By Natalie DeFee Mendik
Photo credit: Muffet
The World is My Oyster
At just twenty-four, I blithely packed my bags and moved half-way around the world from the U.S. to Switzerland to marry someone I’d known less than a year. Taking with me only what I could fit into airline luggage, I set off to live in a country where I didn’t speak one word of the language. Actually, with Switzerland being what it is, that’s really four languages and countless incomprehensible dialects. Despite knowing nothing and no one, I happily jumped in with both feet. I had grown up an ‘Air Force brat,’ after all.
It wasn’t the first time I’d been a foreigner. I had lived in England as a girl while my father was stationed there. My husband was also familiar with the role, having immigrated as a boy with his family from what was then Czechoslovakia to Switzerland. Their ‘move’ was actually a crazy flight from a camping trip in Romania they happened to be taking when the Russians invaded their home town of Prague. They landed at a Red Cross camp in Vienna with only a tent and a suitcase. A job in Zurich led to a whole new life for the family.
Obviously our family is a melting pot of language and culture. When you first live in a new country, things are different and exciting, to be sure. You are aware of how you are different and how things are done differently, but I think truly understanding your own cultural identity is something that is realized over the years.
And Baby Makes Three
What followed after my arrival in Switzerland was newly-married-and-living-in-a-new-place style adventure. One of those adventures was having a baby.
Like most first-time mothers, the wonder of having a life growing inside of me was underscored by a relentless search for information about this whole pregnancy/childbirth/infancy/parenting thing. My quest for understanding became something of a cross-cultural exploration combining the advice of Swiss doctors and midwives with pregnancy books from Britain and the States, not to mention the massive mix of advice coming from such diverse quarters as my husband’s Czech family, my family from Texas and the international club of friends a person usually acquires when living abroad.
For example, the Swiss would say it was fine for a pregnant woman to have a cup of coffee a day and the occasional glass of wine, while the British cautioned keeping caffeinated drinks to less than four a day and American books tended to warn that any kind of indulgence at all could be detrimental. My Czech father-in-law would tell me I had to eat meat or the baby would suffer, while my Swiss OBGYN would say a sensible vegetarian diet was totally fine. My American pregnancy books informed me I needed a birth plan, yet when I mentioned this to my Swiss doctor, she looked at me as if I were somehow delusional.
Spending a week in a Swiss hospital with German and Swiss German being spoken 24/7 made me feel as if I were really at a language immersion camp. My vocabulary rapidly expanded to include the German for terms like ‘placenta’ and ‘lactation.’ I knew enough about the United State’s insurance system, however, to be grateful that baby and I weren’t tossed out two days after birth.
Choosing a name, too, had cultural implications. We needed an international name my American family and my husband’s Czech family and the Swiss in our home country could pronounce. In the end we chose ‘Caitlyn,’ only to later discover that it confounded Czechs and Swiss alike, while being so popular in the United States that it was truly commonplace.
We planned of course to raise our daughter bilingual. My speaking English with her was unequivocal, but the language my husband would speak was trickier. I had hoped he would speak High German, but he claimed it was strange to speak a language with a baby that to the Swiss is in essence an academic, formal language. He decided to go with Swiss German. My in-laws naturally had their feathers ruffled that the baby wouldn’t be speaking Czech unless it was with them.
I came to see throughout my time in a foreign country that language is such a loaded thing. It can be a uniting factor or a dividing factor. Language is also power. And identity. It is so many things beyond ‘just’ communication.
Small World Family Versus Large World Country
Fast forward ten years and one more child, and I have a boatload of motherly insight into how children perceive the world and their place in it. Sure I knew when my husband and I first married that we would have children at some point, but I had definitely not thought through the implications of culture, language and identity for our children. Even when my first daughter was born, the farthest I went was to make sure she had a passport from both Switzerland and the U.S. I never thought about Swiss-ness or American-ness or Czech-ness or any of that.
