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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.


  1. It's so interesting to read posts like this and see how different each bi- or multilingual family is! We all figure out the "rules" for ourselves, despite what the common wisdom and recommendations are. And it keeps changing, because people (especially children) are dynamic creatures!

  2. Nice story, I wish I could speak more than two languages.

  3. Jen, I appreciate your posting here, in particular because I've never been to your blog before and am raising my daughter in German, my non-native language (my husband speaks English with her). We live in the states.
    Anyway, your story here reminds me of my neighbors who met in high school, in Germany, and naturally started their relationship in German as well. When they moved to the states, years later, they changed their relationship language to English, but over the years, have created a very clear mix. When they feel like it, they's pretty amazing to me, who has always found it awkward to shift in and out of language with various people. I am finding, though, as I do it more and more with a variety of people (including this neighbor-friend of mine), I'm more comfortable with it, and the shift is more dependent upon my mood and confidence level with the topic matter than anything else...
    Thanks so much for sharing! Will look forward to visiting again soon! Tamara

  4. It is interesting how our language use can change over time even when there's no serious need.

    Except on the telephone of course.

  5. Thanks for your comments, sorry for the rather delayed reply.
    @Tamara, thanks for your interest! The switching itself is a fascinating thing, one that has an awful lot of academic research devoted to it I think. One thing that has amazed me is how difficult it is to do at first, but then how good you can get at it. When we first moved here and started using English, French and German regularly in everyday life, I was forever getting stuck or blurting something out in the wrong language to the wrong person. But after a while, and with practice it started to get easier and now it feels like second nature. So I guess changing language is actually a skill in itself just like speaking a language. Wish I knew what the research said about that. Good luck with the German by the way!

  6. This is so interesting! I think I'll write a blog post about my husband and me and our romantic linguisitic journey which is English, English and more English. We've tried, but just can't break away! Not that it's a bad thing, but we do speak other languages and our children are trilingual! Could you send me the link for that survey? Thanks!


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