Monday, 20 September 2010

We are the OPOL-Fanatics!

Hallo – we would like to introduce ourselves… We are the OPOL-Fanatics! If you have read some bilingual theories, you have probably come across the term “OPOL” – it is the abbreviation for “One-Parent-One-Language” - and it is the mantra of our family. We adhere to it religiously, we are diligent in its execution, appear rude and inconsiderate as well as consistent and disciplined in its wake. Its proclamation inspires admiring sounds of approval from some and disbelieving shakes of heads from others, bilingual and monolingual families alike.

It all started fairly simple. We were a couple, German wife, American husband, who decided to raise their children bilingually. At the time we lived in the US (currently we are in England) and since it was an English speaking environment, German would have to be especially nurtured. Since my husband’s German was not fluent enough at the time to use German as the only home language, we decided on OPOL (even though we were not familiar with the term then). I have to admit that I also did not want my children to hear my husbands accented and sometimes grammatically challenged German, so my tendency towards strict language enforcement was already present at the beginning…

So son No 1 was born and we were so well established in the Chicago Suburbian German community that I had one German play group and one German music group in contrast to only one American play group. German dominated the house until my husband came home in the evening, which is when I would continue speaking German to the kids, but English to my husband. And he, of course, spoke English with all of us.

Another son was born and the years passed happily by with tolerant American friends and family, who accepted my German-only approach. I had assured everybody that I would never say anything “behind their back” in German and sometimes repeated information or instructions in English or even better, let my children translate, when it was time for snack or a walk etc. during an American play date.

Already in the early years, strict OPOL resulted in some weird arrangements: Books were strictly segregated into “Papa books” and “Mama Bücher” and no parent would ever cross the line of reading the other language to the child, even though it would have been quite easy. Certain books of the “I Spy” / “Wimmelbuch” variety could be read or talked about with both parents in their respective language, however I never read “Good Night Moon” and my husband never picked “Die kleine Raupe Nimmersatt”. As silly as this discipline of not reading your child’s favorite book of the moment to them, if it is in the other language, seems, it prevented my “slide” into English. One of my biggest fears that I was constantly aware of was the mixing of languages. Under no circumstances did I want to end up like a dear friend of mine who spoke with her older children in such a mixture of German and English that only a person fluent in both could understand.

I believe the biggest brick in the wall that stemmed the flood of English into our house was the rule that only German DVDs could be watched and no commercial American television was allowed. This is the point that most other bilingual parents shake their heads and say they could never do that with their children – however, since my children didn’t know any better, they didn’t realize they were “deprived” of English speaking TV until they were old enough to understand the importance of fostering both languages. By now we own a lot of DVDs that have both German and English sound tracks and they find it rather amusing to alternate between the two.

When my oldest started preschool, insisting on German got more complicated. All of a sudden he was swamped with English, experienced things in English, learned whole new fields of vocabulary in English... But since it was only 3 hours a day, I was able to counter balance things. I made sure he learned the ABCs in German first, provided the German equivalents of the new words and tried to not fall into the trap of using English expressions of the preschool terms. I tried to find acceptable German alternatives for things like “Potty Time”, “Play Doh” and “Craft session”. I even went so far as to make a German version of the “Clean-Up”Song, which he sang enthusiastically at home, so that we could use it. Yes, it was forced at times, but I wasn’t going to let English creep into my German!

Not letting main stream language words slip into your conversations is the BIGGEST challenge for the OPOL parent who speaks the minority language. It requires discipline and complicates conversations enormously. It is so much easier just to use the majority word, since it is often the one on the tip of your tongue! You might even find that you can’t remember the correct word in your OWN language, because it is buried under the other – and that’s pretty embarrassing! I’ve have had many situations where I used a quick translation, but it wasn’t quite correct for the context. For example talking about baby formula and how it is made of powder, I used the word Puder, which is a correct translation, but not in this context, where it should be Pulver. Sometimes, quick and direct translations can even change the meaning. So if your children have homework, you translate home + work = Haus + Arbeit, however Hausarbeit is more commonly used as household chores and Hausaufgaben is associated with school homework. In these situations, you have two choices – you let it slip with the risk of your child remembering the incorrect word or you correct yourself. I generally rephrase with the more appropriate word and since rephrasing is a major method of correcting German in this household, the kids hardly notice.

The older the kids get, the bigger the challenge gets to hang onto German in an English speaking environment - and the more fanatic I become about OPOL. The language balance in our house has certainly tipped towards English. When son number 1 started school and son number 2 preschool, they switched to speaking English with each other. Yes, it broke my heart, but there was little I could do. They still speak only German to me, but they struggle more. Now they are both in school 6.5 hours a day, they experience and learn in English and sometimes have to ask “How do I say that in German?” The little one sometimes lets an English word slip in from time to time, especially when we haven’t been to Germany in a while. At this point, I say “I don’t think that was German you spoke to me” or rephrase and offer the German vocab. School homework has been tricky, since it is obviously in English, but the English speaker comes home late in the day. So what we have resorted to is that Papa does all the reading homework in the evening before bed. Other homework is done with me.
But sometimes it gets slightly ridiculous. For example: My son reads the math homework text. We talk it through in German, we calculate in German, we formulate the answer in German, then he translates the answer into English and writes it down. Sounds complicated? – You bet it is! I was so annoyed with the procedure at one point, that I read the text in English, which caused my appalled son to demand that I stop immediately. It is engrained in their brains that I should speak German to them. So much so that they PROTEST, if I speak English – not so much when I speak English at a play date, birthday party or family function to the group, but when I clearly address only THEM and it is in English. But I am not complaining. Not in the least. “Mama, sprich Deutsch mit mir” is music to my ears… because it means, I am raising some fine OPOL-Fanatics!

