By Corey Heller
Originally published in Multilingual Living Magazine
People often ask me how I can raise my children in German, a language I first learned as a young adult of 24 years. I tell them it all has to do with a love affair with a man, a language and a culture.
When I first met the German man who would become my husband at Mary Ryan’s Hostel in Galway, Ireland, I was distinctly disinterested in the German language and culture. At the time, my image of Germany was still tainted with discussions of the Second World War, the Holocaust and Hitler.
Now, fourteen years later, it is difficult for me to separate that which is German within me from that which is American. The two are deeply intertwined, and together they define who I am. Therefore, I am surprised when someone asks me how I can raise my children in German. “Isn’t it obvious,” I wonder?
Through my dedication to the German language and culture, I have come to make them, to some degree, my own. As the fox in Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s book, “The Little Prince” says, “It is the time you have wasted for your rose that makes your rose so important.” It is the time I have wasted for the German language, the time I have spent trying to understand and live within the German culture, the time I have devoted to my husband and his family that makes all of these elements and people so important to me. They are mine and have become a part of me because of the effort I have made.
Despite this, there are times when I feel that my relationship to my second language and culture are very tenuous: what would happen if my husband were to leave me? Would I continue to raise my children in German or would I rebel against the language and culture and refuse to continue passing them on to my children out of anger and hurt?
Or what if my husband were to pass away while our children were still young? Would I become even more attached to my German connections? Would I go as far as to move to Germany to support the memory of my husband and to ensure our children continued his legacy? What does this say about my connections to my second language and culture? Are they really my own? Or do these belong to my husband and me together, as a kind of glue that keeps us connected on a private and personal level?
German also represents new beginnings for me; a starting over, the redefinition of identity and the opportunity to create myself anew. It is about seeing life through the eyes of an infant (not speaking a word of the language) and the gradual process of coming to adulthood (the ability to communicate in complex conversations). The German language has given me permission to start over again; to slowly become the adult I am today. It does not carry with it any of my baggage of youth and thus it has been mine to define and shape as I see fit (and to be shaped in return). The people with whom I speak German never knew me as a child. I have been free to explore who I am through the German language without the weight of childhood expectations.
This love for German did not come about through a rejection of English and the American culture, as some seem to think! I have not made a choice of one over the other, pushing aside one so that the other could take its place.
The English language and the American culture were there when I was born and they are not going anywhere; they have a very strong foothold. But they now occupy a place in my heart together with the German language and culture, like a parent who has two children.
When I was pregnant with my second child I confessed to my obstetrician, Peggy Hutchinson, that I was concerned that I didn’t have enough love in my heart for more than one child. She said to me, “Corey, the special thing about the heart is that it simply expands when our new children are born and you will find you have more love in your heart than you thought possible!” Her statement overwhelmed me. I later realized just how correct she was!
This has been true for my two languages and cultures as well. My being has simply expanded and they coexist in me together; simultaneously. They have different textures and are associated with different elements, different experiences and different events. They taste, smell and feel different. But neither is better or worse than the other. The only difference is the way in which they came to me: one in childhood, the other in adulthood. It is through their very nature of being unique yet intertwined in me that make up the whole of who I am.
Thus, when people ask me why I am raising my children in German, I spare them my long, contemplative explanation and instead I say, “My husband and I know our children will get more than enough American language and culture exposure, so we have decided to raise them in German. If we were living in Germany, we would raise them in English.”
This seems to satisfy the majority of inquirers, even though deep down I know it is so much more!