The author, Alice Lapuerta, with her husband and daughter
By Alice Lapuerta
This originally appeared in Multilingual Living Magazine.
When we first embarked our multilingual adventure, my husband and I had a problem: we did not speak each other’s languages. Even though we communicated in English with each other, we decided to use our mother tongues with our children. He’d speak Spanish, I German. The result was that neither of us understood what the other was saying.
My husband, a native Spanish speaker, said he would feel weird speaking English to his baby daughter. I understood that, because I felt the same. With an Austrian mother and a Korean father, I grew up speaking German, Korean and English. Yet German was my home language and the language of my childhood. I knew more nursery rhymes and songs in German than in English or Korean. I’d feel strange speaking English or Korean with my baby. So German was going to have to be the language I used for mothering.
Only: what to do about my husband, who wouldn’t understand a word I said? Wouldn’t he feel left out? Wouldn’t I feel left out when I didn’t understand what he was telling our children? And how on earth were we ever going to communicate as a family?
“Let’s just try it. We can always stop after two weeks and speak English only if we don’t like it,” we told each other. And so our multilingual adventure began.
I remember those first few days very well. We were sitting at our breakfast table, trying to converse in three languages with an unresponsive newborn.
“Uh, bebé, quieres tetita?” asked my husband our daughter, not really expecting an answer.
“What did you say?” I immediately butted in, afraid I’d miss out on something important.
“I just asked whether she wants a bottle.”
“Tetita is bottle?”
“Okay. So. Isabella, magst du ein Fläschchen?” I felt obliged to say the exact same thing in German. For how else was our daughter ever going to learn this properly? I turned to my husband and explained: “I just said the same thing as you.” I felt stupid.
We ate on in silence. The baby started to fuss.
“Qué pasa, bebé?” – “Was ist los, Mausi?” we said at the same time, then burst out laughing.
Granted, so these first few dinner table conversations were a little awkward. Two weeks later, things were a bit better. We agreed that we could probably handle it if we tried this just a little longer.
Four years later our family is firmly trilingual, and we’re enjoying it! We are so used to using three languages simultaneously that we don’t even think about it anymore. We’ve become conversational in each other’s languages. That’s right! I understand everything my husband is saying and I don’t need to ask for translations. And my husband’s getting better and better in German as well.
So how did we do it?
We just did what was most natural for us and we stuck to it. Fairly early on, we stopped translating every single word for each other, because that became truly tiresome. It felt unnatural and it started to bog down our conversation. With the translations stopping we also had to give up the anxiety about “excluding“ the other person, as well as our own sensitivity of “feeling left out.”
I learned that it was OK that I didn’t understand every single word my husband told our child. I learned to trust that hubby and baby were not plotting against me. Husband and baby are probably not conducting deeply philosophical discussions on Kant and Nietzsche, but something more along the lines of: “Eeeww sweetie-pie, you’re all stinky, did you make poo-poo again ? Let’s see what went on in that diaper of yours …”– “gagagabababa…” – definitely not Kant. Trust me. By the time your kids want to discuss philosophy, you’ll have learned your partner’s language so well that you’ll be able to join in the discussion.
There are a lot of theories out there, models of One Parent One Language, family language versus environment, minority language versus majority language and so forth. These theories are all great and by all means, go and read what’s out there.
But there’s no rule of the thumb, no single solution that’s going to work for everyone. In the end I think everyone has to do what feels right to them, given their particular situation. In the end you make up your own rules. We have two simple rules: be consistent and don’t mix languages. With mixing I mean Spanglish, Germanglish or Germspanish. You get the point.
In the meantime, our daughter has blossomed from an unresponsive baby to an exuberant, extroverted little chatterbox. Like every parent of a multilingual child, I obsess about her speech development and worry about “confusing” her or being responsible for a major speech defect.
Isabella did indeed seem to take longer than average in starting to talk. When she finally did, she rambled along happily in a Spanish-German mix, adding a spice of fantasy babble. Nobody understood what she was saying. I worried.
So we had her evaluated by a professional Speech Therapist. I braced myself for this being the end of our multilingual endeavor. The therapist, however, strongly encouraged our trilingual effort. “Continue what you are doing. She may be a bit delayed in German, but it is still within the normal range. Don’t worry about it. She’ll catch up on her own soon.” Thus was her response, and I nearly hugged her for it.
Indeed, since Isabella has started kindergarten she is speeding up on German. Now she is lagging behind in Spanish, and yeah, I worry about this (as a bilingual parent one never stops worrying, does one?). Isabella is a clever one. She has figured out that Papi speaks and understands German very well, so why bother speaking Spanish to him? This is a new situation for us, something that we still have to figure out.
So I go to the multilingual community online for support and answers. There are wonderful websites like the Multilingual Babies Chatboard on Babycenter. It’s wonderful to meet other bilingual parents there, to share experiences and advice. Without their support we wouldn’t have made it.
Multilingualism in our family has become an old shoe. It’s natural to us, but to most people we meet we are either unique, very courageous or plain freaks.
“But how do you DO it?” people keep asking us. As I embark on a complicated explanation of Hubby-speaks-Spanish-to-the-kids, I-speak-German-to-them, we-speak-English-with-each-other-but-not-directly-to-the-kids and currently Isabella prefers to speak German but she can also speak Spanish to Papi when she feels like it but mostly she mixes –and she doesn’t speak English yet – but she CAN count in English, you know….All I get is a bewildered look.
Okay. So I guess it does sound kind of complicated. What can I say?
We just do it.