Friday, 25 June 2010

You speak English and what? – Views of my bilingual family in the US versus the UK

We are a bilingual family – mom from Germany, dad from the US – who moved to England from Chicago over a year ago. While this move didn’t change much of our family’s language dynamics (I still speak only German to the kids, my husband only English and school instruction is also in English), the way our family’s bilingualism is viewed has changed quite a bit!

In the US, hearing a language other than English is not uncommon. There are simply so many immigrants, you are bound to pass somebody that speaks “something else” - very often it is Spanish, but it could just as well be Chinese or Gujarati, Swedish or Russian. In the grade school that my children went to, there were a couple of families in every class that spoke another language at home and the ESL (English as a second language) program was well established. For the American ear, any language other than English sounds like white noise. This is partially due to the fact that a foreign language is often not taught until middle school, many people have never traveled outside the US and English is the main language of international relations anyway. But on the other hand, the tolerance for heavy accented English high, since many people in the US speak it as a second language. Native languages vanish fast in the American melting pot – for the second generation of immigrants speaking English is often emphasized as a means to move up in society and in the third generation (and its often English based marriages) most traces of the foreign language are gone. There is little comparable tradition of preserving your language as part of your cultural identity over centuries like you would find in European enclaves, and if there are, they are mostly fueled by new immigrant generations. Thankfully, most of the German community in the Chicago suburbs consisted of German expatriates that would return to Germany after 3 years and therefore actively kept the language alive, especially for their children. I was lucky to have a German play group and children’s music group, as well as a regular German Ladies Night Out. We even could have attended German Saturday Language school!
When we ventured out into the world as a bilingual family in Chicago, we were mainly ignored. A mother speaking a different language is not an unusual sight. But what amazed me time after time was that there was no recognition that it was “German”. Often somebody asked where we were from and the answer was followed by a positive reaction – most Americans have some German ancestry or some have traveled to Germany. But while they were proud of proclaiming their German heritage, they would have never recognized it was German. Being bilingual (with the exception of maybe Spanish) seems unnecessary for most Americans. German, even though a major European trade language, is viewed no different than Vietnamese. Speaking it in addition to English is maybe cool, but weird. When we visited the US recently, one of my husband’s uncles wanted to make small talk and ask “Soooo… do you still speak your language with your kids?”. He couldn’t even remember what language it was, it was not a distinction he thought was important to make. As for Spanish, is it the dominant foreign language in the US, appearing in bilingual instructions and forms all over the country. So it was no surprise the new American babysitter reported: “The kids wanted to look at some of those books, but I told them I could not read Spanish”. Of course they were German children’s books, but in her mind anything not English had to be Spanish.
So speaking German in the US was equivalent to talking “white noise” – but that had its advantages! I could reprimand my children in public without anybody knowing the details, I could provide points for a conversion (“…and tell grandma about the frog”), avoid fights before they happened (“Let Daniel have a turn first”) and bribe them shamelessly without the raised eyebrows of other parents.

In the beginning of last year, we moved to the US with my husband’s work – and I was excited! Back in Europe, closer to Germany, surely that must mean more language opportunities! And it is true: we are only two flight hours away from the grandparents instead of nine (plus jet lag!), German Amazon send books without enormous shipping costs, you can get movies with German sound tracks and even German satellite TV. But for some reason, that also means the German community is less eager to stick together. The Germans I have met so far, have no interest in any regular meetings – neither for the kids nor for themselves. They mainly want to blend in, maybe because the threat of extinction is not so big for a language/culture that’ s just across the channel.
In addition, maybe because we are far North, away from the London metropolitan area, there are no other bilingual children in my kids’ classes and only a handful in the entire school. When I speak German with my sons, the other kids stare. (Funny enough the adults don’t stare when we speak German, but when they hear the American accented English). The children are not used to people conversing in another language, even though they often get taught French or German in primary school. That said, the overall reaction to raising my children bilingually is extremely positive - people say “Oh, I wish I could do that for my children!” instead of “Why would you want them to teach another language? That will just confuse them!”.
However, the biggest change, when we go out as a bilingual family is that now everybody seems to recognize that I speak “German”, even the people that have never learned it at school. Not only that – most people understand part or most of what I am talking about… and that means I really have to watch what I am saying to the children!!! Whereas in the US, I had no problem acknowledging my child’s comment that “This lady in front of us is really fat” or tell them there will be no TV on the weekend, if they behave like this - now I have to be conscious and careful! It even happened that I was telling my son to leave the candy in the check out isle alone or else - and then I started counting “Eins, zwei…” and a chorus of bystanders chimed in “drei… vier”. German is understood or at least recognized, and I am identified as German, which in England (especially during this world cup) is sometimes not entirely positive – but that’s a topic for another blog.

So in a nutshell: In America we encountered language indifference that resulted in expressive freedom and tight native speaker connections, while in the UK we are experiencing bilingual encouragement and more language identification, but looser national ties.

