September 22nd, 2011

After hockey practice, the kids straggle out of the stadium in ones and twos. We’re usually among the last to leave because although I no longer think the Small Boy dawdles in the dressing room – not much, anyway – he somehow manages to be one of the last ones out of the showers. Tonight either the Small Boy was fast or the son of Nice Woman was slow because we left the stadium at the same time, which pretty much never happens. Small Boy and Nice Woman’s son were chattering in Swiss, and then the Small Boy asked me in English to hold something that he was carrying, because it was falling.

“Was that a Swiss accent?” Nice Woman asked. “I heard a Swiss accent.”

“I KNOW!” I said back. “He’s not supposed to have one! All the bilingual books say a bilingual kid is supposed to speak both languages accent free, he’s supposed to sound just like me but he totally has an accent!”

“But when he speaks Swiss you don’t hear an accent at all.”

“No, his Swiss is perfect,” I said. “It’s better than his English, actually. And he prefers it.”

And it’s true. He speaks English with a Swiss accent, which ALL the language books say shouldn’t happen, and his English is imperfect. It is very, very good but it’s imperfect; what’s telling is, the mistakes he makes are typical mistakes German-speakers make when speaking English. The use of a false friend; a slightly hinky word order; a certain mispronunciation. I don’t think the Boychen has a Swiss accent when he speaks English, but I’m not sure I would hear it if he did – I forget, until somebody like Nice Lady mentions it, that the Small Boy does so for all I know Boychen does too. I have decided not to worry about this – I continue to model native English, make corrections as needed, and read English books aloud but I’m not going to get terribly worked up about this. It is what it is. It is not what I imagined – as a poet and writer it’s disconcerting to have a child speaking English as, essentially, an excellent second language but the Small Boy is the Small Boy and Swiss is the language of his heart. I am trying to let him make that choice. I am so wrapped up with words, with English words, that I have remind myself to let Small Boy not be wrapped up in them. He doesn’t have to be a wordie. He doesn’t have to be like me.

It’s strange though, to suddenly be reminded that my child speaks with a Swiss accent. Strange that he does it, and strange that I no longer fully notice.

Any parents of bilingual children out there with similar experiences? What do you do when you feel a language imbalance growing? Do you have a secret preferred language in your heart?

A language lightbulb moment

August 3rd, 2011

I was writing a poem this morning and I wanted to use the Swiss word for swing in it. Even when they’re speaking English with me, the boys tend to suddenly use the Swiss noun for the swings, so I’ve been using this word for the better part of four years now and have never really thought about it. It’s an odd word, I always think, for a swing and it doesn’t quite intuitively compute for me but I’ve learned it because the boys use it.

Then this morning, for the first time, I wrote it (as best as I could figure, since the spelling rules for Swiss are pretty much: eh, write it how it sounds) and it all made perfect sense to me. Ritigumpfi. Of course. Riti must be derived from reiten, to ride. Gump is jump. Ritigumpfi: ride-jump. What a perfect name for a swing.

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.