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!

1 comment:

  1. I love languages and found this fascinating reading! Some very old friends of mine are German (Renate) and Scottish (Ian) and their children grew up not only speaking both English and German but also with wonderful accents that were a combination of both parents'.

    Their son and his Japanese girlfriend have recently had a baby daughter and I'm sure she will sound equally delightful when she begins to speak! Especially as Nick works for Save The Children and they are currently living in Sierra Leone.