Language Families: Meet the 007 Family

To my lovely readers: This is the first in a series of guest posts written by other multilingual families sharing their trials, tribulations, and successes as well as the thinking behind the choices they’ve made.

I am so grateful to Mama007, navigating the Germano-spanish linguistic frontiers with her husband and son, for her willingness to be the first guest poster. I hope someday I can write as proficiently in Spanish or French as she does in English.

Part I: Becoming a bilingual mama….

I think most people with a migrational background and a mixed bilingual and bicultural relationship get to heavy thinking when kids are on their way. In which culture shall they live? Which language will be the “dominant” language? How to achieve that everyone is understanding each other, culturally speaking… as well as in “simple” language terms?

It’s not easy. And our western society is already giving us a strong hint to think that bilingual, trilingual and more-lingual growing-up as a child is not only something desirable but also an element to future (adult) success. So it becomes a kind of status symbol that unilingual German children may have a Russian or French nanny. Or, worse, that the parents are trying at all costs to speak English with their children, leaving them with as bad an German accent in English as you can imagine and a horrible vocabulary – all the time only wishing to do them well, supposedly teaching them the Nr. 1 language in world-wide business.

That’s something I would really like to put a finger on. Don´t think about future success. Just live your languages. It’s a recurring theme in my own blog “Mama007” that I think we should put up a resistance to these societal claims. You don´t have to give up everything and live in the woods, just don´t believe everything that the media and other parents tell you about “future success” because of early music lessons, Yoga for babies, bilingual education and the like. Give your child the time to grow up and pick up languages and interests, helping him or her with your own love for your language(s) and whatever you are interested in. Hey, I am a  former GDR-child and learned only Russian and a bit of English when I was young – and now look at me. Able to communicate in three languages, one of them learned at the age of 20 – 25. So, who cares! I am fluent in Spanish and German, and what my English is like – well, you can decide for yourself.

Experiences in 2 worlds

Multilingual Mama asked me to share our approach to multilingual education, so here it is!

Family Background: I have to admit: When I was pregnant, we were working as archaeologists in a remote area of the Bolivian Altiplano (high plateau) and I soon discovered that giving birth in Bolivia would not be my choice. We had been living there quite for a while so we knew what birth giving in Bolivia meant and what education in Bolivia meant. Since we had a choice, we chose Germany, my native country at least in the short term. Pregnancy in Bolivia is a natural thing. You don´t receive much attention and information, and there aren’t five bookshelves in every bookshop to choose your personal pregnancy-assistance-book from. To be honest, there are almost no bookshops at all. You can have every new blockbuster as an illegal DVD from the black market for a peso or two, but books…no se puede.

Pregnancy in Bolivia means: You are just going to have a child, that’s all. That’s OK with me, but I don´t like the idea of giving birth in a clinic with five other women screaming all around me, with no one from my family present and with no noteworthy medical assistance should anything go wrong. So we turned back and put on our old German lifestyle until when the time would be right to return as a family of three.

We had always been speaking Spanish during the excavations, in the city, and between us as a couple as well. My husband is Bolivian, so I practiced quite a lot. He speaks German but this is not a practical choice when all around you there´s Spanish and you have to be quick to take decisions –though German works out splendidly if you have to communicate rapidly over some tricky matter on indigenous community decision making!  From the beginning we decided that I would be speaking German to our child, while my husband would take the Spanish part. We chose the classic OPOL method, although we were speaking to one another in something of a Spanish with German missiles in it. But whatever, it works for us, with the usual exceptions: you twist a German word or sentence into the Spanish language when you want to be ab-so-lu-te-ly understood by your child about this matter of jumping of the bed with the edge of the table being just 10 centimeters away? Or painting the walls with cocoa and finger paint!

As the little one became bigger, things grew fuzzy. When he began to speak, almost all his first word-like creations were German-like with one really cute exception: he referred to himself as “e-goooodooooo“, literally meaning “el gordo” (the fat one), the nickname his father always called him as a baby. When he grew older, he was surrounded by German. He looks German. Thanks to the merry dance of genes he looks like his mother’s mother, who has Silesian –aka German–Polish roots. He speaks German. He attends a German-only Kindergarten. He is German, you can´t deny it. When he was 3 years old no one would suspect any latin roots about him. My husband was even asked if he was the father of the child when he collected him at the Kindergarten.

