By Alice Lapuerta
There are times when I wish we were just like the ordinary monolingual family next door.
Let’s call them the Schmidts – The Schmidts just speak the majority language German all the time. They don’t wake up every morning wondering what language to speak.
They don’t need to worry about whether OPOL or minority language @ home is the better method for them. Life must be so simple for them!
Sometime I yearn for their simplicity, their normal, ordinary Germanness! Because nothing is ever “normal” for us. For us, a simple shopping trip can turn into a linguistic fiasco.
“We have to buy Semmerl, Melanzani, platanos verdes und papilla.”
“But, Mami, I don’t want papilla! Papilla is pujis! No me gusta! I mog Mohnflesserl essen!”
(“I mog” – that is Upper Austrian for “Ich möchte).
In the meantime the shopping assistant behind the meat counter, who’s overheard us, looks at us aghast. (Zuagroasta!)
“I’m afraid we don’t have any of those in our supermarket.” (Yeah you do: bread rolls, egg plants, green bananas and gruel.)
Even when it comes to multilingualism, we don’t seem to be the normal kind of multilinguals, either. Either the rules don’t work for us, or we seem to be breaking out of them by default.
In addition to that, I suppose we are guilty of committing about every single multilingual sin, no-no, taboo, “this ONE thing that should NOT be done,” that there is.
I hear the collective gasp.
If you’re a stickler for rules, you better not continue reading now. You might find the following painful.
Because the thing is: we mix languages, for one. We are consistent about breaking the rule of rules: consistency.
We have changed methods twice and are in the process of doing so yet again. The hubby doesn’t always speak his mother tongue with the kids. Neither do I. Sometimes I speak the majority language with my kids. We can’t afford to fly to Ecuador every year, either.
Well, that does it. We really blew it now. My kids won’t be multilinguals now, like, ever.
Astonishingly enough, though, against all odds, my kids can speak English and German rather well, and they aren’t doing too bad in Spanish. On my more optimistic days I refer to my kids as “successful trilinguals.”
Most of the time they are keeping their languages apart. The examples from the beginning of this post are actually really rare these days, which is a pity, because I love it when they do that!
But alas. They are growing out of it. My kids are becoming embarrassingly aware of which language to speak with whom. And they STICK to it.
Now, before you think that I am saying “we did all these unmentionable things and look at us! Our kids turned out all right, so you can go right ahead and happily do all these unmentionable things too.” Let me say right away, as a disclaimer: We are dreadful role models, all right? You might not want to imitate us. ‘Cause, I don’t know. It might lead to terrible things hailing down upon you if you do.
But there must be something that we are doing right. Maybe it is because we are not inflexibly rule bound, and because we are bending them to suit our needs. Consistency? Yes. But within a reasonable frame.
Maybe it is because we have been filthily lucky and found awesome schools, teachers, and other families who are supporting us in our multilingual endeavor. My daughter is being supported in all our three languages at her school.
Maybe it is because we have learned to take this multilingualism thing with a grain of salt. It is important to us, but not that important. Yes, some things are more important than multilingualism. Family peace and unity, for one.
So back to the Schmidt’s: That lucky family who doesn’t have to pause and think about what language to choose before they sit down at the breakfast table. I envy them their simplicity.
But I also revel in our complex, multifaceted prism of life that is expressed in our multilingualism. It’s a mess!
But oh, it’s beautiful.
Photo credit: Orin Zebest