The Evil Majority Language

by Alice · 5 comments

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.

Alice Lapuerta, the Editor of Multilingual Living Magazine, is a regular contributor at Multilingual Living. She grew up in a trilingual household of German, Korean and English. She and her husband from Ecuador live in Austria where they are raising their three children trilingually in German, Spanish and English.

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Maria July 28, 2010 at 9:16 am

And here I was hoping that my kids would have a lovely English accent 🙂 Well, they might.

Interesting what you say about the gender issues and things like that. Are you sure it’s due to your kids multilingualism? What I mean is, maybe all kids who speak German have issues with gender at some point or another, or grammar. I know Spanish ones do. There’s always exceptions to the rule that kids do wrong at first, and eventually learn, without involving other languages to blame for it.


2 Alice July 28, 2010 at 11:21 pm

Oh no, and I thought I was being clear that I did NOT think it was because of our multilingualism!!!! But because of the vexing nature of the German language (she doesn’t do this in English, of course). So of course I agree with you 100% that there are also monolingual kids who do the same.

We are, as of this date, not sure WHY Isabella had those problems. I got all sorts of interesting answers to that from professionals, from auditive processing disorder, to a lack of “linguistic talent” (would you believe it???), and so forth. In retrospect, and I know this sounds odd and contradictory, but it could simply have been a LACK of exposure to the majority language. I know this is the case with Dominik right now (I don’t worry about it, though, because as I learned from Isabella, they do quite fine by the time they reach school age).


3 Colleen Trimble July 28, 2010 at 9:22 am

Your article had me chuckling, I’m definitely keeping an eye on the pacing tiger”!!!!


4 Laura July 30, 2010 at 8:53 pm

Wow I loved the thought of an island in the middle of the day for the majority language. And the idea of repeating words they say in the majority language into the other every single time. Good stuff!


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