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Wednesday, 5 October 2011

Parent to parent

Not usually one to toot her own horn (oh but didn't blogging change all that!), I'm going to do it today anyway. Let's see if I can come up with some good reasons for it. 

1) If you're reading this blog I'm assuming you're interested in our family and its particular version of multilingualism. The text I'm going to refer you to is all about that.

2) I'm going to introduce you to a website you may not be aware of and which, because of said assumed interest in multilingualism, may well appeal to you.

Have I got you interested? Let me tell you what it's all about: The website Multilingual Mania is running a series called "Parent to Parent" where they interview parents of bi- or multilingual children about their experiences and they recently sent me their questions. That's about it actually - you can see my answers at Being multilingual is part of the fabric of our everyday life. Hope you enjoy reading them!  

Sunday, 2 October 2011

Carnival time!

Yes, there's a new carnival out on multilingual blogging which you can see at the Babelkid blog.

Thanks very much to Jan for hosting what turned out to be a bumper size carnival this time. There's bound to be something that interests you in among all those contributions!

Monday, 19 September 2011

Polite baby!

Sofia, as usual, is way ahead of her brother and sister. For example she eats way more than they do, both in quantity and in variety. We spend hours coming up with ways to persuade the older two to eat anything green, and Sofia even grabbed the lettuce out of my sandwich the other day. (Admittedly she didn't eat it in the end, but she gave it a good look and did put it in her mouth once or twice.) We've started making a list of the unlikely things she eats, which includes smoked salmon, beetroot salad, and garlic dip.

We also seem to have developed a rather irritating politeness routine with the other two. Every morning at breakfast Annabelle shouts "Apple juice!" or "Apfelsaft!", depending on who she thinks is going to react fastest (or alternatively "Apply juicy" or "Apfelsafty"* depending on how silly she is being - or let's be generous and see it as linguistic creativity). Then somebody says in a warning tone, "Annabelle, how do you say that nicely?" to which she promptly says, "Please", which in turn produces the question: "And in a whole sentence?" So she then comes out with, "Can I have some apple juice please?", usually with a cute look from under her eyelashes and some sort of playful accent or intonation. Then she gets her juice. What a palaver.

Sofia doesn't bother with any of that. Her very first word was "Thank you/Danke". Now that may seem like a funny first word (apart from it marking her out as the politest baby ever). It's her first creation of Denglish, a result of her not yet fully developed linguistic skills which don't allow her to reproduce the sounds of the words as we know them. But we know it was a word because it was always the same sounds in the same situation, in this case when somebody gave her something (she has experienced such success with this that she has started using the same sounds when she is giving rather than receiving, but we'll overlook that for the moment.) And the sounds have a "k" sound in the middle, a vowel sound before and after, and sometimes even a cross between a "d" and a "th" at the beginning, thus resembling both the English and German words (she's lucky that the two languages in question share some roots).

Now I was pretty tickled by this, but was even more amazed when at about the same time the staff at the creche proudly told me Sofia had started saying "Merci" (or at least "-erci", the "m" being quite difficult for babies to say) when they give her things! Not just polite, but trilingually polite, right from the start!

* The whole of the rest of this exchange can take place equally in English or in German by the way, but I'll only write out the English from here on. 

Tuesday, 19 July 2011

Look who's bilingual now

Being accused of being too honest for my own good is something I can actually live with quite well. Gives me a nice warm feeling inside, and mostly what I end up giving up is not particularly significant. However, recently I've been thinking that I'm seriously doing myself a disservice. I speak three European languages to a good level of fluency and still find myself looking at job ads and thinking that I can't even apply for most of the vacancies because I don't have the right language skills. 

The problem is that I want a job where I can write, and all the local writing jobs want French or German as a mother tongue. (English-language writing jobs do exist round here, but they're rare, not always genuinely open competitions and there are LOTS of people like me - "trailing spouses" is a term I learnt recently - trying to garner them.) 

Now my German is good, really good. I've published in German. When chatting to German-speakers, I get mistaken for a German. But it's not my mother tongue. Honest as I am, I can't put that on my CV. And in these days of job ads ending with "Please don't bother to apply if you don't fit our basic and easily definable criteria", such as native speaker requirement, it doesn't matter how well I argue in my covering letter that I have near-native German and frankly better French than most German-speaking Swiss can muster. My CV is still not going to make it through that first filter.

So I decided to say that I'm bilingual English-German. This way I'm not lying, I'm not claiming anything about what my mother tongue is or isn't. And I'm not pretending to have any skills I don't have. It's all a question of definition. There are plenty of high-status, academic-backed definitions of bilingual which apply to my language skills (although I'm not yet quite sure how I would manage a challenge to my definition of bilingual in an interview situation - citing some professor's most recent publication might not work so well with a hardened HR professional). 

Can I offer you one definition I came across recently? It's from Xiao-lei Wang's book "Learning to read and write in the multilingual family"*. It focuses on literacy skills, but I would still suggest it's typical of other academic definitions of multilingualism (she in fact quotes some). After several pages of discussion on the "competency continuum" (p.23) of various language users, she arrives at the following definition of multiliteracy:

"an individual [who] can actively use more than one language in reading or writing with different levels of proficiency for a particular purpose" (p.24).

