I came home yesterday evening after an intense working day. One of those days you just want to enter into your warm and welcoming home sweet home, sit down on your sofa and chill a bit with the kids before cooking dinner. As I was leaving the kitchen with a cup of tea, I heard some unusual words in our household. Our four-year-old daughter decided all of a sudden to talk to her baby brother in English. And some sentences later, she begun to talk to me in English: “Mummy where shall I put this?”
Valentine and Marcus, a Franco-German couple living in England for a year and a half are experiencing what I hear from a lot of parents: the arrival of the language of the country of residence into their day-to-day is often related to nursery or start of school. Lots of bilingual parents already speak English at home but it’s a weird experience when kids bring it home and start using it too, especially when they usually speak your mother-tongue.
At home we speak either German or French. Our kids only learn English with others, at school or at nursery. We were proud to listen to our daughter when she was started repeating her first English words to her dolls or singing her first English songs but now, one year later, English has become the way she seems to want to talk to her brother or to us.
Rosi from Switzerland has experienced the same difficulty. At school, the kids slowly begin to associate play with the new language. It’s almost impossible to find playgroups where they speak only in German: kids seem to just prefer speaking in English. Claudia, mother of two, is German; with a few other mothers, she founded a German-language group. I needed a place where I could meet other German-speaking families. In fact, very often the mothers were speaking German and the kids were playing in English. But it was still so important to have this cultural environment and to organize the kind of events I experienced when I was a child, such as Sankt Martinssingen (lantern crafting and singing procession) or Ostereiermalerei (painting Easter-eggs).
Keeping the joy of being bilingual alight is a real challenge faced by parents. In the interviews for Bilingual Families: Bringing Up Children between Cultures, parents shared a lot of personal tips and tricks about how to encourage their children to continue speaking their mother-tongues with them. Their most important tip: keep it fun! You want to pass your language on to your kids with joy and this is a child’s deepest life force. Valentine had a similar impression:
After having tried to talk to her in different ways (grumpy, annoyed and irritated), my daughter gave me the most moving lesson about language tug-of-war, talking to her brother and smiling at me she said: “Allez viens petit bonhomme, je vais te montrer un jeu où on ne parle qu’en Français!”. (Come on little man, I’ll show you a game where we only can talk in French!) She showed me that pressure or irritation were the wrong ways, humour and fun were the only ways to go!