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.


  1. This is interesting to read, because it shows how much depends on the region you live in! My family is from Arkansas and we live in Southern England about an hour from London, so we have pretty opposite experiences from you in Chicago and Northern England.

    In our part of England, there are tons of multilingual families and even a sizable community of our language (Czechs and Slovaks). There are a couple of groups for families meeting regularly or semi-regularly and everybody knows of each other. I bump into people in the coffee shop or on the playground and meet with a couple of friends so the little ones can play. Outside of just the CZ/SK community, in the neighborhood playgroups I go to, I've been to sessions where we were all foreigners of different types.

    I remember at one of the early ones I attended getting into a conversation with a Portuguese mom about her British mother-in-law who was afraid the child would never learn English blah blah blah...and noticing that a couple of other moms were edging closer and closer. At first I thought, they must be intrigued by our bizarre conversation topic - then I noticed they were all speaking other languages, too!

    By contrast, in Arkansas you very rarely hear languages other than occasionally Spanish. We attract big attention when we go out in public. There isn't a community of our language to be close or loose knit, though this would of course be different in different parts of the country (like Chicago).

    People in both countries are generally encouraging about oh yay, you're bilingual, but for us it is more 'mainstream' in the UK, because so many people around us are bilingual (or more - Kyrgyz or Romanian married to German), too. In neither country do people recognize what language we're speaking, but then we speak a less common language than German. I'm still trying to process that "I don't read Spanish" comment! Hard for me to believe - though I know it's true in USA especially.

    Overall, really interesting post, thanks!

  2. Interesting!

    We live in a very multicultural place (I think close to half the population was not born here), so everyone else, almost anyway, is at least bilingual, too. I feel quite lucky to be in such circumstances, as I think it makes bilingualism much more normal for the kids and they hopefully don't feel like the odd one out when we speak German in public :) I like that they hear many of their friends speak other languages with their parents and hope it helps them understand and/or accept their own bilingualism.

    Oh, I've been coming here for a while, probably through Google Alerts initially :)