Growing up bilingual

    Spotlight 3/2018
    bilingual, beach
    © Martin Haake
    Von Dagmar Taylor

    Growing up in Scotland with a German mother and a Scottish father, I could have been bilingual, but I’m not. I remember quite clearly at about the age of four being afraid that I wouldn’t be able to speak English when I went to school. So I simply stopped answering my mother in German, even though I could understand what she was saying. She, in turnwiederumin turn, found it increasingly difficult to speak German to her very stubbornstörrisch, eigensinnigstubborn toddlerKleinkindtoddler. Although I’ve lived in Germany for more than 20 years now, although I speak German fluently and understand almost everything I read and hear, I feel much more comfortable speaking English. Because of this difference in the fluency with which I use both languages, I do not consider myself to be bilingual. Today, I am the mother of two bilingual children who are happy to read, listen and speak either English or German and can readilyleicht, ohne Weiteresreadily switch from one language to the other. I have to admit, I brought them up bilingually not only because they would have clear advantages in later life; I did it for myself, too. I wanted to speak to my children in the language I was funnier and more confident in. I also to figure (N. Am. ifml.)annehmen, vermutenfigured that bringing up my kids bilingually was going to be a lot easier — and more interesting — than memorizing German declensionDeklinations-declension tables in order to achieve a near native-speaker level myself.


    For and against

    The only scepticism with which we met came from my husband’s parents, who were worried that their grandson would be confused or, worse still, not be able to speak German by the time he had to start school. They soon saw that this wasn’t the case, and they even learned a few English words themselves. Although my children are hardly ever confused and never speak Denglish — a mixture of Deutsch and English — some funny situations do occur from time to time. Once, when we were on holiday in Italy, my son said to his sister: “Look! There’s an eagleAdlereagle!” My daughter saw her brother pointing up to the sky and immediately replied, “Sei doch nicht blöd! Igel können nicht fliegen.

    Often there is a concernSorge, Befürchtungconcern that children being brought up to speak two or more languages will be confused, or that their language development might be delayed. Studies have shown, however, that rather thananstattrather than confusing the two languages, bilingual children have better cognitive skills because their brains quickly get used to managing two languages. These cognitive skills have an impactEinflussimpact on the part of the brain responsible for activities such as high-level thought, multitasking and sustainedausdauerndsustained attention. Because bilingual people have to switch between two languages, they are likely to be better at switching between different tasks, too — even if the tasks are not of a linguistic nature.


    The approachMethode, Vorgehensweiseapproach

    How does one bring up bilingual children, then? My husband and I decided to adopt English as our family language, which meant that when the four of us are together, we all speak English. My husband is happy with this arrangement. He feels comfortable speaking English, having studied in the States for three years, and it is the language we have always spoken together anyway. When my husband is alone with the children, they speak German. When we are together with people who don’t speak English, we all speak German. This seems to have worked for us, and we’ve been able to stick to it. We felt it was important to have both a plan and an agreement, and to be consistent.

    There isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach, however. I have spoken to other families who are bringing up bilingual children in order to find out which approach they have used and what their experiences have been.


    Family language planning

    Harriet, from England, and her German husband, Jens, have two children: 19-year-old Alex and 17-year-old Cara. The couple didn’t really have a plan for bringing up the children bilingually. It was more intuitive, explains Harriet.

    “I always spoke English to them, and Jens always spoke German to them, even when the four of us were together. We didn’t have any sort of rule about a family language at all,” Harriet told me. “I’d say that for the first three and a half years, until they went to kindergarten, their mother tongue was definitely English. Although we spoke a mixture of German and English when the four of us were together, they still managed to to distinguishunterscheiden, auseinanderhaltendistinguish, and they knew that German was his language and English was my language.”

    Sometimes Harriet found it quite challenging to be consistent, especially when her daughter started speaking to her in German: “As soon as Cara went to kindergarten, she stopped speaking English — instantlysofort, auf der Stelleinstantly, really. She didn’t have anything against English, but she realized that everyone around her was speaking German.” Harriet said that she never to forbidverbietenforbade Cara to speak German, but she spoke English to her daughter regardlesstrotzdemregardless, knowing that Cara could understand her. Being patient and enthusiastic, and not prescriptivevorschreibend, zwingendprescriptive, to pay offsich auszahlen, sich lohnenpaid off.

    Harriet says both children are definitely happy that they’re bilingual, or as good as. The children’s fluency is different, however: “Cara read lots of English: she read all the Harry Potters in English. Her written English and her reading are better, although it’s difficult to compare. Alex never read English books and never wrote English, while Cara sometimes writes poems in English. Alex’s spoken English is better, though, and he has less of an accent. Cara has quite an accent. It’s not exactly a German one, but it’s not English either.”


    Who is bilingual?

    Harriet says she isn’t sure that her children are actually bilingual. “Truly bilingual kids have two parents who speak the same language. Jens has a cousin who emigrated to Norway when the kids were two and six, and I would say that they are far more bilingual because both parents are German. German is their family language, whereas we didn’t have a family language.” Harriet is not the only person who isn’t sure what being bilingual actually means. Even linguists can’t agree. Language experts Edith Harding and Philip Riley have written a book on bilingual families. It to concludezum Schluss kommenconcludes that “bilingualism is not a black-and-white, all-or-nothing phenomenon; it is a more-or-less one”.


    One person, one language

    Lara grew up in Montana, in the United States, and now lives in Munich together with her German husband, André, and their two bilingual children, Vincent (10) and Jessie (13). The children feel comfortable speaking both English and German. Lara to opt for sth.sich für etw. entscheiden, etw. wählenopted for the OPOL approach. OPOL, which stands for “one person, one language”, is probably the best-known language strategy used by parents bringing up bilingual children. “My husband would speak German, and I would speak English with the kids, so that they learned our mother tongues,” Lara told me. “André says the kids are growing up trilingually — with Bavarian, too. It’s not confusing, but you end up discussing language more than most families. You come up with a word or a referenceBemerkungreference, and you say: ‘Oh, what would that be ... in Bavarian?’”


