Saturday, 25 April 2009

one child - two languages

It's really a very special feeling to hear Cubling speak two languages. It was always a no brainer that she would be brought up bilingually, even if I hadn't been in an obvious bilingual situation. I love languages, always have. When I was a pre schooler, I used to watch a German pre school programme. The jingle at the start was repeated in a different language every time. I loved guessing the language and got good at it, being right most of the time. At primary school, I made my Spanish friend teach me Spanish, and in secondary jumped at the opportunity to learn English, then French and finally, my ever favourite Spanish. My first trip that I picked and went on without my parents was to England at 15. I fell in love with the country, King Arthur, Duran Duran and Nik Kershaw. I went as far as speaking English to my best friend after school just to get more fluent. It was rather bizarre, but I followed it all up with further trips to England, then Ireland, being an au pair in Ireland and Spain, university exchanges, and finally getting a job in Glasgow. On the way I added to my foreign languages and learned some Russian, lots of Irish Gaelic and Latin, Dutch, Catalan and Italian. Turkish and Arabic are on my wish list but for the moment postponed.

Growing up with more than one language, to me, is an incredible asset.

So when Cubling was on the way I read up a bit about bilingualism and raising bilingual children, to get it right. I wasn't impressed with the available literature. There isn't much and even the internet didn't offer much useful information. The accepted recommendation is to either split languages according to person (one person speaks one language, another person speaks the other) or to have one home language and use the other language outside the home.

Both approaches are inappropriate for our circumstances, we don't live in worlds perfect for bilingual language acquisition. My beloved, though able to speak German, isn't proficient enough for us to have German as a home language. While I attempt to speak German to Cubling whenever possible, it is simply not always possible. For instance, my mummy friends are almost exclusively English speaking. When we meet up, Cubling hears me speak English, hears me address other children in English, and often hears me address her in English because I don't want the other mums or children feel excluded. Similarly when we spend the weekends with Cubling's cousin, she hears me speak English to everyone except her. I also don't think it's helpful for her to hear me speak English to my beloved, or indeed to hear me struggle to find the German word for yet another thing that is just not coming back to me.

A Spanish friend of mine in Germany is in a similar situation, in spite all her efforts of speaking Spanish only to her first daughter, encountered resistance because it wasn't useful beyond speaking with mummy. The girl ended up refusing to speak Spanish and telling her mum to stop that nonsense.

Aware of this issue, and after some recommendations from the new Edinburgh based project Bilingualism Matters, I was keen to ensure additional situations where German was used in Cubling's life, to increase exposure to German and her perception of its usefulness. First, I joined the German Kinderclub. The drawback of this club was it's location across the city and the timing of its meetings. It meant that I lost a full Saturday every other week for 2 hours of unstructured play with mostly older kids (who would speak English amongst themselves while mums spoke German amongst themselves - interestingly, it seems that the expat German/Austrian/Swiss is always the woman). There wasn't much meaningful exposure, at least not enough to make this long trip worthwhile. It has to be said though that the celebration of German style festivals is an important aspect of the club and I will stay connected with it.

I also tried to organise a German speaking mum and toddler group closer to home. To be honest, it was ambitious and I got as far as getting the contacts, but not as far as hosting it regularly. Why? Well, I work 4 full days a week, and time is ever short. Weekends are family time for most, and dividing Fridays up between 2 toddler groups and all my friends is bound to fail.

Thankfully, I have a good German friend with a child the same age as Cubling. We see each other regularly so there is at least some non-mummy German input. Not a lot, but much better than nothing. So trips to Germany are important and we decided this time that only Cub
Publish Post
ling and I would go, to ensure that she would get maximum exposure to German. I came back with lots of heavy books and DVDs in my rucksack, in the hope that they'll be more fun than some of the English books and keep Cubling hooked on German. Effectively that means that I'm very generous with letting her watch German TV (while I know that watching TV in itself does not promote language development, the idea is to create a positive association with the weaker language), some may of course call this approach bribery.

If you have any experience of raising bilingual children that you would like to share, please do, I'm keen to hear your stories!


Irish Mammy said...

Hi there

Your Blog title is really funny because right now when I make a mistake (yes mommies can do that do) ie spill a carton of milk...or scream when my expensive foundation is being rubbed into cream little (almost) 2 year old boy says "Mammy do that" and when he is bold (spills his dinner on the floor) he says 'me do that'.

Anyway, my husband is Swedish I am Irish. We are trying the method whereby my husband and his family speak exclusively in Swedish and as he lives in Dublin and I am Irish he gets English from me and his surroundings. He so far understands everything in Swedish (and English) but responds in English. He will repeat the correct response in Swedish when prompted to do so. We talked to some other parents who said that it takes perserverance and at around 3- 4 years of age you have to start insisting they reply to you in the correct language ie English for me, Swedish for my husband.
We also introduce Swedish via DVDs and books. However if given a choice he will go for the English version, so we have to try to balance what he sees and what bed time stories he hears.

All the best
Irish Mammy

hobblogs said...

I have enough of a headache working out the learning balance between UK English and USA English!

mumof4 said...

I was an au-pair over in German where the kids were being raised with German-English (the dad was English). The little girl saw speaking English as a bonding thing with her dad. The little boy understood everything but refused to speak it. Don't think it was embarrassment, just almost a young rebellion. Still, the house remained multi lingual and it was decided to overlook his reluctance.
When people were aroud who only spoke English, then we heard him have to use his very good language skills. But apparently this is quite common but as long as there is exposure to the weaker language then they are still going to absorb it. Sounds like you have a very good approach - especially as she is mixing with other adults and hearing them speak Deutsch...

cartside said...

Mumof4 - your comment reminds me of my own time as an aupair. My "job" was to teach a 4 year old German, in Spain - family didn't speak a word of German, but he went to a German nursery and later to the German school. It was slow progress, though he was never as such reluctant. I recently found out that he completed the German school so even without having the direct link and bonding, and starting after the age of 3, it can be done.

smashedpea said...

Heh, I love how you find OPOL and mlh impractical, too :) We try to do the OPOL thing as much as possible, but sometimes there's just no point.

Hope it works out anyway!

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