By Alice Lapuerta
The majority language = the bad language.
This has somehow firmly embedded itself in my mind. It’s the language that you should avoid speaking at all costs. It will, ever so deviously, take over if you don’t watch out. So you better make sure it’s safely caged and stays where it belongs: outside your four walls!
Because if you do speak the majority language within your four walls, then …. Erm. Actually. Then what?
Then your kids don’t turn out bilingual, I guess.
I’m not sure where I got that from, but that’s basically the argument that is stuck in my mind.
Maybe that’s why I haven’t been writing so much about German here, because, to us, it is the less interesting language. Everyone speaks German anyway. German, German everywhere. How dull!
“The majority language is a language that you don’t have to worry about. Because the kids will pick it up automatically anyway.” Somewhere I’ve read that, too. And I am also guilty of saying that now and then. Though if I think about it, if I am really, really honest? This hasn’t been quite true for us.
My kids haven’t really picked up the majority language via automatic osmosis magic. If at all, it’s been a bit of a drama, involving a lot of anxiety and fingernails bitten down to the quick, and the firm conviction that my kids will never speak the majority language “properly”.
I’ve always wondered: why is that such a terrible thing not to be able to speak the majority language “properly”? Why is that not OK? What is it that we are all so terrified of? Is it because this marks us as the perpetual foreigner, the Zuagroasta who refuses to integrate? The fear of being branded as uneducated, lower-class, Other? And even if that were so: why would that be such a terrible thing?
I must say, though, German is a notoriously difficult and vexing language, with all those gender articles, which my kids are still getting wrong sometimes (“die Stuhl”). And here I always thought that kids just pick up all languages fluently, automatically, 100% correctly. Especially so the majority language! By default.
But no. This has been a very bumpy road for us.
When my daughter had to see a speech therapist because of her speech delay (NOT due to her multilingualism but probably to an auditive processing disorder, but that is another story), I have had to build in little “islands” of German conversation during the day in which we had to practice various exercises, games and stories which the therapist gave us.
I’d make a “time-out” sign and indicated to Isabella that we would speak German now. She’d follow my lead willingly. We played those games (e.g. memory), and I made sure to repeat the game again in English. That usually worked quite well.
She is doing rather well now with her German, despite an occasional glitch in grammar.
As for Dominik, what can I say: he speaks German with an accent, like a foreigner! But what I noticed lately, is that he is definitely picking up the Austrian dialect, a lot more so than my older daughter did. And it sounds rather cute.
What to do, though, when they speak to you in the majority language?
We had this problem for a short while when Isabella was maybe 3, 4 years old. No matter what language you spoke to her, whether English or Spanish, she’d reply in German (or her version thereof).
She snapped out of this quickly when she realized that I would keep speaking English to her no matter what. I’d repeat back to her what she just said to me, in English. Every. Single. Time.
This takes nerves of iron and the patience of a saint! But it worked!
So as far as the majority language being “evil” – well. I would say you need to keep an eye on it like one eyes a pacing tiger, who remains, preferably, behind those bars.
I wouldn’t panic just yet. Unless you open those doors and you let it pounce on you, for supper.