Making Language Deals at the Dinner Table

by Corey · 3 comments

Corey with her two sons, ages 6 and 4

By Corey Heller
Originally appeared at An American Between Worlds in April 2008

My husband and I often speak English with one another. Ok, I’ll admit it, we speak English with one another much of the time. It comes naturally to us.  It was the language we spoke when we met 16 years ago on the Emerald Isle of Ireland, in Mary Ryan’s Hostel in Galway.

When we met, I couldn’t speak a word of German and my future husband was in Ireland to practice speaking English (not to teach some American German)!  So English it was (and stayed).

Be it as it may, as in all good love stories we fell in love and I ended up taking a leave of absence from my university studies in California to spend two years in Germany with my future husband.  We tied the knot in 1995 and moved to Seattle, Washington.

While in Germany I spent grueling hours learning German at the Volkshochschule for six months followed by even more grueling hours at the University of Kiel.

Textwiedergabe – I remember that word very well.  It can still bring a chill up my spine and fear into my heart. The ultimate of torture touted as “learning German.”  I can still remember sitting there poised and ready with my pencil in hand waiting for the moment of truth.  Heart pounding.

That kind of weekly stress coupled with trying to pronounce those dang letters ä, ö and ü while a kind-hearted teacher squishes your mouth into different shapes was enough to make me want to fall to the floor and plead for mercy: “No more German, please!  I can’t do it and that is that!”

“Say ‘eee’ while rounding your lips like this,” the teacher would say, squishing, adjusting, man-handling my mouth.  I’d try it over and over again with a pleading look in my eyes until finally she’d say, “Yes, perfect!”  I’d sigh in relief but would have no idea what I had done correctly that time.

“Thank you very much.  Just move along now to the next student – Please!” I’d think to myself desperately.

“I just have one little question,” I’d say before she moved on.  “How on earth do I remember all of this while trying to use that sound in the middle of a word which is in the middle of a sentence!?” My tone was that of honest exasperation.

But eventually I did.

Day after day, week after week, month after month of hearing and using the German language magically squished my American mouth into shapes I had never needed before.  And I dare say, I fell in love with it all.  My nemesis and I became the best of friends.


Tonight at the dinner table my 6-year-old son (our oldest child) heard me and my husband speaking English with one another and promptly said to us (in German), “Why are we kids supposed to speak German together while you two speak English with one another?  It is so unfair!”

My husband and I looked at one another and and I quickly said (in German), “You are right! We should be speaking German. Ok, let’s make a deal: your father and I will speak German with one another from now on and you’ll agree to speak German with one another as well, ok?”

Our son pursed his lips to think about the deal. He looked at his siblings who were as uncertain as he was. They clearly smelled something rotten.

So I quickly added, “And you guys stop calling me Corey and just call me Mama from now on, ok?” Our son started to look at us with clear suspicion while my husband topped it off with, “And you always call me Papa, ok?” (Our kids had decided to call us by our first names as our English-speaking friends and family members did and it was driving me absolutely crazy!  I was determined to put an end to it, once and for all.)

Well, let’s just say that after an evening of dinner table negotiations, we all eventually shook on it and agreed to the terms.  Whether my son and his sibling cohorts have any idea of what they really agreed to will be seen soon enough.

Is this what our bilingual family has come to? Language deals with a 6 year old and his younger siblings at the dinner table?

What will come next? Begging, pleading, imploring?  Down on my knees, head in my hands sobbing and telling stories of children who didn’t speak German and therefore, well, I just can’t even say because it was so very sad.  So very sad.

Or maybe we can decide over a game of Go Fish?

Whatever works, right?  Right?!

The truth is, the hardest part will be for me to remember to speak German with my husband from now on!  The things we do in the name of bilingualism!

Postscript: It has been two years since I wrote this post.  What are the results?

My children rarely speak German with one another.  But it only occasionally gets under my skin.  If I remind them to speak German with one another, they often switch over for an obligatory 2 minutes or so, or they respond with a whole litany of reasons why they are going to stick with English:

  • “Knights don’t speak German, only English.  We are playing knights right now.”
  • “Star Wars Lego guys only speak English.  If you don’t believe us, go to and find out for yourself.”
  • “I’ve never heard a construction worker build a house in German, so I don’t know any of the words. Plus, construction workers speak English in real life – you can see for yourself across the street. And no, Mama, Bob the Builder (in German) is not real – we are real (English-speaking) construction workers.”
  • “English is our playing language.  That’s just the way we do things.”

In the whole scheme of things, I’m happy that they still speak German with us.  So I count my blessings.

My husband and I? Do we speak German all the time with one another?  No.  Probably about 70% of the time.  However, he and I have developed this magical way of always switching to German, even mid-sentence, when we happen to be speaking English and one of the kids walks into the room.  I don’t think we even notice the switch most of the time – just another bit of bilingual-family-language-switching magic.

The silliest part is that when my kids walk into the room when we are speaking English, my husband and I react as if we got caught talking about something we weren’t supposed to be talking about and our parents just walked into the room:  “What?  English?  Us?  No way!  Never!”

Do your children speak their non-community language with one another?  Or do they prefer the community language for their communication?  Does it bother you when they don’t speak your language together?

Corey Heller is the founder of Multilingual Living and the Editor-In-Chief/Publisher of Multilingual Living Magazine. Multilingual Living is the place where she shares her knowledge about raising multilingual and multicultural children. Corey, an American, and her German husband live in Seattle where they raise and homeschool their three children, ages 15, 14 and 12, in German and English.

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{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Melissa August 26, 2010 at 12:32 pm

I have to say the boys were right! It ISN’T fair to expect them to speak a language when you don’t do the same…I’ll have to remember that as my daughter reaches the bargaining and excuse-making age!

Also, you gave me chilling flashbacks to my own language school and drill days. Necessary, yes. Enjoyable, not so much. Although maybe there’s some satisfaction in knowing your brain cannot possibly absorb another piece of information, I don’t know. 🙂


2 Corey August 30, 2010 at 10:46 pm

Hah, my poor kids, having to negotiate for what is only right! Good to know you are on their side! In fact, I think I am the one who has benefited the most – I have been using more German than I would have had we not made that agreement.

Ah yes, the language drills. What is a language lesson without them! It was certainly a battle but one I feel that I won in the end. 😉


3 Betsy January 31, 2011 at 10:34 pm

I think it’s natural for kids to speak to each other in the language they use at school. I’m American and my husband is Dutch and we have always used the OPOL rule when speaking to our boys.

We moved to Germany in 2006, though, and put our sons in the local schools. It took them a year or so to adjust, but they now speak German with each other. (Dinnertime at our house is a linguistic adventure!) When people ask them why they do this they just laugh and say: “We don’t know. That’s just what comes out.” 🙂

You kids spend a big chunk of their day speaking English at school, so it makes sense that it feels natural for them to speak English to each other. I think it’s really commendable, though, that you’re continuing to expose them to German. Bilingualism is such a gift!

I really enjoyed your article about the language of identity. Can really relate and it’s nice to see so much of my feelings articulated so well! 🙂


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