Saturday, 12 June 2010

For Whom The International Wedding Bells Toll…

There are big differences in wedding ceremonies across the world, from the week-long party of India to the red dress of China, from the Jewish stomping on the glass to the Greek-Orthodox wedding crowns – every culture has their distinct customs and traditions. However, more and more cultures adopt aspects of the “Western Wedding” into their ceremonies, mainly the white dress and veil and sometimes the “giving away of the bride” as can be identified in almost any wedding scene from a Hollywood movie. So you would think that the wedding of two Westerners – German and American – would not run into too many cultural complications… Well, here is my story:

We decided to have two smaller weddings, one in Chicago(where we lived at the time) and one in my hometown in Germany. Each could be attended by the local friends and family from that continent. Only the core family - parents, siblings and (for the American wedding) my grandmother or (for the German wedding) an aunt/uncle with their daughter and husband, would attend the respective ceremony in the foreign country.
We tried to make each wedding small, but special. Since my dad is a reverend, we decided on USA = justice of peace/formal dress/summer and Germany = church/white dress/winter. During the preparations, have to admit, I was getting a bit carried away by the American wedding hype – I should have never bought these Bridal Magazines! I even attended a Bridal Show (and walked away with a rotisserie, one of their door prizes!). But certain aspects of the Hollywood wedding were not possible, practical or wanted - in the end the Chicago ceremony was a cultural compromise, just like our daily intercultural relationship: no white dress, no traditional bridal party, no rehearsal dinner, no giving away of the bride, but traditional wedding vows, a “you may kiss the bride” scene, the tossing of the bridal bouquet, a beautiful wedding cake and a great party!
The first of these cultural compromises (no white dress, because I wanted to reserve this for the church wedding in Germany) almost backfired badly: I was lucky enough that my mom had kept her light blue engagement dress from the 60s and was happy to have me wear it (at least old & blue!) at the wedding. I am not sure, how explicit I was when I described this dress to my in-laws, but when they arrived the evening before the wedding, I – on a whim – showed them the dress. My mother-in-law went pale – she had bought a dress the EXACT same color for the wedding. So she went out the next morning and bought herself another (rose and beautiful!) dress. Phew.
We had also decided that my father would not “give me away”. We had been living together as a couple and made the decision as a couple, so we would enter as a couple. (Plus, I was not comfortable with the notion of a changing property from father to husband.) So the classic scene of the dewy eyed husband watching as his bride walks towards him, did not happen.
The most obvious cultural clash was happening when the flowers arrived… A major “filler” flower for American wedding arrangements are carnations, which are traditional funeral flowers in Germany. I had said at every meeting with the florist, I did NOT want any carnations, alas of course the arrangements all came with plenty of them.
I will spare you the rest of the little glitches that seem to come with every wedding (groomsmen were not able to unroll the cheap felt runner without ripping it, one couple came late and walks behind us in the isle nicely captured on the wedding video, I cried so much during our thanking of the parents it was almost incomprehensible, my father-in-law did a somersault during the crazy Macho Man dance - which he later edited out of the wedding video!)
Our final break with American tradition came the week following the wedding. The top tier of every wedding cake is wrapped for you to take home and put in the freezer, in order to eat at your first anniversary. We had heard horrible stories about freezer burn, so we took the cake home and ate it with the family members that had stayed on. It was delicious!

The German wedding, which was the part with the church and the white dress, a reception and meal to follow, went much smoother - after all, we had already practiced! My dad had prepared a service in German and translated the sermon into English for the Americans to follow along. Our wedding games at the party were all bilingual. We threw the bouquet (again) and tossed the garter (which was new to the Germans). Only a few cultural glitches happened here - funny enough they were due to my having become “Americanized”! My sister played the organ during church and had wanted to make my church exit special. So she played “Pomp and Circumstance” instead of my choice of music. All in “Bridezilla” mode, I was not amused. Not only did she go against my wishes, but she had picked the traditional American high school graduation tune! But maybe she was having her revenge… A couple month earlier, she told me she had bought a red dress for the wedding and I – in my American Bridal magazine convoluted mind – said it was an inappropriate color! She was miffed, but bought another dress. In retrospect I have to laugh about my bridal self-importance. While I remember the WRONG song she played, I can’t even remember what song she was supposed to play!

A final intercultural wedding misunderstanding happened during our honeymoon in Hawaii. When we were at a Luau alongside a lot of other couples/honeymooners, I wanted a Pina Colada. When I went up to the bar, the barkeeper wanted to see an ID. I didn’t have one on me, but I laughingly pointed at my wedding band and said “But I am married”. The guy just looked at me expressionless and then I realized that this reasoning made absolutely no sense to him: I was in America, where you can get married a long time before you are old enough to drink!.

Monday, 19 April 2010

Your intercultural future is starting right now – moving-in together and/or getting engaged!

So you have found a partner from a different culture that you love and want to be with, you have figured out which country you will both live in to make the relationship work, you have met each others' friends and possibly family and now you are ready for the next step…
In most of Europe this next step would mean moving-in together, in the US it would more likely mean getting engaged. Even though we were in the US at the time, we choose to first share an apartment to try out compatibility after a year and a half of long-distance relationship. Our families viewed this step very differently. My mother-in-law was hoping we would get married before we moved-in together and my own mother was hoping we would try living together before we got married.

Living together brings out a whole new set of cultural differences. Even for couples from the same culture, moving together comes with many adjustments because you come from families with different routines and traditions. Most of our disagreements (e.g. which direction to peel carrots or how to fold underwear) weren’t necessarily rooted in our cultural differences. The fact that we were both hard working graduate students with little money was a bigger unifier than our cultures were a divider. Plus: I had slowly adopted quite a few American habits. (How many really, I am only realizing right now, that I am back in Europe!). Two areas of cultural disagreement emerged quickly however: food and holidays – both of which will require an entire blog (which will follow this one over the next couple of weeks).

