Monday, 21 June 2010

The bilingual home - our set up and daddy's role

On our bilingual journey I've so far focussed on Cubling and the minority language input, i.e. how her German is coming along. Because, to be fair, that's the difficult bit - her English is blossoming. And in response to Little M. question over at Mummy's Busy World in his bilingual corner, I thought it might be time to look at the bilingual household from the perspective of the non-bilingual member.

And of course I have to clarify from the outset that this is not quite the correct label for Mr Cartside, aka daddy. He is not monolingual - he speaks German though not fluently, but it's great in our little world because it does mean that when I speak German to Cubling, he doesn't feel totally excluded. So how does it all come together? Well, Mr Cartside and I always speak English with one another. No exceptions. I came to this country as a German teacher and I simply refused to perform that job at home as well as at work. So although Mr Cartside was a willing learner, I wasn't a willing teacher, and our pattern of communication is English only.

With Cubling being born, I found it really difficult being consistent with speaking German to her. In a one way communication, it's so easy to slip. I persisted, but it was hard work, especially because I used to be an au pair and all the baby vocabulary in my head was firmly Spanish and English, and definitely not German (e.g. I had to think about the German word for dummy...). But Mr Cartside heard me speak German, simple German. He listened to Cubling starting to speak simple German or a mix. His own assessment is that his German, particularly passive comprehension, has improved significantly - so he got something out of our bilingual household too! And for me, it does actually keep my German reasonably alive: I'm no longer a German teacher and don't get much opportunity to read, speak, write or listen to German, so my bilingual mission for Cubling is good for keeping my own language up too.

Quite early on, Mr Cartside also picked up German children's books. The nice thing about children's books is that they are so simple. Ideal for learning a language, just that normally you wouldn't be seen dead with them. Not so if your excuse is your adorable daughter. So while we do have a general distinction between Mummy and Daddy books, Daddy will sometimes read Mummy books in German, and Mummy will read easy Daddy books in instant translation. Those books are known as Mummy and Daddy books in our home.

Occasionally I will direct German sentences in the context of speaking to Cubling, to Mr Cartside and expect a German or English answer from him. While this may not be strict in terms of OPOL (one parent one language), I think it is useful in demonstrating that we aren't just monolinguals, but we all understand each other's language. It shows another use for German too (and I've also taught her some Spanish when in Spain, and she loves trying it out on people - she definitely gets that people can speak many and different languages).

I still feel that the ideal situation for supporting bilingualism would be if we spoke German at home - that would almost give a 50%/50% input of either language: English at nursery, German at home, English with Daddy, German with Mummy, one parent group English, another German. Where we fall short is the German at home (it's effectively English) and the German parent group which I simply don't have time for.

Our bilingual set up favours English, and English is the community language. OPOL has to be artificial because Cubling hears me speak to almost everyone in English. She knew from the word go that mummy can speak English, so of course she'll not worry too much about addressing me in English. I honestly don't think I can pretend not to understand her if she speaks English to me - she's not daft. I often don't even notice which language she uses. Her bilingualism mirrors how we ourselves favour English over German.

We've considered occasionally if we should introduce something like one hour a day where we speak German in the home, to support the minority language a bit better and provide additional context for the language. This would be particularly useful because I feel that the German input from my side is very biassed towards repetitive instructions, dealing with tired behaviour etc, rather than creative and open. The pitfall of a working mum who mostly sees her child tired at the end of the day. Mr Cartside feels ready for this now, because listening to me speak German to Cubling for over three years now, he feels more confident in the language himself.

And here's a little gem of a misunderstanding: When on an Easter egg treasure hunt, we had to find a coin in a particular room of a historic building. Coin is "Muentze" in German, so I asked Cubling if she could find a "Muentze" anywhere in the room. Excitedly she pointed at a painting with a lady on a horse. My confusion was soon resolved as she exclaimed: "Da is the Muetze!" (There is the hat!) The lady was indeed wearing a hat. Clever girl.

Thanks to Mr Cartside for providing his views on all of this, which I hope I've rendered correctly. If not, feel free to set me right in a comment xxx



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