In this definition, the pretension to proficiency is related exclusively to the purpose of the communication, and not to some edified norm of native-speaker status. After all, there are plenty of native speakers who positively massacre their own languages, particularly in writing - one look at the average Facebook page, or comments in any museum's guest book, is enough evidence of that.
So by calling myself bilingual I can stay honest and hopefully significantly increase my chances of finding the job I want some time in the foreseeable future. Wish me luck!

* Wang, Xiao-lei (2011) Learning to read and write in the multilingual family, Multilingual Matters: Bristol

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Friday, 1 July 2011

Intonation, intonation, intonation

Isn't it funny how an outsider notices odd things that for you are just part of life? I guess this is part of the richness of travelling and mixing with people from different languages and cultures. And the great thing is that both sides, the observer and the observee, get something out of it, whether it's a great experience or an insight into your own way of living. In my case recently though, I felt I was caught out. I like to think of myself as a pretty canny and informed observer of my children's language use, but it took somebody new to our family (and someone also quite switched on to languages) to notice something I had completely missed.

We have a new au pair for the summer (she's fantastic by the way, a real big sister to our kids), another German speaker (see Why I'm smug about language mixing for the logic behind this)She's been making lots of observant comments about the children's language use, and it was her who said to me the other day, "It's funny how Leonard uses English intonation when he's speaking German". I was flabbergasted. I'd never noticed. Probably because it's always just been that way, and there is of course that native speaker acuity that we "near-natives" can get close to but never quite achieve (although I'm reasonably sure that my own intonation in German is also near-native). 

So I started listening, and there is a definite anglo-singsong tone to Leonard's German. Funnily, it's also a very child-like intonation, which is odd because his main English language partner is me, and I promise I don't talk like a four-year-old! I've been wondering how I could illustrate his intonation in words and within the limitations of the blogspot editor (not sure I have the stamina to make recordings or even diagrams at this point - maybe for later). Let's try. Here's a very typical Leonard sentence:

"Can I have a biscuit?"

I've chosen a question because questions have a standard intonation pattern, in this case you go up on "bis-", and then "-cuit" has a fall-rising pitch, i.e. you go down and then come up again (I'm going to have to get a recording of this, aren't I...)

Now in German the question intonation is a bit different:

"Kann ich einen Keks haben?"

You just go up on the word "Keks" and then come down again. (If any German speakers reading this disagree horribly, please do let me know!)

And sure enough, Leonard tends to use the "up and down and up again" pattern in both English and German. Being a mother I of course then immediately wondered whether I should worry about this (to my credit I at least wondered first rather than jumping straight to the worrying). I came to the conclusion that I shouldn't. Firstly I have much more important things to worry about (such as global warming, social justice and where to hang that stunning wrought iron framed mirror I just bought which is a tad too big and heavy looking for the place I originally wanted to put it). Secondly it's not going to impede Leonard in his general language learning and achievement of life goals; put it down as a slight quirk in his accent, which most multilinguals have. Some people (like our au pair) actually think it's cute, so it might even help him socially. And thirdly, he might just figure it out himself as his language skills mature. So I say, more power to his vocal chords. You never know, it might just be a sign that he's a Pavarotti/James Blunt/Freddy Mercury/Frank Sinatra (choose your preferred style and decade) in the making... 

Sunday, 12 June 2011


As I thought about what I wrote in Why I'm smug about language mixing, I realised that there were some underlying principles to our decisions related to our children's language learning. I guess all multilingual families have been through some sort of similar thought process, although perhaps a little more consciously for non-native bilingualism, and less so for what one could call "involuntary" multilingualism which is sprung upon the family by the language situation they happen to find themselves in i.e. where the parents may speak different languages, and/or the community language is different to the home language(s).

What struck me as I wrote the "smug" post is that in our case we are not practicing multilingualism for its own sake, or for some cognitive benefits discussed by academics and eager parents, but to achieve some communicative goals specific to our situation. For me it comes down to one question: "What do I want my children to be able to do with their languages when they are grown-up?" - and then therefore out of my direct tutelage. My answer is that I would like them to be able to choose between living where they grew up (where French is spoken), or setting up in one or the other of their heritage countries (UK or Germany). Or of course going somewhere else altogether, but I can't plan for their future passions, whether for a particular language and culture or a person, at this point in time. 

Providing them with the means to make that choice is what it's all about. So if a child doesn't actually use one of the languages they are exposed to during childhood, despite the parents' best efforts, I don't see the situation as irremediable. What has probably happened is that for the child, that language just doesn't seem relevant to the context they find themselves in. This is why parents of so-called "at risk bilinguals" have such a hard time: i.e. where only one parent speaks the minority language, and the other parent and all the rest of their day to day environment speaks another. Especially if the parent speaking the minority language also speaks, or at least understands, the dominant language, which is often the case (I figure the parents have to communicate too, right?). It's going to take some effort on the part of the child to ramp up to that minority language, and kids just don't have that sense of altruism that would allow them to "do it for Mummy/Daddy". Nor does the argument "Just think, when you're bigger you'll be able to read Cervantes in the original!" cut much ice with a 3-year old. There are of course other ways of motivating children to use the minority language - I just read smashed pea's great post How we became an opol family on how they pulled their kids round to using more German in an English-speaking environment, but you can see how much linguistic, emotional, parental and logistical effort that cost (hats off to them for getting there!).