After living together for about 2 years, it became clear that we wanted to stay together and get married. With this decision, a whole different level of cultural challenges appeared.
First of all, while becoming engaged is the traditional start of the American road to a wedding, most Germans of my generation do not get engaged anymore and if they do, they don’t make a big deal out of it. When we got engaged, we decided to have a picture taken by a friend and send out announcements to friends and family near and far. (Little did we know that the generation of my parents in Germany would see this announcement as a request to give a present - how embarrassing! and a nice example of cross-cultural misunderstanding)
You have to know that getting engaged in America is the starting signal of a (at least one) year long preparation for the big day. Girls are indoctrinated from early on that the wedding day will be the culmination of their life, when they will be the most beautiful and everything has to be perfect. This image not only causes a bride lots of stress (some of it positive, some negative), but requires a lot of money, time and effort. In order to know what you want on your wedding day, you are expected to read bridal magazines, go to bridal shows and decide even the smallest detail in order to create the perfect day. (I guess a lot of Germans put the same effort into the first house that they build, while most American’s just buy one to start off with).

It doesn’t matter whether you are twice divorced or just out of high-school. The announcement of an engagement is bound to produce screams of joy where ever you go followed by the immediate showing-off of your ring finger! I have to admit that I had become “Americanized” enough by the time to look forward to and expect an engagement ring. However I did not want the customary big honking diamond that sticks out like a crown in your finger – too expensive and to impractical! I imagined getting caught on things, scratching along surfaces and really didn’t want such a knuckle-duster. I had made sure that B. knew about my preferences and we had been pseudo ring-shopping a bit, where I pointed out nice flat rings with sapphires in them.
When he proposed, he had picked the ring I wanted: flat with three oval sapphires and two small diamonds! Since it was just before Christmas and I was flying home, I was able to show the ring to friends and relatives in Germany. Everybody was very impressed that I got a piece of jewelry for my engagement and admired the ring. Quite the opposite happened when I returned to the US. The ring was so contrary to American expectations (= one big diamond), that my showing of the ring was often met with an unsure look and quick glance to my face - as in: “Is she really happy with this ring? Should I congratulate or pity her?” You have to realize that the established American cultural expectation for a wedding ring is a stone worth “two or three months salary” of the man and anything less means he doesn’t really love you that much. (This message is nurtured by jewelery store adds, especially around Valentine’s day). So the bigger the stone, the greater the love – theoretically. So just imagine my ring in their expectant eyes… It didn’t help my case that at the same time another girl in my department also got engaged – with a traditional American big rock ring. So, often, when I told people that I got engaged, they said “Oww - show me the ring!?” and not only did just my little sapphires come out, but from the back came an “I got engaged, too” scream and the hand with the honking diamond was shoved over mine. It sure made it difficult for people to say something positive about my unusual ring in the face of cultural perfection.

Tuesday, 30 March 2010

In-Laws-Relationships – Difficult To Begin With, Challenging If Cross-cultural…

Dating a person from another culture is always an adventure, your differences make it more exciting, but sometimes also more complicated.

Start with the concept of “dating” itself: In most European countries, there is no such thing as an American “date”, where a boy and a girl go out together for one night to do an activity (most often dinner and/or a movie, but also dancing, bowling, etc). The idea behind this being a) test-driving how compatible you are while b) having a defined end to the activity, so that if you don’t like the person, you can get rid of them after 2h without either of you losing face. In Europe, you would not sign up to go out alone with a person you don’t even know. You would either have known them from group activities, friends parties or met them by coincidence (e.g. in a bar) and then decide to spend the evening with them. Thus you already know that you like them and this activity alone together without the buffer of friends already marks the first step towards becoming a couple. There is no such thing as a European girl/boy having multiple dates with multiple people in one week, some of which they know in advance they might not like, but want to test. With the American date comes a set of cultural rules, that are not entirely strict, but apply in the majority of cases: A) The guy asks the girl B) Since he asked, the guy pays for the activity C) Often the guy picks up and drops off the girl (especially, if she still lives at her parent’s house and they want to have a good look at him). D) If you liked the date, you don’t immediately ask for another, but you have to wait a day or three and them make contact again. E) One or two dates with one person does not mean that you are exclusive and it is totally acceptable to go on a date with somebody else in between. At some point – and I myself am not entirely sure when/how that happens most often – the whole “date” procedure is dropped in favor of being exclusive and a couple. But I digress…

What I really wanted to write about is: When you have overcome the differences in dating, you declared yourself “together” and things are getting serious, you are often faced with the prospect of meeting the in-laws. If you are in the same country, this could be sooner, if you are far apart this could be maybe not until wedding plans are made.
I was still in the “this is just part of the foreign experience” mode when my new American boyfriend took me to his parent’s house for the first time, about 2h away from the university town. It was Thanksgiving, a holiday we didn’t celebrate in Germany, so I was eager to go and experience it. On the way there in the car I asked him whether anybody else had ever brought a girl to the Thanksgiving dinner and he assured me that many of his cousins had. “So what happened to them?”, I asked. “Oh, they are all married now!” That freaked me out quite a bit! Parental expectations are hard enough to deal with, but when you have a culture and/or language barrier in addition, you start walking on eggshells. I think this first Thanksgiving encounter went quite well, but I am also sure that I did or said odd things in the eyes of the American family… I’m not sure how often I offended my American (future) mother-in-law unintentionally with my German directness or simple cultural mishaps in those first months (and possibly still today), but I’m sure know it was often. (And my poor boyfriend/husband was stuck in the middle trying to negotiate misunderstandings, realizing where both sides were coming from, but not necessarily knowing how to resolve things.)