My husband began thinking that his only child would never utter a single Spanish word, especially as he started responding in perfect German sentences to his fathers Spanish conversations, requests, and stories. He understood everything but chose to answer in German. He understood everything in Spanish, gave the correct answers and laughed at the right times when a funny story was told. But he speaks German. So, what now? If you read the wise books on bilingual growing-up –the shelf just above the pregnancy ones, and there are at least five of them available everywhere in Germany– they will always tell you that you have to be consistent. Just pretend you don´t understand your child if it responds in the “wrong” language. We could not get ourselves to do this. I think we are pretty consistent in all other areas of our daily life, but this, we just couldn´t do. So we got on with a German speaking child, an increasingly frustrated Spanish-speaking father, and me, speaking Spanish with my husband and German with our child. This couldn´t go on for much longer so we took a turn when our child became three: we decided we would ONLY speak Spanish when the three of us are together.

This, I think, is against all the advice you’ll receive. “STICK TO YOUR LANGUAGE!” they tell you but what if your child refuses to answer? We decided to give our idea a try. My Spanish is fluent, almost without accent and with a wide vocabulary – at least according to my husband, my harshest critic. We took to speaking Spanish at home and a miracle occurred – our son started almost immediately to mix Spanish words into his German sentences. We looked at each other and couldn´t believe it. He then started to form little easy sentences in Spanish. Right now, after two years of Spanish at home, we are right on the way to Spanish speaking – with German intermingling, but lets take it easy…..

Our decision made our day messier. I switch to German with our son when we are alone, and back to Spanish when all three of us are together. My husband speaks Spanish, but sometimes switches to German when these cocoa-finger-painting-moments occur. I switch to German in our 3-person-constellation, when personal understanding or health is at risk. So our conversations on topics like: “Where did you hit yourself EXACTLY with the hammer????” are normally in German. Moreover, German serves as a kind of emotional language between my son and me. If we are to talk about subjects like: I care for you, I love you, you are my little one, then we speak German.

On the street, our son is surprised when he hears other people speaking Spanish. He just realized that there are other parents also speaking this language with their kids, but he hides behind my legs and giggles about this rare version of conversation instead of asking the Spanish-speaking child for this wonderfully red painted dump-truck. He is dumbstruck when there are parents speaking Turkish with their kids and asks: “What are they speaking?” – so I have to explain about all the other languages worldwide, just to give him an idea of all the languages in the world. And my husband shocks him from time to time with some Aymara sentences from Bolivia. Kunt´asimayu jilata


Friedrich the Great’s tombstone at his famous castle Sans Souci at Potsdam near Berlin. Friedrich was the prussian king who introduced andean potatoes to Germany and promoted Prussian ideals like neatness, law abiding and honesty.

Please join us next week when we will feature part 2, covering the educational choices Mama007 and her husband have had to make.

German speakers, please check out Mama007’s blog here!

When self-doubt creeps in

I feel like this happens a lot. It doesn’t help that until recently I lived in an environment where I was surrounded by people doubting our decision to raise our kids trilingually especially given that our first daughter Pacifique was so slow to talk.

Language Timelines

I think it all started when all my friends’ babies were gurgling and laughing and cooing and just generally vocalizing as babies do. Pacifique was always quite a quiet child. If memories serves me correct she always seemed to be anywhere from 4-6++ months behind  some of her more precocious friends.

I need to quickly go off topic and rant here. This post was meant to be up ages ago but given my slightly obsessive nature, wanting correct facts and hoping to include some nice illustrations, I have wasted days trying to create lovely language timelines but there is much subtle variation in information out there coupled with the lemon computer I was sold by apple leaving me only google docs to try to work with – so as you may have guessed I gave up. And I think from now on, all rants embedded in any of my posts will be italicized so folks can just skip over knowing they have missed nothing of substance!

Keeping above rant in mind,  I am including a little chart I found on the website. Given that it only goes up to a year, I’ll just list the rest myself . The text in blue refers to Pacifique’s development as I remember it.