But even in cases where it doesn't work, I think parents who continue to expose the child to another language whether they actually use that language or not, are still giving their children the potential to develop that language later on, should they find themselves in an environment where it suddenly becomes a whole lot more meaningful to them. Such as moving somewhere where the language is spoken, or falling in love with someone who speaks that language. Or even being motivated by a really good teacher. Because the advantages of passive knowledge of a language should not be underestimated, as a basis for future communication. I think the key with children though has to be the continued exposure, especially if they never develop the active mastery of the language. If you stop, it will go away. Everybody knows stories of children who spoke fluent x when they were 4 because they lived in x-land, but when they moved back to z-land they completely forgot the language, and didn't even have any advantage over the other kids when it was taught at school.

But I should stop pontificating and get back to my point, which was about being an enabling multilingual parent. My enabling goals for the children are, admittedly, pretty high. For them to be able to function as "local" adults in one of three places, they need to have GOOD literacy skills. Face it, if someone can't put together a decent CV, or email to the boss, or love letter, they may well have difficulties achieving some of their goals in life, whether it's getting a job, playing office politics, or getting it together with the love of their life. These things are hard enough to do anyway, without having a language handicap too! So this is why it's really important for me to aim high with my kids' reading and writing in all of their languages.

Tuesday, 10 May 2011

Head above the parapet

I'm just now starting to get my head above the parapet recovering from life's onslaught this April. I was so sleep deprived at one point that meeting the twin challenges of getting through the basic daily routine and staying civil was just not feasible. My poor family. I just hope that none of the children has inherited my pathetic but vicious irritability in the face of lack of sleep. Thomas' genes are much more environment-friendly in that respect, he just slows down and focuses. Whereas I lash out. (I should perhaps add, to reassure anybody who might risk meeting me in person, that this terrible trait seems to apply only to close family members, poor things. In fact, the best way to neutralise my bad mood in such cases is to put me in a room full of friends (or colleagues, or strangers in fact), and all of a sudden an incredibly powerful English-bred social veneer plasters over all the cracks of nervous irritability.)

So what provoked this break-down of human civilisation? Dealing with four weeks' worth of 24/7 caring for sick children, that's what. A lot of the caring took place between 24 and 7 (in the morning) too. And it was relentless - no sooner was one on the antibiotics and starting to feel better than the next one hit 39.5 plus, and instead of being able to look up and start taking in the world around me again, my focus just switched from one sickbed to another. 

Then once we'd got the last one more or less recovered from her latest malady (pneumonia in this case, following hard on the heels of chicken pox, strep throat, sinusitus, tummy bugs, as well as assorted coughs and colds), Easter was upon us. Which was great, it meant visits by grandparents and even a short trip away. But did they sleep well with all that excitement? No, of course they didn't. By the time it got to early evening on Easter Sunday, I half-collapsed in a state of near exhaustion otherwise only experienced by victims of particularly sadistic torture regimes and had to be bodily carried to my bed from which I did not emerge for about 24 hours.

So it's only now, after the occasional uninterrupted night (because although the illnesses seem to have cleared up, their nightmares continue to wake both them  and then me in a cold sweat) that I find I have the energy and breadth of vision to take up the blog again.

Now, you're wondering, what's the multilingual take on sick children and exhausted mothers? Well, I'm proud to say I'm not going to give you one (though I probably could if pushed, erm let me see now, how about "so, what languages did the children prefer to speak at 38, 39 and 40 degrees of fever and did it make a difference what they were suffering from at the time") No. I don't think so. Not every experience has to be shoe-horned into the theme of this blog. However, I did promise myself when I started writing not to turn it into a general "this is what my cute kids do" bleurgh, so consider the above an excuse for my absence of over a month, and then consider the following:

Do you think multilingual children have a preference for developing friendships in a particular language? I ask because Annabelle, who is usually quite shy about playing with children she has only just met, became best buddies with another three year old girl in the space of about three hours last weekend. Of course not everything is down to language, but this girl happened to be a bilingual English and Italian speaker where English is her stronger language. And it occurred to me that Annabelle's other best friends are also anglophone. Even though she mostly socialises with them in her French-speaking creche, they now often speak in English together there (see my earlier post Daring to speak the other language). 

So is English becoming her language of friendship? I find this intriguing, because she has no problems understanding or speaking both French and German, so it's not a communication issue. Is it related to the fact that she talks to her brother, whom I would say is her best best friend at the moment, in English? This in itself is something of an anomaly, as most siblings tend to use their school language (in our case French) amongst themselves, even if they continue to use other languages with their parents. To be continued, I think. But I'd love to know if you have any similar experiences or other thoughts on this topic. Assuming I don't get shot down below the family parapet by unremitting child illness again - anybody have a spare helmet?

Tuesday, 5 April 2011

Let's celebrate carnival!

A big thanks to Coco at Multilingual Mama for hosting this month's blogging carnival on multilingualisms. On it you can see the very first appearance of the brand new logo for the carnival, which I instantly filched for this post, as well as a collection of interesting, funny and moving contributions from blogs about bi- and multilingualism on identities, reading resources and how kids learn languages. I'm particularly enjoying getting to know some new blogs through the carnival, so hope you do too.

Thursday, 31 March 2011

Why I'm smug about language mixing

I'm feeling quite smug, actually. (Or I was, until we had serial breakdowns tonight: the internet radios or rather their server, the washing machine, near-miss fire in the laundry due to an electrical fault, and we're planning to replace the useless dishwasher which half the things come out of dirtier than they go in anyway. But I digress). I was feeling quite smug about the children's prowess in German and how it has improved recently. I used to tell people that German was their weakest language, but I'm not sure that's true any more. 

