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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!  


  1. This dilemma of choosing a school language is fascinating to hear about (though I'm sure agonizing when you're not sure in which direction to go). It really sounds like you and Thomas thought carefully about what to do and that you made the right decision for your family. And when all three children are enrolled in the same German-speaking school, I bet that will make speaking German to each other feel much more natural!

    I have to admit to some envy of the fact that you have so many choices for schools and that hiring a native-speaking au pair didn't mean logisitical nightmares!

  2. Oh, and I should add that we do have a bilingual immersion school (Spanish-English) in town that I hope to send Griffin to in two years! Just have to figure out how to keep French important in his life then.

  3. Hi Sarah,
    yes, not having to go to another continent to get an au pair speaking the language we want is a huge relief! We decided to not even go outside the EU to avoid the paperwork.
    To be honest, I'm now watching for the tipping point where the children's German becomes stronger than their English, as we are now effectively a German speaking household apart from what I say to the children and most of what they say to me. And then we'll think strategically again about how to maintain a reasonable balance long-term - maybe an English-speaking au pair for a while? It never ends, does it, with multilingualism...

  4. Oh gosh - I wish I had access to all these blogs and resources about raising bilingual children when my children were still small! Gosh this really has me thinking. I have two teens who were raised speaking German and English - and luckily they still do! Fluently..... I can't wait to read more and to blog myself about some of these questions....
    Good to find you!

  5. I admit that I am one of those hand-wringing parents so I admire Thomas for not giving in!

    How amazing that you have schools with bilingualism as a focus. Although there is some English in the curriculum here, we have heard it does more harm than good to heritage speakers, as they develop bad habits (such as the 8th grade "I have ever been to Paris" textbook). Good luck with all three languages!

  6. Hi Medea,

    Thanks for your comment! Do you know, I think one of the hardest bilingual situations to be in is yours, because you are the lone representative of some kind of extra-terrestrial means of expression (or is your husband anglphone too?) to your kids. I hope you can keep up the good work!

    We have lots of bilingual schools here because there are lots of international workers and their families here - the UN and all the organisations that are here because they are, as well as several global businesses who have their European headquarters here. So if things get hairy for any of the children, we can move them to one of these schools later.

    Do you know what, I hadn't in fact thought about what our kids are going to do in their compulsory English beginners classes at French public school - must ask somebody who's been there! But as long as our kids' English stays at or near the level they are now, I think listening to French kids stammering "My-e nam-e eesss Jean-Luc" is going to do them any harm...


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