By Corey Heller
My middle son had a birthday party today and as usual we invited our varied mix of friends: German-speakers, Spanish-speakers, English-speakers, homeschoolers, traditionally-schooled, young, old, babies, dads, moms, sisters and brothers. I was so very impressed with how well a group of people can come together and find common ground for conversation and play. The parents mingled in the kitchen and dining room while the children found areas to play throughout the house. There was no fighting, no yelling, no screaming. Some spoke English together, others German and a few Spanish. It was a delight.
As happens during parties like these, I found myself switching from German to English many times during the party. This is to be expected, as some people don’t speak German. However, what is special during social situations like these is how often I find myself speaking both English and German with my children even though as a rule we only speak German together.
I know quite a few parents who don’t do this. They feel it is important to only stick to their language when speaking with their children, no matter what. I can totally understand this reasoning and I am continually impressed with their resolve.
I’ve often wondered why this doesn’t work for me. Is that I lack the same resolve? Is it because German isn’t my native language? Or is is simply the way I have chosen to interact with my children in social situations where German isn’t the only language spoken? Regardless of what it may say about my personality and choices, what follows are a few reasons why I believe I switch back and forth between English and German with my children…
1. I want my non-German speaking friends to feel comfortable.
Yes, I know that technically it is none of my non-German speaking friends’ business what I say to my kids. But as they are my friends and I honor their presence in my home, I’d like for them to feel comfortable in our midst by feeling they are sharing in my communication with my children. However, that having been said, I don’t always speak English when my non-German speaking friends are within earshot. I do so based on the following…
2. I want to indirectly share information with non-German speakers in my midst.
Often I switch to English with my children when I want to share the information with those around me. For example, today at the party, I told my kids in English that it was time for cake and ice cream so that their friends standing nearby would hear it. The same was true when I discussed the gifts when my son was opening them. At times I have switched to English when my kids did something wrong. I wanted other kids and parents to hear my discussion with my children so that they’d know that that I take my children’s actions seriously.
3. I don’t always know how to say it in German (unique for us non-native speakers).
There are times when I just can’t explain something in German, especially when someone explained something complex to me in English and my kids ask what the person said. I have two choices in that moment: I can explain it in a more “watered-down” German: “Uh, he said that there is a thing that can do this special thing when you hold it in a really special way.” Not very helpful, especially on the learning vocabulary front! Or I can just explain it in English as it was explained to me (for a child’s understanding, of course) and thereby include a bunch of fabulous vocabulary.
4. I’m confused.
This is when I’ve just spoken to someone in English, I turn to my child who is pulling on my sleeve and without thinking, I ask my child in English what he or she wants. It isn’t that I meant to speak English. It just simply came out. It is during parties in particular that my mind gets all discombobulated switching back and forth between English and German-speaking parents and I can’t even remember which language I am speaking at any given moment.
No one really knows what the consequences are to switching back and forth between languages when speaking with our children, mainly because each child and each family is unique. However, currently experts recommend against it when our children are young simply to give our little ones “pure” language examples. As our children get older, experts agree that it is less of an issue. In fact, it may even be a sign of language mastery to be able to switch back and forth (see this excerpt from Colin Baker’s A Parents’ and Teachers’ Guide to Bilingualism – he is speaking about code-switching but we can apply the same reasoning to language switching).
It is empowering when we can switch back and forth between languages with our children and they can seamlessly go with the flow. It is a magical dance in which we are full participants. It is something we can control and manipulate with precision. My children are no longer tiny and just learning to speak. They are mastering their language in ways that continually amaze me! Their sentence structures continue to evolve and their vocabulary expands in leaps and bounds (which isn’t always a pleasant experience for me! As I write this, my children are discussing in minute detail the construction, design and benefit of a specially crafted “poop-gun.” Sigh.).
As we, as a family, continue to navigate our way through our languages and cultures, I get a little teary-eyed. My children are little bilinguals! Look at them go!
Do you switch back and forth between languages regularly? Do you do it in specific social situations? Have you seen any consequences to switching back and forth with your children? What do you recommend based on what works best for your family?