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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 K√§se sucht das M√§uschen ..." 
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....  
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