So where have we come from in this respect? Well, we started off doing OPOL, and we still do OPOL. Only because Thomas works full-time but I have worked part-time or not at all since the children were born, they have had more exposure to English than to German. Now this in itself would normally give their English a head-start, but in our case it was compounded by the fact that Thomas speaks fluent English, and that he and I at that time were using a lot of English between ourselves (see my previous post Chronologies and linguistic EQs on our language journey). So because children learn what they need to learn, and also largely do what their parents model to them, their natural response to knowing less German (because they heard it less often) was to use English with both me and Thomas.

At this point, I have to say how much I admire Thomas (of course I do, love him to bits generally). But in particular here because he didn't bat an eye-lid when his kiddies consistently spoke to him in English although he addressed them in German. One of the most common distressing situations in multilingual families is where the children will not use the language of one parent. You read the most angry and frustrated cries for help from parents desperate for children to speak the language which is important to them. So I was fully expecting Thomas to reach that stage as our children continued to talk to him in English. But he never did. Sure, he wasn't happy about the situation, and especially his mother worried about whether she would be able to communicate with her grandchildren if they didn't speak enough German. But to Thomas' enormous credit, he just kept on speaking to them in German, no matter how they responded. And I think it was the very best thing he could have done, because children pick up very quickly on what the parents are worried about and it rarely has a positive effect. 

It wasn't until there was something more at stake though that we decided to try to change the language balance. Last year we had to begin to think about schooling for Leonard, which meant thinking about language distribution. It's a fairly safe statement to say that the language you do your schooling in will become your dominant language. It's both the one you get the most systematic literacy training in, and it becomes the language of your peers which usually winds up having more influence than your parents' language(s). So in our case deciding on the school also means determining what will in all probability become the children's strongest language. 

There is a plethora of choice as regards schooling here. There are the local, state-run francophone schools, one of which runs a bilingual programme in several languages, and then any number of private schools many of which offer bilingual schooling, mostly English and French. There is also a private German school where the teaching is in German and French. With three languages to take care of, it was obvious we would look for bilingual schooling and then hope to deal with literacy in the third language off our own back. So how to distribute the languages? Well, living in a French-speaking area it makes sense for the children to be schooled in the local language, so it will be French and ... English? As the more widely spoken language, which will probably open more doors for them in future than German?

But then we thought that English is in some respects easier to learn than German, especially at the beginning, and it is easier to increase exposure to English than to German, precisely because it currently functions as a lingua franca in many international situations. This has another, slightly perverse, influence. The English spoken at international level is, by definition, mostly not spoken by native speakers and therefore contains many little imperfections compared to English spoken in a monolingual setting (this review of a book in French even reckons that English native speakers are at a disadvantage where international English is spoken - I have some anecdotes about that for another time). The most successful people I worked with in international organisations were not necessarily the best linguists. They succeeded because of their work-related skills, sometimes with surprisingly poor command of English or any language other than their mother tongue. So if we relegate English to our children's third language, we're probably not in fact doing them much of a disservice.

In the end we decided to have them do their schooling in French and German, for which however it turned out that they need to have a reasonable level of German in order to be able to follow the teaching. We therefore had to try to improve their German, or our whole schooling strategy would go down the pan! One thing we tried was to have me speak German to the children during our visits to Germany, but that didn't make any difference (see The non-skiing-holiday though for a recent trip that did boost their German). We also made sure we had a fair distribution of German books and DVDs mixed in with the French and English ones, but we'd had that all along anyway. Then baby number three was on the way, and we decided to get an au pair to help us cope, at least for the first few months. Yet again the language question reared its head: which language should she speak? 

Last summer, Maria from Hannover came to join us, on the condition that she speak German with the children. It has worked wonders. Within a few weeks they were using more German than I'd ever heard them speak before, albeit only with Maria, and not Thomas. It helped that the children didn't hear Maria speak English or French until she'd been here for a while, so they must have thought she wouldn't understand anything except German. And as time has gone on, they've slowly begun to speak more and more German with Thomas, and their vocabulary and grammar is getting more and more sophisticated. For me, the best sign of our success is that they are now even mixing some German into their English sentences - yes, I must be the only mother on earth who is actually PLEASED that her multilingual children are mixing their languages!  

Tuesday, 15 March 2011

Belated carnival greetings

I know it's been up for ages, but I still wanted to add a shout about the latest bi-/multilingualism carnival, most ably hosted by Solnushka at Verbosity. There's some great stuff on there, for example on myths and making up languages (which my kids do too, see Quadrilingual and more). 

My personal favourite though is the post on bilingual literacy at Mummy do that. This topic is starting to excercise me, as I think it is going to make a lot of difference to what our children will be able to do with their languages when they are adults. So I will be writing more about this in the future, but for now, why not have a look at what else there is at the carnival.

Sunday, 13 March 2011

A code-switching cheese hunt?

"Schnupper, schnupper, raschel, flitz, 
nach Käse sucht das Mäuschen ..." 
Na, wie heisst es denn, das Maeuschen? Ja richtig, Fritz!
"Es summt und brummt im Bluetenmeer:
Die Bienen lieben Honig sehr."
Wie viele Bienen siehst du denn da? Eins, zwei, drei, vier - genau, vier Bienen sitzen auf den Blumen.

