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!.