Thursday, 28 April 2011

We're not good with languages, or are we?

Every language teacher knows that motivation is key to language learning. It works on so many levels - why do we want to learn a language, how strong is our need for being able to speak the language?

If I got a pound for every time I heard someone in the UK say "we're not good with languages in the UK it's a shame, isn't it" I'd be rich. You see, it's simply not true. There is no country or nationality that is "not good" with languages. We're all pretty much the same on average and can learn second, third or seventh languages. The only thing that makes a difference in success in language learning is motivation.

In the UK, the general motivation for learning languages is low. This is not shameful at all, it's a fact. The main trade partner is the USA. English is the language of the world, of the internet, it's the lingua franca in many countries. It's a fact of life that you can get by speaking English only, so there's no real motivation to learn another language. On top of that, there is limited exposure to other languages, this being an island surrounded by water not other countries.

Compare this to my childhood. We had TV from Belgium in French and Flemish. Pop music in English. I listened to BFBS because near us were a good few British army bases and I thought British radio was the best thing since sliced bread. My best friend was Spanish, and there was an Italian, Turkish and Polish girl in my class. I grew up only 100 km away from Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg. We went on holiday to Spain and Yugoslavia (Croatia now). Languages were everywhere.

So, my motivation to learn languages was high. The motivation in the UK to learn additional languages is low. I knew the theory. My daughter is the reality: Surrounded by media in English, people in English and with a mum who loves English and now speaks it more fluently than German, why on earth should she be motivated to learn/speak German? She knows that mummy speaks English too, so there's really no need to speak German. There's a need to understand mummy, so that works well. But speak? You must be kidding.

Hence I came up with a 10 point plan. And the idea of a longish trip to Germany without Mr Cartside.
Interestingly, Cubling started speaking fluent German as soon as we arrived in Germany. Just not to me. It was hilarious, after 4 years of hard work, she was giving me the cold shoulder linguistically. She spoke German to Opa, his partner, all my friends and all German children and blissfully lapsed back into English when she met E., another bilingual child who lives near London (and who incidentally understands German perfectly but doesn't speak it). Need I say that they bonded instantly although they'd not met before?

Upon our return, Cubling told me that I now need to speak English because all around us people speak English too. How observant. How true. How impossible to argue with.

Yet we've made a breakthrough. Cubling now realises that German is useful and that there are people who do not speak English too (like mummy). That there are children who speak German (I still remember the lightbulb moment when she watched a German TV programme and she saw children speaking German - before, all our TV time had been German animation).

And, amazingly, she now speaks much more German to me than before. She no longer rejects it and is much more compliant repeating sentences in German when she gets carried away speaking English. I've even heard her role playing with dolls in German.

Creating real motivation and needs to speak the minority language is crucial, and I think this is particularly the case if you live in an English speaking country because children will pick up that English is such an important and useful language. It is always hard supporting the minority language, but it's even harder in an English speaking country.

German, in Cubling's mind, is still "the other" language, which becomes apparent when she refers to children who are bilingual as "German" even if they are French, Lithuanian, or Urdu speakers. Yet she also shows a definite interest in other languages, asking me if I speak them and wanting to learn a few phrases. This in itself is to be celebrated, this early curiosity and interest in languages if nothing else.

There is something else though: The two weeks in Germany have renewed my motivation to continue with our bilingual home. Nothing compares to all of a sudden hear your child speak the minority language almost perfectly. I'm one proud mama.


Mwa said...

We used to have this problem. Now my husband pretends not to understand Dutch. He does, and the children know he does, but they can't get a thing out of him (not even a response) if they don't speak English to them. The transition took a single day and we haven't had a complaint from them since.

cartside said...

@Mwa, I now feel I could do this too. Before I wasn't sure she could actually speak German well enough for this strategy. How do you deal with mixed up sentences though? She does use some German words when talking to me, and claims that this is German. And it is more German than her normal speech. Would your husband ignore those sentences too or accept them as (in your case) English?

Chasing Rainbow said...

Even though Canada is's not easy to truly become bilingual. Living in the English speaking part of Canada is frustrating at times. I can truly identify with your article.

I'm just starting over again and hope to learn from my mistakes with my older children.
Have a great week.

Cordelia Rojas said...

Very inspiring. and so true. Has actually planted a seed for me.. perhaps I'll get it written for next carnival. I really enjoyed this. Thanks!

smashedpea said...

I'm doing the same thing - pretending to not understand the kids' English I mean. Maybe I should, but I don't always correct their mixing 100% - but mostly I do by asking them, usually with humour, what they are talking about. They often know the German word, and when they don't, I tell them.

But it's a fine line between giving them new words or ensuring they say things in a way a monolingual speaker could understand, and making them all self-conscious or disliking German by correcting them all the time...

Our transition to this lasted a lot longer than a day, but now both kids have bought into it (fingers crossed they won't change their mind any time soon!) and talk to me in German (most of the time).

Busy as a Bee in Paris said...

beautifully written i couldn't agree with u more! all we can do to create that motivation for our polyglot tots! and for us!



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