At least I hope she did!

She did start some vowel sounds but closer to 4 months.

Her single syllables emerged closer to 7-8 months

Here is when she started stringing consonants and vowels together.

She just wasn’t a vocal baby though her ability to whine was phenomenal. She did this a lot and seemed frequently frustrated which continued through to 24 months and often caused me to doubt our choice of a tri lingual household.

By 11 – 14 months, I don’t think she spoke her first words yet – maybe mama, I can’t recall and am ashamed to say so. [Found copy of pediatric visit – turns out she said mama and papa at 9 months but nothing more after that until about 12-13 months.]  One reason we never worried is her comprehension in all three languages seemed good. We could give her basic instructions and she would follow them.

You may have read in a previous post that we decided to use sign language to cope with speech delay but annoyingly she also didn’t start to sign until late – I’d say after 12 months which was frustrating as we had hoped that would kick in earlier. It did end up being extremely useful down the line. And as everyone else’s first words were emerging, she was starting to learn to communicate with signs which was a big plus!

Year 1-2, compiled from the Baby Center website & The Child development Institute. For full breakdown see links.

By 12 months:  1 – 5 words meaningfully though some sources say that even if it isn’t a real word, if your child choses a made-up word  and consistently uses it to represent an object then that counts.

By 18 months:

  • Has vocabulary of approximately 5-20 words / in Pacifique’s case she probably only had about 3 maybe 4 spoken words tops but she did have a handful of signs.
  • Vocabulary made up chiefly of nouns – Yup
  • Some echolalia (repeating a word or phrase over and over) / She might repeat a word a lot but not in the same way I was seeing her friends do and definitely no phrases!
  • Much jargon with emotional content – Yup though really started at 18-20 months
  • Is able to follow simple commands – Yup
  • Common consonant sounds emerge such as t, d, n, w and h – Nope
  • When typical language explosion starts – Nope. This didn’t begin to occur until she was around 28-30 months

As I look back I think “ooohhhh it wasn’t so bad, I guess she wasn’t that far behind” but really looking at a bullet list doesn’t capture in any way the very real daily challenges of trying to understand your toddler. It can’t represent the fear, anguish and self-doubt that creeps in when your child is crying yet again, having a tantrum at your feet and so frustrated because you just don’t understand them; while their best friend is coming out with phrases like “Cleo go to market” & “Cleo want biscuit” or “Luca draw moon”, yours can only utter “mama” and “more”.

There were a few things that kept me going at this point. The first was the fact that her comprehension was clearly not an issue. We could give her relatively complex directions in all three languages and she seemed to have no problem understanding. The second were the anecdotes shared by friends and family about other children who were late to speak, many of which were from monolingual families. The thought that it is probably normal given three languages that there may be some delay. Caveat here – I actually think this is not necessarily the case as I’ve heard of bi and tri lingual kids speaking very early and mono lingual kids speaking late. I can already see a marked difference between my two daughters where Pacifique was pretty silent at 5 months and Claude is a non stop noise machine eager to vocalize at any given moment. The last was the knowledge that kids around the world grow up with several languages and that she wouldn’t be silent forever and if she was, I could always just stop and speak english to her if I really had to.

The next major milestones are listed as: By 24 months:

  • New word acquisition increasing exponentially – Yes relatively to what she had but a pittance compared to most of her compadres.
  • Can name a number of objects common to his surroundings – this is so vague.. what do they mean by it. I could answer both yes and no to this
  • Is able to use at least two prepositions, usually chosen from the following: in, on, under – Nope
  • Combines words into a short sentence-largely noun-verb combinations like “want cracker”.  No but more on this below…
  • Approximately 2/3 of what child says should be intelligible – Definitely NOT. We are only just got there around 28 – 30 months
  • Vocabulary of approximately 150-300 words
  • Rhythm and fluency often poor – fluency? what fluency!!??!!
  • Volume and pitch of voice not yet well-controlled – doesn’t this happen when they are about 21 or 22 years old?
  • Can use two pronouns correctly: I, me, you, although me and I are often confused – we haven’t even come close to pronouns at this stage.
  • My and mine are beginning to emerge – funny I can’t recall but I do know the concept was there. Maybe she never said mine but she definitely grabbed some of her toys and screamed bloody murder if some un-welcomed child tried to get their little paws on them.
  • Responds to such commands as “show me your eyes (nose, mouth, hair) – Yes. Yes yes yes.. wow I can say YES to one thing on this list! We worked really really hard on this one from about 10-11 months as I had some idea in my head that kids did it from 17 months.
  • At around 2, can sing simple tunes. –err you guessed it No. CAVEAT: Dr. said that her even mouthing incomprehensible noise along with me or musical play table singing alphabet would count. I think she was just being nice though
  • Overextend what they know so all colors are for instance “blue” or all animals are “dogs” – Yes but only once she started actually talking more so not  by 2 years of age.