Apologies for the extended stretch of German, but those who can make sense of it will immediately recognise a typical conversation of a parent reading with a small child. It's a fantastic book by the way (I've put the reference at the end of this post). It's one of the ones with a finger puppet and I have great fun animating the mouse, who is called Fritz, as he searches for some cheese. I think the kids enjoy it too.

Except it leaves me with a dilemma: Fritz obviously is a German-speaking mouse, but I speak English with my children. So what language do I use for my comments outside the actual text? OK, so perhaps we can easily agree that when I have Fritz ask the children if they like cheese too (to which Leonard invariably responds with his equivalent of "urgh" which would be very difficult to transliterate into English but is definitely more French than English; more on onomatapoeics in different languages perhaps in a later post) that he should ask in German. He is called Fritz after all. But when I ask them questions about the book, like for example how many bees they can see in the picture, do I do that in German or in English? OPOL says it should be English, but it feels much more natural to continue in German, and often it would just be damn awkward to flip between the words from the text in German and what I'm saying about them in English.

At the moment I tend to mix fairly wildly between the written language and English, depending on what question I'm asking, and if I've remembered that I usually speak English with the children. But I'm actually coming to the conclusion that at this stage it might not matter too much if I use the written language. Their grasp of the difference between the languages is not going to be disrupted by this practice now (though I might have to watch it with Sofia), and although we read a lot, it's still only a small fraction of their overall language exposure. I might also be being influenced by some things I've been reading lately which seem to be either anti-OPOL (such as Being Multilingual) or which report variations of OPOL working out nicely.

THE BOOK: Maeuschen Fritz, by Kathryn White and Corinne Bittler, from Brunnen Verlag. The English version (which I don't have by the way) is called Cheese Hunt, and was published by Caterpillar Books. 

P.S. I gave up on the umlauts because the blogger editor was not dealing with them very well. It kept adding undeletable line breaks when I copy pasted the umlaut-ed letters from Word (no umlauts on keyboard) - anybody know how to avoid this problem?

Tuesday, 1 March 2011

The non-skiing holiday

Well, what a week. In many respects not quite what I was expecting. For a start, there was a distinct lack of skiing, given that it was supposed to be a skiing holiday. Plenty of snow, unlike here, but decidedly amateurish hotel child-care put paid to my dreams of white powder freedom and relaxation. But Annabelle amazed me by asking to ski (until now she's insisted she was too little) and loving it. Once.

And so much for bathing in Bavarian German - there was the odd "gel" and "Gruss Gott", and lots of "sh" sounds where neutral German has an "s", but it was all emminently comprehensible. Not like when I went to a German friend's wedding in rural Bavaria and found it practically impossible to understand the bridegroom's family (the celebrations took place on their pig farm). Though I was reassured when I confessed to the bride that I could barely make out a word her future father-in-law was saying, and she quietly told me in her accentless German that she had the same problem.

If anything the children picked up more Saxon German than Bavarian, as we spent a lot of time with the friends from Leipzig whom we met there. Although it was noticeable that particularly the mother toned down her accent when talking to us compared to when speaking to her son.

The most interesting turn-around though was that the week turned out to be quite long enough to boost the children's use of German. For the first time I think they were old enough to realise that they were in a largely monolingual environment (although I was amazed at how many multilingual families were staying in this hotel - are we a magnet, do we attract them somehow??). The children asked me in fact why I was speaking German (they must have meant to everybody rather than just to selected individuals), so I explained to them that we were in Germany where nearly everyone speaks German (I guess this is familiar to others out there, that you have to introduce your kids to the whole concept of monolingualism). And from then on there was no looking back. 

The other great thing they got out of the holiday was spending time with other German-speaking children in the day-care at the hotel (with us, unfortunately). Because of course while they play, tease each other, laugh together, kids speak differently to adults. So our children picked up how that works in German. They can do it in French through school/creche - next challenge is to get the English sorted. Hey ho, no rest for the wicked....  

Friday, 18 February 2011


Now there's a multilingual mix if ever I saw one: a German invented composite noun to express an metaphor which exists in English and French, even if it's rendered slightly differently. In English, you immerse yourself in a language, like you do in a bath; in French you literally bathe in it: "baigner dans une langue". And that's what we are going to do next week on holiday in Allgäu, so it will be interesting to see if it has any effect on the kid's German. Although a week is very short. Might be more fun to think about how they will cope with the Bavarian accent/dialect, as they've never heard anything other than neutral German without a regional accent. I know I have my difficulties.

But actually, we're just going on skiing holiday.    

Sunday, 13 February 2011

Thanks Peppa!

Yep, believe it or not, it's thanks to Peppa Pig that I got to change identity. I've become a "Mummy", instead of, or rather as well as being "Mama", which I've been since Leonard started speaking. Now thereby in itself hangs a tail, would you believe. 

Leonard was a relatively late speaker. His sister was anything but, so I now think it probably had nothing to do with his multiple languages, especially as their patterns of starting to speak are both within the normal ranges for monolingual speakers, and I believe reflect the general gender trends of girls often speaking more and sooner than boys. Nevertheless as parents of a first child we were a little nervy about it, and decided at some point, probably entirely nonsensically, that the reason he had not yet said either "Mummy" or "Papa" was connected to the fact that the other parent NEVER used those words. Instead, OPOL oblige, Thomas would refer to me as "Mama" and I to him as "Daddy". So in our worried ruminations we came to the conclusion that he was more likely to gratify us by giving us a name if he only had two rather than four words to deal with. Of course, this was much more to do with our emotional needs as parents than anything as mundane as words and languages. But it gave rise to the decision to call ourselves exclusively "Mama" and "Papa". 

