MULTIKULTI - "BABY, YOU'RE SPEAKING MY LANGUAGE" - ON RAISING A BILINGUAL CHILD
July 29, 2017
This blog post is also live on Mindr's website. Mindr is my friend Sarah's amazing start-up that puts on events on current topics of interest where moms, dads and (crying) babies are welcome! For all my New York City mamas and papas - you have to check it out, follow Mindr on Facebook and Instagram and join us at one of their future events! Also, check back here next week for a blog post on Mindr and a discount code for their next event on August 10th which promises to be super fun and interesting :).
Everyone has that one childhood friend they really look up to. For me, it was my friend Lara, who moved from our home town in Germany to France when we were four years old and all of a sudden became fluent in French. I remember my four-year-old self thinking: “She speaks French and German now? SO. FREAKING. COOL!”
Fast forward a few years (... ok, several years) and I am sitting here in New York City with my half-American-half-German baby boy, Magnus, trying to figure out how to give him the gift of bilingualism.
I have never questioned that I would speak German to my son. It is the language I grew up with and, even after almost six years in the US, it is the language I feel in my heart when I look at my little guy. It is the language of the songs I sing to him when he goes to sleep, and the stories I remember being read when I was little. It is the language of his Oma and Opa, his aunt and uncle, and his future cousins. It is not just a language, it is a whole culture, one half of him, an entire universe he'll be able to unlock through words.
The German language can be hilarious. German has the best words for things - some have been adopted by the English language, like “Zeitgeist” or “Wanderlust,” but more should be, like “Muskelkater” (a hangover for your muscles after a workout), or “Feierabend” (when you sit down at the end of a long work day with a cold beer and turn your brain off). As an aside, there is no good word for "awkward" in German, which is... just the right amount of ironic.
German feels like home to me, and I want it to feel like home for my son. And I want him to be that childhood friend that another kid looks up to and thinks "SO. FREAKING. COOL!"
Of course, there are those who question this parenting choice. Spanish is more useful, they'll say. Or, he'll start talking later than other kids. Or, don't you feel rude when you speak German to him around people who don't understand? Or, he won't have the same vocabulary in English as his peers. Do I worry about these things? Of course I do! But in my heart of hearts, aside from the personal reasons outlined above, I believe the positives far outweigh the negatives.
There is a ton of research out there that shows that bilingualism has all kinds of cognitive benefits, improves social skills and helps kids communicate more effectively. Plus, any disparities in vocabulary or fluency vis-à-vis other kids have been shown to even out by the age of seven - plenty of time to spare before it's time to apply to the Ivies! This article is one of my faves on the topic - short and sweet, for anyone who's interested.
D is on board with my vision to raise a multilingual baby. Once we got the "why" out of the way, we moved on to tackling the "how" and, like the type-A millennial parents that we are, we took a class on the topic. There, we heard about the two main approaches. The first is "minority language at home" (or “MLAH”), where the family commits to communicating only in the minority language within the household, which obviously works best when both parents speak the same native language. The second is "one person, one language" (or "OPOL"), where Dad speaks English and Mom speaks German. We learned that we would need to be as strict as possible about those rules. We were told that exposure to the minority language should be at least 30%. We made a note to start speaking to baby around the time you sign them up for that coveted NYC daycare spot - that is to say, immediately upon conception, preferably earlier. We found ourselves, once again, the people looking across the room at trilingual families and thinking "SO. FREAKING. COOL!" (I know, I know, comparison is the thief of joy, but New York City sure ain't makin' it easy on us mere mortals, am I right?)
We chose OPOL, and I would say we are pretty good at following the OPOL rules... most of the time. We are lucky to live in a city like New York, where there are schools and educational programs in practically every language and where you'll never be the only parent (or kid) speaking your language. It also helps that in today's day and age you can facetime the German grandparents on a whim and go easy on those screen-time restrictions when it comes to YouTube in the minority language, because it's "educational".
At the end of the day, we'll see how it works out. And just in case you needed one more reason... I'd be lying if I said I wasn't looking forward to having a secret language with my son one day. ;)
PS: The book we are reading in these pictures is called "Mein Papa ist der größte Held" ("my dad is the biggest hero") and it is so cute it made me cry the first time I read it! (Pro tip for all the papas out there - there is also one that talks up mom ;).)