My daughter was one when we moved to the States for my husband’s job. She started saying basic things in both English and Swiss German. She could proudly count in both languages, too. Then she started preschool and English became truly dominant in her world. Gradually she stopped trying to speak Swiss German at all. My husband thought it would be easier if he spoke High German with her since Swiss German isn’t a written language, so she wouldn’t be mixing up the two languages. We hired a German tutor. And Caitlyn dug in her heels.
Think about it from a kid’s perspective: every single person around you speaks English, so really, why would you bother speaking this crazy other language your parents insist on? Kids want to play with other kids, be a part of the world around them and have fun. Our agenda didn’t quite mesh with that. She sees herself as totally American.
I’ve observed many families over the years, and my conclusion is that kids are no dummies. In families in which the parents really don’t speak or are uncomfortable in the language of the society in which they live, the children become completely bilingual out of necessity. They must speak the parents’ native language at home and the society’s language at school and play. They are often even called upon to translate for their parents, even in adult matters. However, when the parents are fluent in both languages, the children know it and often see no reason to speak the foreign language with the parents.
I have seen both of these scenarios time and time again. I’ve also noticed in both cases siblings tend to speak amongst themselves primarily the language of the country they live in, regardless of what language they speak with their parents. It does seem to me, however, that over time children come to have pride in the uniqueness of having a separate cultural and linguistic identity as they grow into young adults.
While my daughter drags her feet learning German, I tell her some day she will really and truly be glad I made her learn it. Bilingualism is a gift in life, I tell her. Her progress is, however, glacially slow. I think if we were raising our girls in Switzerland it would be different for two reasons. One is that my German is not flawless, so the girls would be more inclined to speak English with me there than they are to speak German with my husband here, as his English is quite good. The second reason is that Switzerland, unlike the United States, is a society in which being fluent in several languages is the norm. Though at this point true bilingualism seems to be a far off goal, at least my daughters are exposed to the language and have a decent understanding of it.
My husband made a curious remark to me the other day. We had just returned from skiing, where there were a fair number of foreigners. He said he noticed families with an accent speaking English with each other, and that they must see themselves as Americanized, to which I responded, “Like our family?” The thing is, my husband almost always speaks English with the kids these days. I pointed that out to him, but it wasn’t really something he considered when he made that comment. “It was different with the Czech immigrants,” he replied. “We always spoke Czech.” Which comes back to my realization that it all hinges on how fluent the adults are in the language around them. Those Czech immigrants had no idea they would someday be living in Switzerland; they were starting out in a new country learning the language from square one. I think his not seeing this stems from the fact that we often aren’t so much aware of what takes place in our daily lives, especially when daily life is so full of the minutiae of working, raising kids and running a household. Perception into culture and language takes the long view.
Being educated in the public schools in the Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania area, my daughter has a thorough working knowledge of everything related to the Pittsburgh Steelers football team. She can’t help it. Although she is not interested, and Steeler-mania is the butt of many jokes in our house, it is her daily cultural identity as she is growing up in Pittsburgh. We help her to embrace and blend the norms of the place she lives in together with the wider world, including the places my husband and I are from.
I’ve come to realize the culture in which you raise your children ultimately has a huge impact on how they see themselves, shaping the lens through which they view the world. My in-laws are truly Czech despite spending four decades in Switzerland, and my husband is completely Swiss even though he was born in Prague and raised with Czech citizenship. My daughters are as American as apple pie.
I’m sure in ten more years I’ll have more insights into the dynamics of living in a culturally blended family. In the meantime, I take it day by day, while still striving for that long-view perspective.
Natalie DeFee Mendik holds a Masters of Arts in Teaching English as a Second/Foreign Language from Colorado State University. She has lived in Switzerland, England and countless parts of the United States. She currently lives in Pennsylvania, where she mothers full-time and freelance writes for equestrian magazines part-time. In 2011 she was the recipient of American Horse Publications Editorial and Graphics Award for her writing on horse health. You can find her at her website: www.mendikmedia.com.