This was not without its challenges, particularly in terms of pronounciation when speaking English, because the German words use vowel sounds which are not used in English. I only realised that I had basically trained myself to use the German pronounciation in the middle of my English sentences when my monolingual English parents came to visit and had huge difficulties trying to say the same thing as Thomas and I. It mostly came out like "Momma" and "Poppa", which to me sounded like fake American accents, so doubly strange/foreign - whereas I was perfectly at home with the German sounds. (I am at least relieved they never tried out the 19th century upper class pronounciation of "Mu-maaah" and "Pu-paah" - although I think that might even amuse me to become a Victorian lady at this stage...)

But anyway, I got used to it and figured that was it. Until for Annabelle (and only for her) I recently morphed into Mummy (as in Mummy Pig), after she had just indulged in a particularly long Peppa Pig binge. I think she even asked me if she could call me Mummy, so I said yes - why not?

So is this wierd, being called one thing by one child and something else by the other one? And even more wierdly, have one using an English word in an English sentence and the other in effect mixing a German word into his otherwise exclusively English talk with me? Not really, like with many things I think I've just got used to used to it. And I still refer to myself as Mama. And that seems to be fine with everybody too.

More to the point, am I worried about the immense influence a two-dimensional (as commented on by Annabelle herself : "Peppa only moves sideways, doesn't she") cartoon pig has on my daughter's language choices and my maternal identity? Go figure.

Sunday, 6 February 2011

Chronologies and linguistic EQs

It's funny how many people say there are some things they can only do in one language, whether it be talk to babies and animals, or swear (I enjoyed this article and the comments on it on Multilingual Living on the subject). I can really identify with that: to this day Thomas and I tend to speak German on the phone, for reasons that will become evident later in this post. But I have also experienced how these habits can change, sometimes unintentionally and often unnoticed through changing circumstances, but also sometimes as a result of a quite deliberate effort. Can I indulge in a bit of reminiscing and take you through some of our language chronologies to illustrate the point?

When Thomas and I met, we only spoke German. We were both living in Germany, I spoke German well enough to communicate everything I wanted to, and in any case I was there as part of my degree programme to improve my German. 

This didn't change when we both moved away from Berlin. Over the next four years, each of us lived variously in the USA, in Russia, in the UK and in Germany, but never in the same country at the same time. We spent a LOT of time on the phone, always in German (hence I believe our tendency to revert to German when communicating via a piece of plastic without being able to see each other).

After this, there was a multilingually very boring period where we both lived in Germany (not in the same town, mark you, we couldn't do anything as obvious as that...) and spoke German ALL the time to everybody.

Then things started to get interesting again. Between us we gradually moved to the French-speaking area where we live now (and, Reader, I married him!) and both eventually took up work where we were mostly speaking English. Despite our emotional attachment having developed and become fully fledged in German, we gradually started to mix more and more English into our conversations without ever really noticing (except of course on the phone). And then the children came along, and it seemed fairly obvious to us to decide on the one-parent-one-language (OPOL) strategy.

All of a sudden, two things happened: firstly it actually took me some effort to make myself speak ONLY English with the children, so used was I to mixing languages in my home environment. And secondly, a significant proportion of my home communication was now taking place in English, as I inevitably spent more time with the babies than I did with Thomas (I was working part-time, so spending weekday time with them but without him). Then I got lazy: Thomas speaks fluent English, right, and is telling me stuff from his English-speaking work environment in English (why would he translate it for me???), so I more or less stopped speaking German to him (except, of course, on the phone!).

So much for it coming naturally to speak to babies in your mother tongue, and it being impossible to change the linguistic EQ of the language you fell in love in.

PS In a similar vein, you might like the interview with bilingualism researcher and adept Prof. Jean-Marc Dewaele, also on Multilingual Living. You might even want to take his survey on personality and code-switching. I did, and as with many such surveys, found it quite difficult to boil down my opinions to a yes-no answer on a subject I have rather more sophisticated ideas about. But definitely worth doing to support research in a very interesting area.

Wednesday, 2 February 2011

This month's bilingual blogging carnival

This is taking place on the "Speaking in tongues" blog this month, so go take a look. What is a blogging carnival? It's basically a collection of entries from different blogs made available on a host blog. Think of it like a chat show, where the host showcases the guests and what they do. So it's a good way of getting to know other blogs you might not yet have found or visited.
I'm off to have a read now. Hope you enjoy it too. 

Sunday, 23 January 2011

Which language does Sofia speak?

Let me start with a quick disclaimer: Sofia is six months old. She doesn't make any utterances which constitute language yet. I am not one of these misguided parents who eagerly listen to baby's every gurgle and burp and try and translate it into something linguistically meaningful (although if pushed I might admit to having displayed such tendencies with Leonard, the first baby...). 

The interesting thing is that if you ask adult speakers of the different languages spoken in Sofia's world, they will all tell you she is speaking their language. A Swiss friend happily burbles to our babies, repeating "areuh" back to them (it's a real French word, check it out on google), whereas any English person talking with them will say "ga ga" and so will baby. For Germans this is a bit more difficult, because there doesn't appear to be a stereotypical baby sound in German. I asked a number of friends what you would see in a cartoon bubble for babytalk and they couldn't come up with anything specific. But anyway, you get the general idea.