When he came to visit me in Germany for the first time – about a year later for Christmas, since I by then had returned to finish my exams - he was exhausted from his first semester of Graduate school and out of whack with his sleeping patterns due to his first jet-lag. I remember sitting at the breakfast table my family waiting for him to show up… - Punctuality is a very big deal for Germans! - We had waited for a while already, so I went to check on him again and he had fallen back asleep! I was embarrassed in front of my parents and I knew they were wondering what kind of listless slacker I had brought home!? (Thankfully that impression changed at some point and – despite him not speaking any German in the beginning - they somehow found a common ground.)

Mothers-in-law are generally a touchy relationship, but when an American friend of mine got married in Germany, she got a good dose of MIL plus German frankness. All Americans believe that a woman is most beautiful on her wedding day (just a Italians find a woman with a baby on her hip most perfect), so when my friend put on her wedding dress and her American mother and friends were oohing and ahhing over it, she turned to her MIL and asked her opinion… and the woman shot back with German honesty: “I don’t think the cut is the best for you and I would take off that bow in the back.” Stunned silence followed from the American side.
A father of a friend, who is Norwegian, always told the story of his first Kaffeetrinken with his future German in-laws. While the Germans tend to say “Thank you” as in “NO thank you”, the Norwegians say “Thank you” as in “YES, thank you”. So after his first cup of coffee and piece of cake, he was offered more several times, kept saying “Thank you” and then didn’t receive anything. But since he wanted to make a good impression, he kept quiet (and hungry and thirsty).

As a general rule, I would say, in-laws become even scarier when they speak another language or come from a different culture! Especially since sons- and daughters-in-law can be scrutinized for faux-pas’ that aren’t even existing in their respective culture - just think of greetings, table manners or dress code … and never mind wedding ceremonies or child-rearing later on!

Do you have a culture clash with your in-laws to add?

Tuesday, 23 March 2010

Intercultural Relationships – The Lure of the Unknown

If you are raising bilingual children, chances are you are either in an intercultural marriage or living in a foreign country or even both. So before children usually comes courtship, so my next round of blogs will be about intercultural relationships.

So imagine you are a young man or woman about to embark on an adventure in a foreign country – new language, new environment, new customs, new people… new love?

While being at university, I have seen hoards of fellow students go on a “study abroad” program, spend a semester or a year in a foreign country and in addition to improving their language and experiencing something new, they also fell in love. Most become enchanted by the new way of living and the new language – and what better way to experience this different life to the fullest than embracing somebody that embodies all that is new and exciting… After all, the best way to learn a new language is “to sleep with your dictionary”.

Many people that go to live in a foreign country (be it as a student, in the military or on a business assignment) feel lonely at some point – and nothing soothes a lonely heart better love! A new relationship is a great solution, when you are single, however causes problems if you have left a partner at home. At least among the student population not many relationships survived one partner’s stint in a foreign country. (This is not to say that it is impossible to survive a longer separation, but you need to work on it: Not only will you have to keep your partner up to date with new experiences the s/he can’t share, but they have to be secure enough not to succumb to jealousy – be it for the new experiences themselves or towards the people that you now spend a lot of time with).
The lure of the new combined with an exotic setting, is hard to resist. At the same time this spell often quickly gets shattered when you return home. You are faced with the choice of a long-distance relationship or frequent visits in the short term and one of you moving in the long run. Since your feelings have often been intermingled with the experience of the other country and culture, importing your new partner in your old environment is often a sobering experience. Your partner, now a foreigner him/herself, is pushed out of their comfort zone and appears clumsy all of a sudden, where there was self-confidence before. Trying to keep a romance alive that depended on the thrill of the unusual while living back in the ordinary is hard! My friend S. added a second year to her stay in order to extend her romance (but in the end to no avail). Another friend had a fling abroad, but returned to her old boyfriend once at home again.

I was well aware of this very likely outcome of foreign romances when I embarked on my exchange year. At the same time, I was young and single and wanted to experience life to the fullest. So it happened to me – I fell in love … but I wasn’t going to make that obvious mistake! So when another girl showed interest in the boy I started flirting with, I told her, she could have him back after my year in the US was up. I was just wanting a fling. Little did I know I would end up marrying that fling…

Monday, 1 March 2010

Raising Bilingual Children - Links and Blogs

As we all know, the internet is a big maze and if there is a topic dear to your heart, most likely somebody else has written about it already. Same is true for blogs about raising bilingual children. I have put together a short overview of sites I found helpful and informative, most of them have even more links for you to follow and spend endless hours reading and stepping further into the net…

First of all, a good collection of bilingual family blogs can be found on the homepage of the Bilingual/ Bicultural Family Network. They also have a link to the Multilingual Family Magazine, daily bilingual tips, and a resource page with playgroups, publications, organizations as well as general support links and a monthly newsletter.

For a good overview with links to articles and blogs, UK based, click here.

A review of English books about raising bilingual children can be found in this blog.

There is also a publication called the bilingual family newsletter, to which you can subscribe with PayPal.

If you want to read a blog about the academic side and current research about Bilingualism, try this blog by a group of US researchers or Claudia Rinaldi’s site.

Finally, there is a You Tube channel devoted to raising bilingual children with lots of videos.

Enjoy your browsing!

Tuesday, 23 February 2010

Dominant Language

If you are raising your children bilingually, sooner or later, a dominant language will emerge. While they might be able to communicate in both, there will be a language they prefer and a language they default to. It will most likely be the language they are more exposed to, that their friends speak and that they experience most of life in.

