When I first intended on raising my children bilingual, I had only lived in Australia for about three-and-a-half years and even though my English was very very good, I was still predominantly dreaming and thinking in German.
It was a few years ago, when I felt the switch happen. I started to NOT blend out the radio commentary (that used to be challenging to follow—especially during sport) and actively enjoy, laugh about and listen to the on air conversations. I had to suddenly think hard about the right German word during FaceTime conversations with my family and would more than often slip in an English word instead. The same happened slowly when I was talking to my children.
Now 8 years on, the pages have turned for me as much as for them. I have to publicly admit: I think in English, I dream in English, I translate words from English to German in a conversation with another German.
I myself have turned into a bilingual person and even though I am a native German speaker, English has now outrun my language roots. And it’s getting harder every day. I actively choose English books over German ones—because I find them easier to read. I barely watch any of my childhood favourites anymore but instead explore the huge variety of English kids movies with my own children to watch something new. And as you can see, I have chosen to write in English as well. So what the hell is going on?
I married a monolingual and I am purposely raising bilingual kids. And while German is my native language, it’s not the language I speak best (anymore); I especially struggle with writing my thoughts down. Because my thoughts are now in English. I have to work hard every day to stay in “German mode.”
I used to only occasionally slip and sometimes respond to my kids in English. I always went back to German and made sure it’s the language they hear me speak the majority of the time. But nowadays it’s kind of in reverse. I predominantly speak English with them—as much at home as when out and about seeing friends—and have to force myself to slip back into German.
My parents are proud of me for raising bilingual kids. They love that they can speak to their grandchildren in German. But they can see what is happening too. The longer the kids have been in school, the less they want to speak German with my parents on the phone. They now start to avoid conversations entirely; they run away from the video chat and hide or just pull funny faces. I can tell they feel embarrassed that they have nothing to say—even though they have so much they would love to share.
I get it. I feel embarrassed towards my family over there too. I feel like I am not putting in enough effort, I feel like I am letting my family down, I worry my kids will forget. Especially during these challenging times where I don’t know when we get to go over next to practice German. That used to be my flimsy excuse. “They don’t use it much here but they understand all the words and as soon as we are back over in Germany, they’ll slot right back in.” So I thought. So I hoped. But should I rely on that? NO!
So why do I keep using English with them?
Apart from a traumatic experience at the start of this year that has completely frazzled me for months and turned my usually organised brain into mush, there must be another reason why I suddenly, but especially since, have found it so much harder to keep my early efforts going.
What I’ve come to understand is that it’s not my fault. In fact, it’s the kids that are triggering my English.
Bilingual speakers are conditioned to respond to whatever language they’re spoken to. They’re able to switch back and forth between languages without thinking and they readily adapt to the triggers in their environment. Because my kids are most comfortable in English, if they know the person they’re speaking to speaks and understands it, that’s the language they’ll use, which then naturally triggers an English reply. Only a person intent on using one language over another can override that trigger.
Before I recognised what was going on, I used to get really upset at myself. We often had German friends and family come stay with us that would automatically use English with my kids, even while they know the children can understand them in their language too well. I used to get really upset at those visitors too. Raising bilingual kids is hard enough in an English-dominant environment and I need all the help I can get. But it is my challenge, not theirs.
It is extremely important to find other passionate mums and dads raising bilingual kids, who are able to ignore the dominant language triggers. Finding your own bilingual tribe is a massive part of making the journey for myself and my kids easier.
Living in an english-speaking country, I can’t avoid my kids overhearing me speak English with my friends and theirs. English is our family language at the dinner table. Plus I can’t refuse helping them with their homework—practising spelling and reading in English.
Over here, according to the 2016 census, 72.7% of Australians speak English and 21% speak a language other than English at home or have learned a second language for work.
The stereotype of english-speaking countries not wanting to learn a second language isn’t accurate. I have seen first-hand that the desire and interest in especially Australia is there and the interest in dual language education is not only growing but also has three separate audience components over here; indigenous groups and their languages, immigrant groups and their languages, and mainstream English speakers seeking additive language study.
I am very proud of my language abilities and that I have managed to become bilingual myself—without my parents teaching me two languages at home. Though I still feel very connected to and proud of my culture and my roots. It has given me a skill that opens up options and opportunities. I need to commit more, work harder, and through my commitment to raising them bilingual, I hope to do this for my kids.
I wish one day they will keep this going. Open up more opportunities for themselves and their kids here and on a global basis. Kind of my legacy; speak German and English now and teach it to their children, who can then practice with me—hopefully.