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!

From My Thai Ashes, A Spanish Phoenix Rises.

Yes, I am prone to exaggerations. My Thai is hardly a mound of ashes, though it did come remarkably close to one in the last couple of months. With our future in Bangkok an uncertain one, and a host of other worries on our plates, I’ve been a very naughty language student.

Utterly unmotivated, I should have put my classes on hold and gifted them if we ended up leaving Bangkok. But hindsight is all too often useless. Instead, I attended here and there, wasting precious hours and retaining absolutely nothing, nor really maintaining what I had. Shame on me.

I’ll omit the self-berating monologue that has been on repeat play in my brain. It just isn’t productive. And when I can shut it up for a time, this has been an extremely valuable lesson in why one should heed Horace’s advice: Carpe Diem, imbedded into my generation’s brain by the inestimable Robin Williams.

You see dear reader, once I knew we were staying here and I had no more bahts to pay for classes when my package ran out, I realized how much I’d wasted. I’ve since really put some effort into getting my Thai back on track. What surprised me the most wasn’t just the renewed and strengthened desire to speak Thai; it was the realization of all the missed opportunities I’ve had over the last fifteen years to perfect my Spanish. (Read: speak in anything other than the present tense).

I worked for a Spanish-speaking employer for nearly five years along with his sister and his Spanish wife. Over the course of my employment there, I had two Spanish colleagues and most of our clientele was from Latin America and Spain. My mother and eldest brother are both fluent in Spanish. My godfather is from Argentina, and I’ve been together with my Mexican husband for nearly ten years. Seven of those were spent in NYC, often in predominantly Latin neighborhoods. Spanish is the second most spoken language in the US, as was widely evident in my double-period Spanish class where most of the students already spoke Spanish at home.

It bears repeating. My husband is Mexican. Seriously. I live with a fluent Spanish speaker. Say it with me slowly: S-H-A-M-E. Go on, you can do the forefinger rub. I deserve it.

I can give you a million and one reasons why I haven’t improved past advanced beginner, and some of them are actually as pretty good. But the truth is, I have no excuse.

When I picture myself in my dreams, as the person I’d like to be,  I am always able to navigate flawlessly through Spanish conversations. I’ve held off reading a host of wonderful Spanish writers in the knowledge that someday I will read them in their original form. I see my children, who are half-Mexican, telling their Abuelita about their week in Spanish on weekly calls. And I see myself calling her to catch up and tell her all about her grand-daughters lives and get sneaky ‘home-cooked’ mexican recipes to surprise my husband.

None of this will happen, if I don’t get off my ‘nachas’ and do this. I owe it to myself, I owe it to my extended family and, most of all, I owe it to my daughters.

All rights reserved by Tessek. Via Flickr

Seeds in Soil: What You Should Consider Before Choosing a Language.

Lately, the benefits of bilingualism seem to be cropping up everywhere from mainstream news to a host of new blogs and websites. For many of us from multi-cultural backgrounds, the choice to raise our kids with two or more languages usually comes from a desire to have them be able to communicate with family as well as developing a deeper understanding of their cultural heritage. The IQ, creativity, resume et al advantages are just icing on the cake. But for those parents who aren’t bilingual themselves but want to reap the benefits of bilingualism for their children, the key question is what language should they choose?

If there is one thing I’ve learned in my attempt to raise my girls trilingual, it’s the undeniable importance of hearing the language spoken around them and by that I am referring to actual people, not multi-media.

I was once told by a friend, who is renowned for his thorough research, that children learn much of their language from watching others speak together rather than the actual exchanges between parent and child. I’ve never taken the time to verify this academically but I will say that in practice, I’ve definitely found it to be true in our household.

We use the OPOL approach: I speak French to my daughters, my husband speaks Spanish to them and they hear English spoken between us. We were living in NYC for the first 2+ years of P’s life. When she was 15 months old, my husband became the sole carer for her. This lasted until we moved to Singapore about a year later. She heard Spanish from him day in and day out and yet when the time came to speak, English was her choice of language.

Of course there are a number of factors that affected this and for a long time I ascribed English’s dominance to these various reasons. Our move to Singapore where English is the official language of education and business only reinforced it. However, our recent move to Bangkok has led me re-consider the influences on her lingual development. For example: She now barely sees her father due to his grueling work schedule and for much of the last 18 months, he has spoken more English to her than Spanish. We had a couple over for one afternoon who spoke Spanish to my husband and a mix of French and Spanish to their son and by the time they left the house, P was attempting to answer her father in Spanish and much more willing to speak French to me.

Now living in Thailand, the girls hear Thai all the time. The Thais are notoriously behind their South East Asian counterparts when it comes to speaking English, which translates into more environmental Thai and a genuine effort on my part to learn and use conversational Thai. In addition, our wonderful Burmese Helper (Interesting to note that all the people I meet from Myanmar refer to themselves as Burmese) speaks fluent Thai and very little English. P, who up until recently didn’t really show much of an interest in her other languages other than necessity, has now suddenly become extremely aware of Thai and often says she would like to speak more Thai. She also has a renewed interest in Spanish helped by her super-Papa who has climbed back unto the OPOL wagon.

I know I should be overjoyed, and to a certain extent I am since, coupled with this new-found desire, she seems to be demonstrating a genuine interest in languages overall and how they can each be useful in their own way. But I can’t help but feel sad at times that we aren’t somewhere we can immerse her in Spanish more readily.

As we are settling into our life in Bangkok, we have started to try to find a Latin community in which to embed ourselves. This has proven to be quite a challenge. At the same time, I was sent a fun info-graphic on the state of bilingualism in the United States and it really drove home both the opportunity I missed in perfecting my own Spanish while I lived there, as well as giving up a rich Latin community for my girls.

In the same week I received the info-graphic, I was sent an article on 10 reasons why every child should learn to speak Spanish. Now I feel I should mention some caveats here since this is clearly a US-centered article and many of the reasons listed are general benefits of bilingualism vs. benefits specifically associated with Spanish. Also worth note is that Spanish is not the official language of the United Nations but one of six, the other five being Arabic, Chinese (presumably Mandarin), English, French and Russian. That said, the article, coupled with the info-graphic makes a strong case for choosing Spanish as your child’s second language in the US. More importantly, it is a reminder to look at the resources around you such as immersion programs and the cultural makeup of your community before making this kind of choice. Maybe Mandarin and Hindi are the languages of the future global economic super powers but if you don’t have ample support available, another tongue may be a better choice.

If you are going to plant the seed, you may as well try to have the best soil, light and water conditions available for growth! And now I must return to stalking innocent Spanish speakers on the streets of Bangkok.