Looking over this next set of milestones it dawns on me that perhaps this is when I should have started worrying but I didn’t. The reason is two-fold. Firstly, at her two-year check-up we were fortunate to have the amazing Dr. Philippa Gordon in Park Slope take a huge amount of time to discuss both language and Pacifique’s overwhelming tantrums. Pacifique had been having such massive tantrums at that point, I was starting to really PANIC, let alone doubt our choices over language. Of course that isn’t to say she wouldn’t have had these tantrums in a mono lingual household – we will never know. By 2 years many kids are making very basic sentences but technically the milestone is just putting 2 words together. Grammar is still undeveloped making for very charming sentence constructions but the key milestone is those magic two words  and 2 days before our visit to Dr. Gordon , Pacifique said “Bye Mama” – BINGO – two words! It may not seem like much but that is the Armstrong developmental leap!

I know I know, I said two-fold – the other revelation was that if we put down all the words she knew in ASL (American Sign Language), French, English and Spanish, she had about 35-50 words in each which again meant were just about ok. The Doctor assured us she wasn’t speech delayed but it often felt like this to us since many of her friends were rather precocious when it came to talking and were at this point uttering lengthy sentences – albeit often simply parroting their parents. Given that she had been late in meeting all the language milestones to date, we would re-assess in 6 months and consider speech therapy if needed.  Dr. Gordon also saved the day in advising on the tantrums and I think with my mind put to rest on language, I gained confidence and stopped worrying about them so much.

Today Pacifique is almost 33 months so past 2.5 but not yet 3. She has now met all her 24 month milestones. When? Well language for her advanced in leaps and bounds sometime between 26 & 30 months which sticks to my theory that she has always been about 4-6 months behind linguistically. Her language may not be as sophisticated as her friends still, but the big difference is that she can communicate in three languages! (I am not counting ASL as she knows words and phrases but no grammar). And her new vocabulary and emerging grammar is still improving at an ever accelerating pace.

And that self-doubt? Well this brings me back to why I originally started this post which was going to be about 5 lines. Sheesh! My latest linguistic lament and bout of self-doubt are because Pacifique has been showing a huge preference for English. I shouldn’t be surprised. Javier and I speak English and with the new baby born in September, she has been primarily cared for by Cherry our wonderful helper from the Philippines who has been a driving force in getting P to speak, count, sing, etc..

So why the doubt? I guess this time I am realizing as I write this that it is less doubt in the choice but more doubt in my ability to follow through. She had been speaking more and more French and suddenly started really favoring English. Spanish is now a distant third since her father is working 5-6 days a week often 16 hours a day. I repeat everything she says in English in French and then answer in French which is exhausting. Also I know I’ve been speaking more English for Cherry’s benefit – has that impeded P’s French? Probably. What if I can’t keep up – especially since I can’t see at the moment how we will afford to send her to the French school that is assuming I can ever potty train the kid. And I could go on.

But I won’t because ultimately I am committed to this and this too will pass and she will eventually speak more French.  In fact tonight with no French prodding from me she told me over in dinner in french that she wanted to wear her new strawberry shortcake shoes (yes they were a gift) and go with me, papa and Cherry for a hot air balloon ride outside. Did you know that the word for “hot air balloon” in French is Montgolfiere?

And when I put her to bed and turned out the light, just as I was closing her door I heard her say…. Bon soir.

Yes, tonight is a good night.