Mother Tongues Stories
"Un cane da wohnt vicino Haus"
or the funny side of bilingual parenting
Years ago, at university when I was studying speech therapy, I attended a class about bilingualism. We had to read different research papers on bilingualism and presented the outcomes to the group, and I thought it would be nice to have some not research-based insights, too. Thus, I asked the boyfriend of one of my friends who grew up in Columbia and studied in Munich to come to one of the lessons. He was the perfect example for our bilingual studies: his mother was Chinese, his father German, they both spoke their mother tongue to him and his siblings, in school everything was taught through Spanish, and their family language when they were all together was English, the language his father and mother spoke to each other.
For us, at the time he was an alien. The group did not run out of questions. I would have never thought to be in a similar setting about twenty years later.
Back then when I thought about bilingualism only people came to my mind who were perfectly balanced bilinguals.
I would only find out through my travels that bilingualism does not mean to be able to speak all languages perfectly.
The daily use of two or more languages defines people as bilinguals (even though some researchers advocate a more strict definition). It still feels strange to name myself trilingual, but I use German, my mother tongue, Italian, the language my partner grew up with, and English on a daily basis.
Which language should we speak?
Our daughter Greta was born in Italy five years ago and was only nine month old when we moved to Ireland. We spoke our mother tongues to her without even deciding. It was natural and our English did not feel good enough to be the language of choice. The decision which language to speak might be more difficult for parents who lived for years in a country where on a daily basis they speak another language than their own. I would encourage parents to speak the language that feels natural to them to speak to their children, that comes from their hearts without thinking too much about what is good for the child’s future. Even if they do not remember any nursery rhymes or songs in their mother tongue that does not impact the outcome. The Internet helps to refresh these abilities.
In our family, we are lucky that as parents we both speak the language of each other so I can understand when Domenico and Greta are chatting and vice versa. It still happens that I ask myself if this is my daughter when she speaks Italian because it seems as if her personality changes. What occurs naturally is that her vocabulary is different in all three languages. In Italian she knows a lot more words related to cooking and eating because talking about food is a big part of the Italian culture (but obviously not the German). Language is not only the language itself, but is connected to so many layers of cultural understanding, hints between the lines and nonverbal expressions. I love the way Italians speak with their whole body and a slightly different position of the hands can mean a completely different thing. Children learn all this naturally and they learn it more easily when they are able to visit their mother’s or father’s home country. Greta’s three cousins back in Germany help a lot to create a significant bond with language and culture. Also her grandmother, aunt, uncle etc. are helpful in this sense. But children are more powerful “teachers”.
The funny side
To finish I will list a few funny mixed sentences Greta said when she was younger. Mixing was regarded as a bad behaviour by researchers years ago, but is now seen in a much more positive way.
At age two she would say “Mama sagt Käse, papa maggio (formaggio)” – Mama says Käse (cheese) and daddy maggio/ formaggio. This shows that children can develop an understanding about different languages at a very early age.
Greta would pronounce her name differently when asked in English at age two.
Un cane da wohnt vicino Haus. (A dog lives there near the house, the German words are written in italics, she would normally stick to one language, but mixing happened, age two and a half)
Papà, mi ho lavato il face because geschwitzt. (Daddy, I washed my face because I was sweating, a mix of three languages.
These are the most extreme examples and I just mention them to encourage you to have a little notebook for funny words and expressions to have a laugh about it when they are older.
Languages are magic! They are doors into hidden worlds!
Enjoy the journey…
…and please read (if not done already) Aga Pedrak’s blog post. Her suggestions are most valuable, and I agree with her approach.
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