Growing up bilingual in Australia


When people ask me where I’m from, I used to say “originally or at the moment?” or “it’s complicated.” Now I just say, “Long story short, I’m from Perth but I have German and Dutch heritage.”

My mother is German, and my father is Dutch but born in Australia. I was born and raised in Australia. Although often mistaken as a Swede (another story for another time), I’ve identified as an Australian, German and Dutch woman all my life, but I only speak German and English fluently and have spoken those languages since birth.

I’m not that unique though, the ABS reports that around 20% of Australia families speak a language other than English at home and nearly 30% of all Australians were born overseas. Worldwide, bilingual children outnumber monolingual ones.

For me, being bilingual is heavily linked with the formation of my cultural heritage and identity. Speaking the language of (one of) my heritage is my link to my family history, my family’s culture. Conversations with my mother are predominantly in German, although we do swap back into English mid-sentence to use a better word for when our vocabulary fails. Dinners are often cooked from German family recipes passed down through different generations. I keep in regular contact with my German family, and when I get the time, I’ll send letters, written in German, via snail-mail.

Growing up bicultural has also meant my childhood pop culture references are different to those of my friends. Instead of watching Looney Tunes, The Simpsons and Nickolodeon shows that my friends watched, I was watching German fairy tales, Astrid Lindren’s “Wir Kinder aus Bullerbü.” and “Pippi Langstrumpf”, Sandmännchen and Biene Maja.

My parents took me to watch the various Disney movies as they came out in the cinemas here in Perth, but if you ask me what Disney movie I can remember, my answer would be the oft-played VHS recording of the German Beauty and the Beast sent to me by my mother’s cousin.

Growing up bilingual and bicultural has meant that there are very different sides in me, which show up in different countries. The side of the Sophia who lived and worked in Germany for 1.5 years is very different to the Sophia who lives and grew up in Australia, yet both are so very integral to my own identity.

It’s also meant that I’m seen differently, depending on where I am and it has meant that when I was younger, I felt confused between the three cultures I’ve grown up with. As I got older, I was confused to how I could honour my heritages but also fit with a crowd whose pop-culture references were different to mine.

One of my few regrets in growing up bicultural and bilingual is not learning Dutch as fluently as my German. Part of this is the guilt I feel in that the other half of my heritage was neglected. I’ve regretted, that save for my last name, the only tangible links to my Dutch heritage are my Dutch passport, the Dutch vinyls I’ve inherited, the monthly visits to my paternal grandparents and my love for salted liquorice. It’s probably this cultural identity regret that has formed my resolution to not give up my last name if I ever get married because it would be losing a tangible link to by cultural heritage.

Although I identify with my three heritages, I consider Germany and Australia home, yet whenever I live in one country, I miss the other. This constant state of longing often makes me restless and develops a very large case of wanderlust. I’ve heard people describe biculturalism as feeling at home in two cultures, while not really fitting in 100 per cent into either.

When the debate arose around dual citizenship recently and that the individual should go back to their country of birth or place of first citizenship, I’m left confused with the answer “Go back to … Australia?” I can only barely begin to understand the alienation of migrants who have made Australia their home, consider themselves Australian while they also celebrate their cultural heritage, yet are told that they are not Australian.

As a child, for me, growing up German and surrounded by German movies and literature was normal. As an adult, being able to go between cultures is something that I value and something that I am grateful for.

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About the author

Sophia van Gent

Sophia van Gent is a Perth-based writer who grew up in a family of strong women and speaking two languages interchangeably. Her favourite things in life are reading books, baking family cake recipes, watching Doctor Who and the sweet, sweet combination of Swedish Cinnamon Scrolls (kanelbulle) and coffee.

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