So what does this tell us? That all adults speaking to babies are misguided and only hear what they want to hear? Or that Sofia has been reading the comics and knows what she should be saying to whom? One thing is sure (cos science says so): studies have shown that by about the age of 6 months babies have started to filter out the sounds which are not useful to them in the language(s) spoken to them. This is why Japanese native speakers famously cannot hear and often pronounce a distinction between a 'l' and an 'r', because this distinction isn't used in Japanese. It's also why I have great difficulties with 'u' and ' ü' in German. I've learnt to pronounce two different sounds which approximate fairly closely to those used by German native speakers (amongst other things by means of a hilarious exercise involving imitating a frog in front of a mirror, taught to me by a German teacher who was so square that I just had to believe that she wasn't making fun of me). But I still have huge difficulties hearing the difference between the two, to Thomas' great amusement, particularly when it comes to the difference between "drucken" (to print) and "dcken" (to press or squeeze),  especially in the idiomatic expression "Ich drücke dich", meaning to give someone a hug, which I invariably mispronounce as "I print you!"

But I digress. Sofia is definitely on her way to being able to distinguish the sounds made in English, German and French and to have the potential to be able to reproduce them. Although something strange happens along the way (or maybe not so strange: see Prof. Grosjean's expert blog). For example, the older multilingual children we know whose schooling is in French speak their other languages with the cutest of little French accents. But it goes away when they leave home to live in an entirely native-speaker environment. And the kids we know who go to the English-language international schools seem to come out with fairly spooky mid-Atlantic accents, mixing and matching pretty random bits of British and American pronounciation and slang.

I shall have to stop. Said baby has just woken up (very unusually) screaming - I'll leave you to ponder in which language. 

Friday, 21 January 2011

Which language where?

Following on from my last post, I've been thinking more about which language I'm comfortable speaking where. It occured to me that living in an area with a large multinational community (due to a big UN presence and a number of major international firms having their European headquarters in the city) makes life a lot easier. 

For example, until recently we thought we were going to move to the UK last year. I had already started thinking about what this would mean for us language-wise. I came to the conclusion that we would probably drop the French altogether and focus on making sure that the children's German was really up to scratch, seeing as we have no family or cultural connection with French-speaking areas (other than currently living in one). And as their English would be secured by living in an English-speaking environment, I figured we would make German our home language, meaning I would speak to the children in German (instead of English like I do now). 

But then I had to imagine myself standing in a playground in a suburb of Manchester screaming at Leonard "Hoer auf, dem Jungen Sand ins Gesicht zu werfen!" (Stop throwing sand in that boy's face!), and suddenly I felt less at ease with the idea. It was bad enough with German, knowing how rampant a mostly playful Teutonophobia is in the UK, but then I thought, what if you were speaking a language which is associated with immigrants? And I recalled the experience of an Asian acquaintance recently arrived in the Greater Manchester area whose family had had to deal with abuse being shouted at them as they chatted in the street. Advertising the fact that you are different to the majority culture is not always a safe strategy.

So much as it is sometimes a challenge to raise the children trilingually and in my every day life to deal with things in three languages, I have to remember to count my blessings and be grateful that we're doing it here where it's not so unusual to be a polyglot.   

Wednesday, 19 January 2011

Daring to speak the other language

Annabelle has a new friend at creche. It was her friend's dad who spoke to me in the creche hallway, recognising a fellow Brit (I was, of course, talking to A. in English, but the creche is entirely French-speaking). They had recently arrived in town from the UK. He's looking after the kids until he can find a new job, while his partner works full-time. So we met up one afternoon and the two girls, although a little reticent at first, soon clicked and had a fantastic time together - in English. 

That was about a week ago. Today at the creche, the staff told me that the two girls had just found out that they shared a language other than French and that when the group had gone for a walk, they had joined hands and gone on for ages chattering away together in English. 

The interesting thing about this is that for days the two girls had hesitated to use English in an (almost) entirely francophone environment, even though the friend is not yet very comfortable in French, having only recently moved to a French-speaking area. It took the relative isolation of walking together and leaving the location of the creche to remove an unspoken pressure to speak the dominant language, even though the two of them had only spoken English together when they had met each other with their anglophone families outside the creche. 

Apparently, having discovered this new freedom, they continued to hold hands and speak English once back inside the creche. I actually felt it necessary to ask if the creche staff were OK with this, which they are - so they don't in fact impose a monolingual policy. It's just that (obviously) not all the staff speak all the languages represented by the children in a multinational creche, so French by necessity has to be the most commonly shared language.

This story reflects a hesitation that many parents in our type of situation will recognise: when, for example, you're on the playground, do you holler at your kid to GET DOWN FROM THERE in your shared language, because that's what you always speak to them and that's what is most likely to get the reaction you want, or do you defer to the local language? For my part, I use English, partly because in our multinational area it's very common to hear parents using languages other than French with their kids, and I think I am also comforted by the fact that English must be the next language to French round here which is most likely to be understood. So I don't feel I'm being quite so rude and excluding people as I might be.

But certain languages belonging to certain places is a funny thing. A different friend of Annabelle's with two anglophone parents was at ours recently. The girls were happily playing (with parents in safe reach), when prompted by what they were doing, I started singing a nursery rhyme to them in French. The look of shock in A.'s friend's face stays with me to this day: how could I (of all people) be singing that song (which for her belonged in the creche) in this place (of all places)! I had clearly broken a barrier which she thought immutable.   

