgodis” or Saturday Sweets. Most supermarkets have a section where you can scoop sweets advertised as Lördagsgodis. Our son (and his brothers) quickly learned the names of the other days of the week. After all, it is worth a try asking for Tisdagsgodis (Tuesday Sweets) for instance, isn’t it?!

During our two week Easter break in Sweden my son earned a handful of sweets by extending his Swedish by a collection of new words and phrases. (Don’t tell our dentist!!) The Wolf is heavily involved in this, obviously! We still speak Russian as well but the reward is not needed. My son genuinely wants to add to his Russian vocabulary. So now we will have a conversation in Russian and then run the same conversation in Swedish. By evening my son asks if he has earned his sweets for the day…



Dutch has fallen by the wayside (for now), which is a shame, but I have a 13-year old on my hands who will converse happily in four languages: English, German, Mandarin and now Swedish. He uses on-line resources as well for three of those languages, self-directed (but he tells me his discoveries).

My eldest son (now 17) is going to do an internship in Amsterdam this Summer, so he’d better brush up on his Dutch (when he is not revising physics or further maths…) Before the exam period he and I made a point of speaking Dutch together for one hour every evening. I have also asked Middle Son about his progress in German. He says learning German is so easy that he secretly switches to the “teach yourself Swahili” option in class, as soon as his on-line German coursework is completed. So Middle Son too has branched out – without my help. He is a more solitary and self-sufficient character than Son #3, so (sadly?!) I am not learning Swahili along with him!

After years of feeling very disillusioned by comments that “children pick up foreign languages as easily as adults pick up a common cold” I am now feeling more optimistic again: did my enthusiasm for languages (and being a speaker of many languages myself) still plant a seed? Or did they end up with some ‘cool linguistic genes’ after all perhaps? Still, I will never say to any prospective parent that children pick up foreign languages by osmosis. There is way more to it than that.

And I just wondered if any other parents had stumbled across this technique of using stuffed animals that will only speak a foreign language?! Maybe I should patent it?!

Imelda Almqvist

Sweden, Monday 9 April 2017


About Imelda

Imelda Almqvist teaches shamanism, sacred art and internationally. 

Her book “Natural Born Shamans: A Spiritual Toolkit For Life”, Using shamanism creatively with young people of all ages was published by Moon in August 2016.


Imelda is a presenter on Year of Ceremony with Sounds True


And she will present on the Shamanism Global Summit with The Shift Network on July 25tth


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