Saturday, 20 February 2010

How hard can it be?

Raising a child bilingually is hard work. What I really mean is that it's much harder work than I'd ever have imagined when I set out on this journey in a rather naive mindset. There are those well meaning (?) half strangers who comment on how German has to be my daughters mother tongue because it's her mother's tongue. Wrong. You're so wrong.

Let's get real and analyse language exposure: Mummy speaks to Cubling in German. Mummy speaks to almost everyone else in English in the presence of Cubling. Daddy speaks English to Cubling. Mummy speaks English to Daddy. Childminder speaks English to Cubling. All her friends, granny and grampa, auntie and cousin speak English to Cubling. Yes, I do have German friends but because already most of Cubling's utterances are English (and even what passes as German to her still consists at least 60% of English words) even those German friends, who could speak German to her, often end up switching to English. Why? Because we're all living here and English is all our language of habit. Even my own dad and his partner, both hardly able to speak English, end up using English when speaking to her. It's driving me bonkers.

So, exposure to German is limited to direct communication from mummy to Cubling with very little else. We have some German language DVDs but because her TV exposure at the childminder is rather considerable, we don't tend to put them on a lot. This will change once she's at nursery in a few week's time.

The idea of letting her play with other bilingual children backfires because they just end up speaking English to each other. I don't blame them, if I can't get German adults who know about my intention to increase exposure to German to consistently speak German to her even if she answers back in English, how can I expect this of toddlers?

There are other reasons beside the lack of results why this whole endeavour is wearing me down. What bothers me most is that I find it difficult to keep up speaking German to her. My mindset is English. It's not my mother tongue, but I've always loved the language and I'm so used to speaking it at home, at work, in any context that it's an effort sticking to German. Raising a child bilingually to me is work. I feel like a teacher most times, as if family time is becoming an extension of work. Of course, parenting is "work" and whether we are trying to set a good expample with behaviour or speaking a second language, it is an effort. An effort which we know will be worth it in the end.

I keep thinking back of my time as an au-pair in Spain, where my job was to teach a 4-year old Spanish boy German. I played with him for 5 hours a day, he spoke Spanish, I repeated it in German and tried to engage him in a conversation - mostly without success. I really felt I wasn't making any progress and that he didn't listen to me. Yet at the end of the 6 months, suddenly, his German grammar improved and there was feedback from the German nursery that he'd progressed significantly. So I know that language development can be jumpy and takes, above all, a lot of patience.

And yet, had I known it would be so hard, I wonder if I'd ever embarked on this adventure. Now that it's been such an effort, there's no way I'm going to give up on it.

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Very Bored in Catalunya said...

Don't give up, as you say she will improve and as you told me they go through stages and patches where they are just computing it all and trying to figure it all out. You are giving her such a gift. xx

Not From Lapland said...

it is hard, isn't it? I think we have it slightly easier in that my husband and I speak only English to each other but my kids still speak 80% Finnish. But they understand what i am saying and I think that is the main thing. they will, when ready, be able to speak English because they know the words through listening to me

TEFL Ninja said...

Well it is certainly more of an uphill struggle than I thought it would be.

I just assumed that although Italian got more exposure the English would slot in via osmosis..or something.

I ended up having to make a very firm line in the sand at about 4/5 yo that he and I spoke English to each other like it or lump it.

There were a few hissy fits along the way.

Plus tussles over the enjoyment level of Power Rangers in Italian versus the English I held out for.

He'll thank me when he is 35.

Or whinge to his shrink about how linguistically oppressive I was LOL.

Sarah - British home educating mum to a mini Italian nationalist, aged 9, in deepest darkest Lomellina.

Anonymous said...

And I'm with you - it is bloody hard, much harder than you would expect and anyone who isn't doing it thinks it should be a doddle (and don't they just drive you mad?)- don't give up, don't set your standards by other people's standards and just treat it like anything else child related - ie they are all different and each bilingual child will develop at his or her own pace - I thought my kids would be equally Italian and British (how naive was that??) but they are Italian (although my youngest will always supports Wales over Italy in a rugby match - Welsh relatives on my side)- with an English Mum, Italian father and Canadian step father and it seems to me now that they are just taking/getting the best of it all - don't worry about your little one's German - she will work it all out - but Good Luck anyway!!

smashedpea said...

Heh, did you steal my thoughts? :)
Been there, done that, and occasionally I end up back there... I just can't seem to help it.

We're in the same boat in terms of how much German exposure our assorted kids get, so yeah, I know the frustration. Maybe it helps you to know that my eldest really only started speaking German back to me when she was 3 1/2, I put my foot down, and she understood that I ment business. Until then, she understood German, but mainly just spoke English... The little one at just over 2 1/2 speaks a ton more English than German at this point, but I'm hoping he'll follow suit with what his big sister is doing. I don't think he's actually able to seperate both languages cleanly just yet, so even if he wanted to, I'm not sure he'd be able to speak just one language.

Being patient is hard, but hang in there! With time, she'll hopefully get there!

Mwa said...

