Are my children speaking my language?

are my children speaking my language


On one occasion at a shoe shop, Frida said, “Ich like this one, Mami,” as she pointed to a pair of red shoes. On another occasion whilst looking at a picture book with animals in it, Tilly remarked, “Ich habe auch einen Maulwurf hier (I have a mole here too),” pointing to the mole on her palm.

Both instances made me smile as I soaked in the little pleasures of raising our twins bilingual. Frida’s mix of German and English in that one sentence may seem to some as a bad example of “Denglish” [Deutsch(German)-English)] but I love witnessing how language creeps up on the little ones. Tilly’s use of the German word “Maulwurf” in the English homonymic sense to connect the zoological mole (“Maulwurf”) to the mole on her palm (“Muttermal” in German) displays the wonderful complexities of raising children bilingual.

Yet, these wonderful complexities of language mixing are not enabling my daughters speak both languages 50-50, something I assumed would happen when my husband and I decided that we would be raising them biligual. Each of us would consistently speak in one language to them – he in German and I in English – so that my daughters would be speaking just as much English as they do German. This “One Parent One Language” (OPOL) method is supposedly the “correct” way to raise bilingual children. It’s supposedly straightforward: Mama speaks in English, Papa in German, and Tilly and Frida will end up speaking English and German.


Is the One Parent, One Language Method a Good Choice for Us?

However, I realised that I may not have been pulling my weight in our – what linguists like to call – “family language policy” when my daughters first started answering me in German after I’ve asked them a question in English. It feels almost as if I’m a stranger to my children. Since English is the minority language in our circumstance here, it seems like I might have to find ways to expose them more to it. Living and going to pre-school in Germany means having a public environment where the main language of communication and instruction (majority language) is German. I would have to think of more opportunities for them to hear and speak English.

There are linguists who suggest that the OPOL strategy isn’t always optimal in raising bilingual children. In fact, Annick de Houwer has found out that if both parents are bilingual, having each parent speak both languages results in a higher proportion of their children becoming biligual (79%) as compared to their OPOL counterparts (74%) [1]. Eowyn Crisfield, a specialist in biligualism, wonders if OPOL always works and has listed reasons why it doesn’t and what one can do about it.  She contends that there is a “lack of minority language development”, a “slide towards the majority language” and “lack of cohesion and consistency” with the OPOL method [2].

She is absolutely right. My daughters are speaking less English since they spend a lot of time with their German-speaking child-minders. Even at home, they speak with their father in German. I have become the sole person communicating with them in English. Besides, the OPOL method isn’t as straightforward as it sounds. I find myself slipping into the majority language very easily. Since I communicate with their father in German, our language of choice, when the four of us are together, is also German. What do I do when I’m talking to my daughters with other non-English-speaking people in a group setting? I speak in German. In such situations, I’m compelled to be inclusive and speak a language that even bystanders who are not part of the conversation can understand. Lastly, I’m not always consistently speaking english because, yes, read above.

So what does this leave us with?


Time to pull my weight

Despite how it doesn’t always work, I think we will continue with the OPOL model but will have to work harder and more purposefully to expose my daughters more to English. I am not ready to converse with them in both English and German mostly because I do not feel comfortable communicating and connecting with my children in a language that I am not absolutely fluent in. For me, the language that one is most connected to is the language that one uses when he or she is angriest or most tired. Ask my husband what language I use when I’m furious and he can tell you which. It’s because my “affective processes” are more heightened when speaking the English language. German, on the other hand, is an acquired foreign language. I have semantically processed it but it does not resonate quite well within me affectively. This is a fascinating topic and there has been quite a bit of research done on it. Here are two examples [3] [4] but I digress.

To resolve the lack of development in the English language with my daughters, I am going to:

  • speak exclusively in English to them both privately and in public even when other non-English speaking persons are present,
  • read more English books to them,
  • sing more in English to them,
  • watch more English-language cartoons with them, and
  • try to look for an English-speaking playgroup in the local community and have them interact with children who speak English.

Whether or not Tilly and Frida speak two languages fluently is not my main concern. I care mostly about being able to connect emotionally and intellectually with my children, whatever language that turns out to be. The question of language is one that is becoming more important to me as my toddlers are becoming more verbal and communicative everyday. Apologies for a pretty long and maybe boring post but if anyone reading this is going through the same situation as we are, feel free to give your two cents worth and leave a comment.

P.S. Living in a foreign land and how this affects my language use is something I have only slightly touched upon but would wish to write about at a later date. Is my primary/first language, English getting worse? Am I mixing my English with German at my convenience, i.e. speaking more Denglish? Also, as someone who has Chinese ancestry but rarely speaks Mandarin or uses the Chinese language, how do I reconcile this facet of my cultural heritage with myself and my children?


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