Even adults, who speak more than one language fluently, are not equally fluent it both, they will have times or topics in which they prefer one over the other. When I was pregnant with my first child, I sometimes struggled to tell my parents about it on the phone in German, since all Doctors visits and exams where in English and I had not been exposed to much of that topic while I lived in Germany. German-Greek friends of mine always go to Greece in the summer and thus the kids learned how to sail – and all sailing vocabulary that goes along with it – in Greek and would be hard-pressed to talk about it in another language. If you live in a country that speaks another language you are fluent in, it is only natural that you will expand your vocabulary exponentially there. To this day my specialized seafood and kitchen prep vocabulary is (only) in French, after working in a restaurant in Corsica for 2 summers. Certain feelings will also be dominated by what language you experienced it in. A Russian colleague that lived in France for his teenage years always thought about falling in love in French terms! Friends of mine, to whom I felt like an adopted daughter, would sometimes address me in Romanian in a very emotional moment, because that was their language of family connection.
Finally, I could always tell I had assimilated to a point and started living in the other languages, when I started to dream in it…

When you have children, they will decide at some point, which language they communicate in to each other. If you have a mono-lingual household and a different-speaking environment, they will most likely stick with the inside-outside division of language. In the case of one-parent-one language, they might continue to switch, but more likely will eventually choose one - often the dominant language of the country they live in. (Thus my children by now communicate in English and only rarely switch to German, when I enter the room - they will, however, still always address me in German).

If your children start to show preference for a language that is not yours, it does not mean that they love you less. Of course you want them to experience the important parts of life in the language you grew up with, but that is sometimes impossible. So instead of looking at the loss - can’t recite the poems I grew up with, don’t read all the children's books I identified with, don’t hum songs from my culture when drawing, don’t have joyous outbursts in my language, don’t identify with my country’s team at the Olympics - try to focus on the gains – broader cultural understanding and being bilingual. I know it can be hard at times. If your child is asked whether they prefer to speak X or Y (which some well-meaning, interested strangers do), and they pick *the other* language, it can be like a stab in the back. But they don’t know that, they just say what they feel. If you move countries, the tables might turn to your favor. All you can do for now, is hang on to you language and connect it to as many positive experiences as you possibly can.

Tuesday, 9 February 2010

Tricks to keep the kids bilingual!

Here is a brief list of ways to incorporate a foreign language into you household:

The best way to teach your kids is, of course, speaking to them a lot and only in the target language. But our lives are busy, we have to work and do chores, so we are not constantly able to shower our children with speech.

However, if you have the time, make it count. As tempted as I am by the beautiful English books in our house and at the library, I ONLY read German ones to the kids. (It has the added benefit that I can reread my childhood favorites and make a connection to “When Mama was a little girl…”) If the kids want a specific English book or brought a book home from school, they have to wait for their Dad to come home and read with them. This division of books has been there from the very beginning and when we got a new one, the first question often was “Is this a Mama book or a Papa book?”.
When they got older, I also purchased some books on CD for them to listen to and 80% of the time we listen to German children’s songs in the car - especially around Christmas time! If this is the only entertainment available, they tend not to complain and I often get rewarded by hearing them sing the songs in their rooms later!

TV in our house is quite restricted. We avoided commercial television from the beginning and when we started to introduce DVDs, we did so only in German! The combination of kids occupied + learning another language + defined end of TV time was priceless for us! For a while they didn’t realize some movies could have different language tracks. I remember my youngest coming home from the dentist (who had a TV in the waiting room) telling me incredulously: “Mama, Nemo spoke ENGLISH!” By now, we also own English DVDs – mainly given as presents – but I still make a point to alternate languages when it comes to TV. I just feel that, if they are already watching TV at least they can broaden their vocabulary at the same time.
The kids have learned quite a bit of German from watching movies – just think of the fish and ocean words in “Finding Nemo” or the car and repair vocabulary in “Cars”. Plus the characters quite often use expression I would never use! Too funny when you hear your child express his frustration like a pirate! This brings me to an important point: Your child will only have the breadth of language that YOU speak – and your active vocabulary is much smaller that your passive one, especially when talking to a child! So make sure you expose your child to a broad variety of language – fairy tales, science books, TV, classic and modern children’s stories. And explain and rephrase often with your own words. In addition let them hear a variety of accents – books on tape read by actors or authors as well as family and friends from different parts of your country. These days, it is easier than ever to stay connected - we talk to grandparents and relatives on Skye, once a week on the phone and recently our oldest started typing emails in German to his Opapa

Finally, if your children start to find it tedious to communicate in your language, there is one thing that will get them asking in whatever language necessary: candy. Yes, it’s bribery, but in my house, gummibears have to be asked for in German! And in a friend’s house, where the children are in their teens and rarely still speak French, the afternoon snack is a special treat – French Madeleines or pastry and café au lait. While this is served, there are only French expressions of delight heard!

Monday, 1 February 2010

School age – realizing, most other families are monolingual!

While my children had realized that some of our friends spoke only one language with their parents, we lived a suburb of Chicago where we attended a Moms&Tots group with international families and I had organized a German play group. They regularly played with other children, who switched between German and English and visited other houses where the children addressed their parents in a different language (Greek and French). In the Montessori preschool, some Chinese and Russian children did not speak English in the beginning, but the children would always find a way of communicating, and French was taught by a native speaker.