That must be so hard. We are having a relatively easy time of it, but with the second language being English, it's much easier. There's just much more exposure, even in Belgium. We got CBEEBIES especially, and the children are allowed to watch it a few times a week. We also import a lot of English children's books. Every night, they are read those books. It's hard work, but I'm sure it will pay off in the end.

Zoe @ Playing by the book said...

I'm so sorry to hear what a hard time you're having with raising cubling with two languages. Our situation is very similar in some senses (except it'd Dad who speaks Dutch, where the community language is English) , and yet, to be honest I've found it so easy, and wonderful and delightful to see my kids really becoming bilingual. Please don't take this as any sort of attack on your situation - I want to support you, not undermine you, but I also want others to know that raising a kid bilingually can be VERY easy. We've done nothing special. Like you we have some DVDs and CDs in Dutch, but otherwise the only Dutch input the girls get is from their Dad (we've been to the Netherlands just twice in 5 years). And yet, and yet, our 5 year old is pretty damn near fluent in Dutch (got a cute Brummie accent, but that's just the way it is!). Don't know how that works, but it does. And it's been so easy and fun for us. I really hope it becomes easier and more enjoyable for you.

TEFL Ninja said...


I think you need to factor in the emotional context of being the primary care-giver whose native toungue is the minority language and how that colours conclusions and outlook.

My husband is thrilled with our son's English (the minority language), has found the whole process a walk in the park and thinks the Pavese accent, when son speaks English, is really rather delightful.

Not surprising since

) The bulk of the pressure in getting to that place wasn't on him.

2) He doesn't have to live with the possibility of somebody from back home slipping into a judgmental stance or dropping clangers that knock the kids confidence for six

3) Concerns in terms of linguistic equality aren't an up close and personal issue for him.

I'm sure I would find this as easy and as stress free as he did if the chips I were betting weren't made up of the potential for my being forever perceived via a filter of "foreign" by my own son and the lack of a shared level playing field in terms of linguistic capacity/cultural references when to comes to parent/child communication.

There isn't exactly a shortage of voices declaring that it is a walk in the park. Most people, from mainstream educators to the man on the street, leap to the conclusion that it is damn near an automatic process of acquisition and failure to achieve bilingualism, in its most complete form, is automatically evidence of something near to willful, "linguistic" parental neglect.

What this post underlined was how that universal "tra lah lah - easy peasy" assumption often hampers the confidence of parents and leads them to both downgrade their successes and over emphasize what they perceive as their failure, given that by and large it is neither as easy nor as automatic as they were led to expect.

I think, by drawing attention to this issue, she made an incredibly positive contribution in terms of knocking down some of the mythology and made it easier for parents to recognize that any struggles they have are not isolated to just them and in fact tend to be part and parcel.

Zoe @ Playing by the book said...

Hi Sarah,

Hear, hear is all I can say to your comments. But I just wanted to through in some good happy vibes as I've met SO many families who didn't even attempt to bring up their kids bilingually, and who now regret it, because all they heard was how difficult it is to bring up a child with more than one language.

Zoe @ Playing by the book said...

oops I meant "throw".... (sometimes I wish I could claim English was my second language!)

cartside said...

Thanks everyone for sharing your experiences and also for a bit of a debate! Maybe I'm expecting a bit much from a 2 year old and it'll all fall into place at some point. Children are clever, they know which language gets them places and Cubling is already making these choices. On the plus side, she understands German perfectly and is not reluctant, just lazy, to speak it. A bit like me. It is harder than I thought, but of course I'd make the same choice again. Having two languages is such an asset, it's definitely worth it!

Petra said...

I just found your blog, and am in a very similar situation to you (only in Australia) - and what you said is so true especially that it is hard work to bring up children bilingual and everybody around you thinks it is easy. But keep at it! My son (5 years) is now listening to german stories on CDs before he goes to bed (and loves them) but still doesn't talk a lot of German outside of home.

Lauren Wayne said...

Thanks for the honesty! It's feeling like an especial slog to me right now, because I'm trying to raise my 2-year-old bilingually as a non-native speaker of German, and speaking German is hard for me. I keep defaulting to English, particularly when I get myself in over my head in terms of the vocab or grammar or idioms I need to express something in particular (like "put down that blowtorch!" lol). I want to keep at it, but I also want to hear when other people are struggling — because then I don't feel so alone! Thank you for sharing your story.

Yara said...

Do I ever agree!!!!! Like you, I am the main person that speaks the "other" language (Spanish, everyone else English) and for some reason I thought the only thing I needed to do was speak Spanish to my son and voilĂ !! Ermmm, not. The truth is, just like many of the aspects of raising a child, it's not easy. Especially when the exposure and the work of teaching rests on only one person!
It can get very discouraging but Spanish is part of his culture, of who he is. So I but every and any toy and books in Spanish, watch TV in Spanish and I make an effort to get together
with Spanish speaking friends and their kids. He is only two but he does understand both languages.
I speak Spanish to him everywhere, regardless if the other people speak it or not.
I have a 3 months daughter too, so I hope they speak Spanish to each other.

BabalDad said...

I'm not sure why, but the pendulum swings the other way for me. I often end up speaking German to _all_ children, even those you clearly are English only.

Freaks them out.



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