The language of the heart

May 19th, 2011

I break a lot of rules in the bi-lingual baby department. “Rules,” I guess I should say. Everybody’s got an opinion, everybody has a system. I believe strongly in the One Parent One Language Approach, and on the whole that’s what R and I have always done. He speaks his native language (Bärndütsch) to the boys, exclusively and in all situations; and I speak my native language (English). From everything that I’ve read, if you’re lucky enough to have native speakers of two different languages in your house this is absolutely the best way to go about raising bi-lingual children.

But you know, there are always situations where you need to bend the rules. I’m sure any parents out there reading are familiar with situations in which you say something to your child that is also meant for the ears of another child or parent in the vicinity; for example, in the sandbox you might say “No, you can’t take that out of his hands. If you want to ask if he wants to trade toys, that’s fine, but he’s allowed to say no.” That’s clearly meant for both children to hear. Or “Well, I know he threw sand at you and that was very wrong and he shouldn’t have done it, but we don’t throw sand at people in our family” might be intended for your child and the nearby parent of that sand-throwing menace. Saying things like that to my boys in English loses half the point of the intended communication and out in the world, in situations like that, I’ll speak German (not Swiss) to the boys.

But the biggest rule we’re breaking is that for the past year, we have been an English speaking family inside our house, even R. Now that Small Boy is in Kindergarten and the boys spend so much time with their grandparents and Small Boy’s playmates are almost exclusively his Swiss school-mates now and hockey practice is in Swiss and Boychen is about to start a local playgroup, the boys are getting a lot of Swiss and I thought their English was faltering. Small Boy would come home from Kindy and prattle on to me in Swiss for an hour or ninety minutes with me gently nudging him to switch back to English please. So we made the controversial switch to all English in our house.

Except it’s not all English, either. The boys have their own rules when they play together and I’ve never quite figured out how and why they choose a language to play in. I was listening to them in the bath the other day, and they were playing with boats and divers and most of the game was in Swiss. But when Boychen explained some rule to Small Boy, he switched over to English for the explanation then reverted to Swiss for the game. Then Small Boy asked R a question, in English, and R answered in English, and then Boychen repeated the answer, only in Swiss. I can’t figure out the rules, but when they play together and make their own language decisions I don’t get involved.

They’re both doing just fine linguistically in both languages, which in the end is all that I care about. Small Boy prefers Swiss, I think, in a deep identity sort of a way. Boychen seems to prefer English – he never initiates a conversation with me in Swiss when it’s just the two of us, for example, which is something that Small Boy did and still does – but I don’t see it as an identity choice the way I see Small Boy’s Swiss as an identity choice. I can’t even explain, exactly, why I think Small Boy sees himself as far more Swiss than US-American except to say that he does and always has. It makes sense – he was born here and is growing up here, going to public school and playing for the local hockey team, doing what all the Swiss kids do; and yet I feel Small Boy’s Swissness much more strongly than Boychen’s, who was also born here and is growing up here and went to the local hockey school. I would say the difference was Kindergarten, except that Small Boy has always been my Swiss child, since long before he started Kindergarten. I’ve thought this about him for years.

The thing about raising bi-lingual children is that you have to let them choose. You have to let them have preferences. You have to let them create their own identity. You work to ensure that they master both languages, but only one will be the language of their heart.