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
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!