    Support in the community

    When Lara’s daughter was about 18 months old and started answering her mother in German when they were at the playground, Lara thought it would be a good idea to find some English-speaking playmateSpielkamerad(in)playmates for Jessie. Lara explained what it felt like: “I’m speaking my language, and my child is answering me in a foreign language. Not only does everyone look at you strangely at the playground; it feels as if you are losing part of your child, yourself, your family. So I wanted to support my daughter more in that way and have her see that it’s not just Mommy’s special language, but that many people speak English, and there are many types of English.” Taking her toddler to the English- speaking playgroup at the local family centre and meeting other native speakers helped Lara overcome any sense of homesicknessHeimwehhomesickness. “It connected me to a little home away from home, and it was really wonderful to raise a baby in that context. I mean, I had no experience. Who does?”

    Later, together with the parents she met at the playgroup, Lara went on to start a bilingual kindergarten. She still goes to the family centre, too, just not with her kids; she now helps to runhier: leiten, führenrun it. Today, the family centre organizes playgroups in ten different languages. Lara explained why she thinks these groups are so important in the community:

    “The language groups don’t serve to isolate populations. There is a synergyZusammenspiel, Zusammenwirkensynergy of people helping each other out. Even though they do speak their own language, it’s as much about people integrating as to segregatetrennen, sich absondernsegregating, because of that common language. There’s a real need to have these types of groups in cities now.”

    Lara still tries to include her children in some kind of bilingual activity in whatever form it is available. “Right now, it’s American Scouts for both of them, so that they speak to native English speakers. And they go to weekend summer camps and things like that,” she told me. “For me, it was also important that they had a secure identity where they are and don’t feel like foreigners in their own home.”


    Multilingualism in Quebec

    Donna and Steve live in Montreal, Canada, and have two young daughters: Stella, who is seven, and Phoebe, three. Donna grew up speaking Greek at home, whereas Steve spoke Italian with his family. Donna’s mother tongue is Greek, and the main language she uses is English, having learned and spoken it at an English-speaking school. Living in the province of Quebec, however, where French is the official language, she also needs to be to be proficient in sth.etw. beherrschenproficient in French. Even so, she is to be hesitant to do sth.etw. nur zögernd tunhesitant to call herself multilingual: “It all depends how perfectly one has to speak in order to consider oneself fluent enough. Greek and English would be my mother tongues, and French would be my third language, I would say.”

    Donna and Steve speak to their daughters in English. The girls understand some Greek and learn French at school. “Stella picked it up within months. She speaks better French than I do now,” Donna told me. “Children grow up thinking that bilingualism, or even multilingualism, is normal because there’s such a strong multicultural community in most of North America — and especially here, where we live, in Montreal.” Donna and Steve decided that speaking English with their children would be more natural for the family, because that was the language the couple spoke together. “I felt that if I had spoken to the girls only in Greek, which doesn’t come as naturally to me any more, their vocabulary in English would have been limited and quite poor,” Donna said.


    Positive reinforcement

    As with the other families I talked to, it was most important that we as a family all saw the approach we adopted as natural and comfortable. What helped me bring up my children bilingually was access to English books and television programmes, as well as positive reinforcementpositive Bestärkung, Zuspruchpositive reinforcement from other people. “Oh, you’re bilingual! You speak English. That’s wonderful!” they would say. I also reached out to other bilingual families for support and made use of bilingual establishments whenever possible, such as the preschoolKindergarten, Vorschulepreschool my son attended for three years. Today, the big advantage for me is that I can ask my children to help me fix the articles in my German e-mails, and they enjoy correcting me.

    I asked my son and daughter whether they thought there were any disadvantages to speaking two languages. My daughter said that she sometimes confused words, like the time she confused “butterfly” and “Schmetterling” and said “butterling”. My son said that sometimes when he needs a word in German, he can think of it only in English. So I asked him what he does when that happens. He replied, in true teenager style, “I don’t use that word.”

    Both my children definitely enjoy being bilingual. I asked them what they thought was the best thing about it. My son gave me a curious look and replied, “Being able to speak two languages.”


    What non-bilingual families can do

    If English isn’t your first language, and you don’t feel confident enough to bring up your child bilingually, you might still want to consider to exposehier: in Kontakt bringenexposing your child to English from an early age. By giving children access to an additional language when they are young, you give them the opportunity to use their natural ability to hear and distinguish the sounds of other tongues. Children to benefitprofitierenbenefit from experimenting with a second language as a natural part of their development, and they don’t feel inhibitedgehemmtinhibited by a fear of making mistakes.

    First of all, make a realistic plan. You can to designatebestimmendesignate certain times of the day as “English time”. You can listen to songs and nursery rhymeKinderlied, Kinderreimnursery rhymes together at bath time or in the car, for example. It’s important to be consistent, so that the child can associate a certain time or situation with English. If you are patient, playful and enthusiastic, the children will enjoy singing and speaking English as well as listening to it.

    Later, you can read books together, listen to longer stories and watch children’s TV shows. It has never been easier to access foreign language media on the internet, through on-demand streaming services and also in your local library. These resources will lend invaluable support to you and your child.

    If you have older children, you might want to consider having regular English film nights with the whole family. Let the children choose the film. Activities that are led by the child encourage authentic and meaningful communication and support language development. In exposing your child to English, it makes sense to apply the same rules as bilingual families find helpful: have a practical plan, be enthusiastic but realistic and, most importantly, be patient.


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