Saturday, 15 January 2011

Quadrilingual and more

Not content with being trilingual, our children have taken to inventing their own language. And I don't just mean mispronouncing words (that they do in spades too: the most common one is "klokat" for chocolate, but only when they speak in English. "Chocolat" in French and "Schokolade" in German mostly come out properly. Bizarrely though, a couple of their friends apparently use the same word for chocolate too, although they may speak French, Dutch or Spanish. One mother explained to me that they all picked it up from a Greek boy in Leonard's nursery group who used the Greek word for chocolate, which apparently sounds something like "klokat"). No, my children will say to each other "Shall we talk in a different language?" And they then proceed to throw gobbledygook sentences at each other, sometimes with a questioning intonation, sometimes not, but very often jabbing at the air with their first fingers as if making a point, or actually pointing at something. And they think it's even more hilarious if we join in.

Today I was listening to their pronounciation in their invented language, and I noticed that while the consonants were not markedly English, French or German, the vowels were definitely not English - no diphthongs! I think this strengthens my thesis that, for the moment anyway, English is probably closest to being their mother tongue, if you assume that they were putting a "foreign" pronounciation into their invented language. They don't have any vocabulary that regularly crops up in their language i.e. a particular word that comes back for a specific thing - they are only 3 and 4 years old! But I think it still shows an amazing metalinguistic awareness, for example of the fact that there are different languages and how you can simulate one in a very basic way.

But one thing that does happen in the multilingual environments that they inhabit, is that they do pick bits of other languages and they are mostly aware that they're speaking another language. I overheard them singing the tune to "Happy birthday to you" while they were doing something else the other day, but with different words. And as I listened, I slowly realised that it wasn't gibberish, or mistreated English, French or German but "Cumpleaños feliz". The only Spanish they hear is from friends at nursery - isn't that cool, that they picked that up, just like that? So I pointed out to them that it was Spanish and mentioned their Spanish-speaking friends. The funny thing is that now sometimes they'll say to each other "Shall we speak Spanish?" and then launch into their gobbledygook language. Cos they know that they don't speak Spanish.

Monday, 10 January 2011

Mixing and matching

I spent most of this evening listening for examples of the children mixing their languages, and all I have to offer is one "Papa, ich habe kein paper mehr" (I don't have any more paper), and one "Bring the Songbuch" (song book), both addressed to their father. I guess this shows a number of things:

- English is still their strongest language, as they almost never throw a German word into an English sentence addressed to me.
- Their mixing with their father goes both ways i.e. a German sentence with a sole English word and an English sentence with a sole German word.
 - The mixing happens in different ways. I think for the first one, Leonard just couldn't think of the German word as quickly as the English one, so he used English because he knows his father understands English. I wonder though if the sentence would have come out differently if he'd been speaking to his German grandmother who speaks no English? And for the second one, Annabelle was wanting to sing a song in German, so I would guess that was what prompted the German vocab.  (See Prof. Grosjean's expert blog on reasons why multilinguals code-switch, as it's know in the trade).

I also noticed that they don't only mix on a lexical level, but on a grammatical level. The one I heard tonight was "Mama, look at our dinosaur pink", so Leonard applied the French rule of putting the adjective after the noun to an English sentence. Annabelle will in fact often say, "Me, I want to do xxx", translating the French construction "Moi, je veux faire xxx" into English. Not heard her do that in German though, I don't think.

However, what amazes me again and again is that they are learning all these different characteristics of three different languages, which is just phenomenal in itself. And mostly they DO keep the right rules and words in the right language boxes. Fantastic.

Saturday, 8 January 2011

Who we are

What follows is the original text I wrote in January 2011. I've put some updates in italics, to show how things have evolved.
Three children living in France on the border with Switzerland, born to a British mother and a German father. We are an OPOL family, i.e. we do a "one person one language" set-up. In our case, I speak English with the children and my husband, Thomas, speaks German with them. Thomas and I speak a mixture of English and German together. So what do the children speak to whom? Well, they always talk to me in English. To their father they speak a mixture of German and English (Feb 2012: they now only speak German with Thomas). They also speak French, which they are exposed to at nursery (for Leonard, the eldest, five days a week, and for Annabelle and Sofia three days a week) (Feb 2012: A. is now also at nursery five days a week). And they almost only speak French there, we seldom hear it at home or when we're out with them. And amongst themselves? Mostly English, with occasional switches to French or more rarely into German. (Feb 2012: Oh my, now they speak all three languages amongst themselves, often whole conversations in one language, but some mixing of course.)

So that's our deal. Why do I want to share this with the world? Well, I've been reading this and that about multilingualism on the internet, in books and magazines, and a lot of the material out there seems to me to be rather fraught. And we're not. Not that it's always been a breeze: sure, we've found some things difficult, we've faced times when things weren't quite panning out as we'd hoped. But we've taken decisions, stuck with it and so far we've managed to keep the situation more or less where we want it. So I wanted to add some cheerful multilingualism into the mix to even out some of the more dire and desperate contributions.

The other reason I'm writing this blog is, of course, for my own self-edification (isn't every blogger?), but also to help me think through some of the issues facing a trilingual family. So if you are enjoying reading this, or have any comments on what you read, do let me know.

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