It wasn’t until my oldest started Kindergarten at 5 (the equivalent of the UK Reception or the German Vorschule), that the majority of the children around him spoke English, and only English. It was that year, my oldest in Kindergarten and the younger one in preschool, when the kids picked English as their main language of communication amoung them. I fought if for a while, but it was a lost battle. It was already hard enough for them to come home and tell me what happened at school in German, when they experienced it in English. (This sort of translation work is a challenge even for adults!) So when they relaxed, reenacted and played, they switched to English, unless it was a German board game or I was playing with them. Now, 3 years later, English is basically the only language they speak to each other, while still addressing me in German. It pains me sometimes, but there is not much I can do without forcing them. I console myself with the fact, that when they visit my family in Germany, for a couple of weeks a year, German becomes dominant again.

With the fact that practically every other child in school speaks a certain language, which is also the language of instruction, the national language becomes overwhelming. Not only in simple vocabulary and exposure, but socially and emotionally. A big part of the children’s life will be in one specific language and carry with it feelings and impressions, that are untranslatable.

Sooner or later, there will come a time, when children want to be like their peers. Speaking something different will become “uncool”. At this point, you might have to decide between your children telling you their feelings in the other language, because they are easily accessible there, or having them struggle to tell you or tell you less translated into your language. It is not something I am looking forward to!

So far, in our house, we have reached the following compromise: When we have a dinner conversation about the day, we will jump between languages. Depending on which parent asks the question, the kids will answer in that language and if the other parent wants details, he/she will ask in their language. This gives me the chance to rephrase some things they have told their dad in English and ask for more information. It’s a constant back and forth and has caused quite some headaches for our guests (even or especially if they could speak both languages), but the kids are used to it by now. This of course is only possible, because my husband has learned enough German (first through a college class, then by simply listening and growing with the kids) to keep the conversation flowing.

A funny side effect from the strict division of me only speaking German and my husband only English has been that my oldest son now insists that I only speak German to him and complains, if I address him in English. This causes some difficulties, when I try to do homework with him. So he reads the math problem in English, but we talk about the solution and calculate in German and then he retranslates his answer into English to write it down. At least for English spelling sentences, there is no translation anymore – that was close to ridiculous in the beginning! (Though one advantage of being bilingual with spelling exercises is that similar sounding words - like “there”, “their” and “they’re” – are easy to tell apart, since they translate as completely different words). I am not sure whether this approach of homework is sustainable, most other bilingual families I know do their homework in the school language! But for now, we are sticking with our method (and reading homework is done with their dad in English every night).

At some point, you will also have to decide if & when you want to teach your children to read and write in the other language. For us, since German and English share an alphabet, it was not that hard. I imagine if you want to teach Russian, Greek, Arabic or especially idiomatic languages like Japanese or Chinese, the efforts must be enormous.

When I taught my oldest son to read German, we used the long summer holiday when he had turned 5. At the time we lived in the US and had 3 months to work with. We started with the alphabet - how some letters are pronounced differently - and then moved on to whole words. The next summer, we read beginners’ books, which I had ordered from Germany. For my second son, the process was a bit faster, since he could already read English and understood the concept of letter-sound-word contraction. But it also meant he made more mistakes but having the default English sound of a letter stuck in his head. This summer, we will move on to books with him.

If you can’t imagine teaching you child how to read at home, have a look on the internet. Many areas have foreign language schools, often coupled with a religion (for Greek or Arabic) or Saturday schools (Korean school in the US and Turkish school in Germany come to mind), or as a parents’ initiative!

Monday, 25 January 2010

Bilingual Baby Steps - Just do it!

WHY would you want your child to speak with you in a language that is not the language of the country you live in and/or that your partner does not understand? Especially if this language is NOT one of the major world languages, not commonly used for trade or communication, shared with few people in the global world?

BECAUSE: Language is so much more than a means of communication. Languages is a maker of cultural and personal identity, it is part of you, if you grew up speaking it and will provide a deep emotional connection.

Along with language come worldviews, philosophies and identities, expressed for example in common sayings or metaphors. Certain cultural concepts only make sense in that language and are lost in translation. For example, “blue” has a different connotation in English (moody, sad) than in German (drunk), so even if it gets perfectly translated, the metalanguage is different.

If you want to transfer some of the values that you grew up with to you child, I am sure there are certain expressions that your parents used – would they have the same ring in the new language? Maybe, but more likely not. So if you want to share you childhood with your child (never mind your life philosophy), the best way would be with (and in) your childhood language, regardless of the “commercial usefulness” of your mother tongue.

So when should you start? Right away!

If you want to raise your child bi-lingually / bi-culturally, you should start at birth (if not earlier by communicating to you child in the womb). I spoke and sang only German to my children from the start. When we looked at picture books, I said the German word. Reading the same book with their dad, meant hearing that word in English.

If your child starts to speak, encourage it, even if it is the “other” language. Always be positive - but stick with your language! Thus my answer to a child saying “dog” would be “Ja, HUND!”, and not “Nein, Hund”. Acknowledge that they identified correctly, but make sure to provide the word you want it to use with YOU. At some point, if the child knows both words, but the other language is said first, you could ask “What does Mommy call it?”.

There is a common misconception that teaching two languages will delay your child’s speech development and often it is said that especially boys should learn one language first, since their linguistic abilities lag behind the girls. I can not stress enough how WRONG this is. I have two boys (one with a disability) and both developed their language skills at the same speed than other children. When my oldest had a problem with answering “Why?” he figured it out in German and English within 2 days – it was a cognitive problem, not a linguistic one! A Hungarian friend of mine in Germany has a handicapped child and was told from every professional she ever saw NOT to confuse the boy with two languages. She didn’t listen and now, even though he might never be able to read, the child understands and speaks German and Hungarian. (It also enabled her to connect with her child on a deeper emotional level while she was struggeling to come to terms with the diagnosis).

