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 cafĂ© 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!