If you think you want to be on the safe side, not jeopardize language development and wait with the introduction of a second language until the children are older, consider this:

Most likely, if children are older, they will not speak the new language as a mother tongue, and, depending on their musicality, they might develop an accent. After the age of 6 months, children start to hear sounds selectively and shut out words with different sound patterns than their parents’ language. The ability to hear and therefore produce nuances (like the German Umlauts, the African clicks or the Chinese tonal heights) rapidly declines thereafter.

Starting to speak in a different language all of a sudden at a certain age will also probably be a shock to the child. It would be hard for them to understand why one parent will not speak ‘their’ common language anymore and the child might therefore refuse speaking the new words at all. In order to rationally understand the reasoning that you want them to learn a second language, the child would have to be quite a bit older (at least 7, I would assume) at the same time this is when window of ideal language acquisition is almost over.

For you, the ‘new’ native speaker, the discipline of breaking the habit of speaking to your children in the other language would have to be enormous. You would probably find yourself switching back often, if understanding is too slow or painful. That does not mean that you should not try, if you want to share your language with your child, but – for whatever reason – have not started yet. It just means it would be be a hard 6 months at least for the two of you, until you can converse in the new language and it would require a lot of discipline and patience for both parent and child.

Older children still can achieve native fluencey – they have a better shot at it then adults and obviously most people learn foreign languages when they are older.

Finally, there is never a guarantee that you children will be fluent in your language anyway: Just imagine your previously bi-lingual child hitting the teens and refusing to speak anything else than his/her peers… – but more about this in the next blog,

Raising Bilingual Children - Intro & Research

If you and your partner speak two different mother tongues or you live in a country that speaks another language than your family at home, you could give your children a great gift for life: two fluently spoken languages - BILINGUALISM!

There is plenty of research that suggests, children who learn a second language are more creative and better at solving complex problems. They develop meta-linguistic awareness (natural awareness of how language works), cognitive flexibility (since choosing between languages can develop a flexibility of thinking that can be applied to other problem solving areas) and social sensitivity early on. (Nursery World 07 May 2009) Studies at Goldsmith University in London showed that bilinguals outperform similar monolingual peers on both verbal and nonverbal tests of intelligence and tend to achieve higher scores on standardized tests (in secondary school), if their first language is supported alongside English.

In addition, individuals who speak more than one language have the ability to communicate with more people, read more literature, and benefit more fully from travel abroad and knowing a second language also gives people a competitive advantage in the workforce.

So academic talk aside, how do you raise bilingual children in today’s world?

There are basically two ways of raising bilingual children that almost always work: the one-parent-one-language approach and the home-vs-outside language evironment. Other options - like language 1 in the morning, language 2 in the afternoon or different languages on different days of the week (yes, I’ve met a family with this approach!) – tend to confuse the children more than encourage learning.

In our house, we have used the one-parent-one-language solution ever since the children were babies. I speak only German to the kids, my husband speaks only English. It just so happens that we have also lived in English speaking countries for their childhood so far, which nicely balanced out the fact that my husband is home less – so more German at home and English in the evenings with dad and during the day with others. If mom and environment speak the same language, dad will have a harder time to teach his language, if he is not home during the day.

For the rest of the blog, I will report from this perspective – teaching German in an English speaking environment - in order to avoid the constant “mother tongue or non-environmental language” vs. “local language or main environmental language”…

Raising children bilingually, requires a lot of discipline from the parent that does speak the local tongue – it is sometimes VERY tempting for me to slip into English, even if it is just the occasional word. Here are the main pitfalls I have discovered –

a) Using single English words in a German sentence, because I can’t think of the German quick enough or the English is less complicated (there are some REALLY long words in German, where the English has just a syllable or two)

b) Speaking to a friend / neighbor / colleague in English and inadvertently saying something to the child without switching

c) Being in a playgroup and separating a fight, having to speak English so that the other child (and mother!) understands that my child is being punished and has to apologize. Same goes for having house guests that do not speak German and to be polite speak English – and of course announce plans for the day or meal times in English so that everybody understands.

d) Having a spouse that does not speak your language and insists on his language to be spoken only when home. (Luckily that’s not the case in our household, but I know plenty where it is)

Some solutions that I have found to the above mentioned issues:

You need to really try to never let the other language creep in. Your mother tongue will deteriorate by itself ANYWAY - slowly over time, if you are not practicing with anybody else but your children. If you let foreign words take a hold, the mixing will accelerate and you (and your children) will end up speaking a mish-mash that’s incomprehensible to most people but you. So discipline is key and self-checks are recommended.

I have always made a point to tell friends, playgroups and relatives that I speak only German to my children, that it is not meant to offend, but that it is necessary for their language development. It would never say anything about them behind their back and if it concerns another child, I will say it in English, too. All of my friends have been very understanding of this issue, even though I imagine it must be hard at times, listening to me explaining something complicated in German to my son while they don’t understand a thing and wait patiently! When we have guests, I make sure that all important information is told in both languages, FIRST German, then English. (Even better, I tell the kids in German and they can go tell Grandma & Granddad in English.)

Coming up in the next blogs: Bilingual Baby Years & School Age, Tips and Trick to smuggle the second language into everyday life, how to deal with a doubtful / resistant partner & family!