Language salat(d) is commonly served up at our house. It’s colorful with heavily-accented English words thrown randomly into German sentences. Or in my case when an English word hides somewhere in the chaos of my brain, the German word steps in, covering for its English equivalent. Our general rule – Mama speaks English and Papa speaks German – guides us, but does not constrain us.
Patrick and my love language is German. It is the language that accompanied us through our courtship and early years of marriage when I spoke almost no English. And German is the language we return to now in conversation, even when recently this comfortable habit has elicited protests from the children.
“Warum redest du immer Deutsch mit dem Papa und English mit uns?! Du kannst doch Deutsch!“
(Why do you always speak German with Papa and English with us?! You can speak German!”)
“What did you say? I didn’t understand you.”
Of course I understand them, a truth my children grasped from the beginning. And, I suspect, the reason my children all respond to my English with German. Early on I questioned our language tactic, wondering why other bilingual children we know always responded in the appropriate language, switching effortlessly from Mama to Papa. What were we doing wrong? But when a friend shared about a Spanish mother who refuses to respond to any language from her children but her own, I hesitated. Is that what it took to hear my children speak English?
I realized it was. And I also knew I did not have the tenacity to follow through with it. The interaction with my children – applauding their first attempts at forming words, no matter what language; allowing them to tell me their stories in German as they gasp for breath from running the whole way home from school; listening to the Bible stories they’ve learned in Sunday school – has priority and constantly playing a game of not understanding would get in the way.
And so I revel in those moments when the English word comes first, making our language salad even brighter. For example this sentence Alida said as she put her shoes away:
“Dann mache ich deet, deet on the shelf, ganz nicely.”
Of course, a sentence like this is hard to translate, but in essence she said when she puts her shoes together on the shelf it looks very nice (deet, deet is a Schmidt word with multiple meanings, in this case “together”).
Or this response from Fenja to my question “Fenja, why are you wearing my socks?!”:
“Immer, immer (always, but said with a heavyAmerican “R” on the end) sind meine in die Vesh! (combo word of the German Wäsche und English wash).
I can’t imagine speaking to my children in German because English is my heart-language, the one with which I still best express myself and the language I heard while being loved upon as a child. That matters. And I am convinced my children notice it too. When Fenja is bursting with love and exclaims, “Oh Mama, I love you so much!”, I know she’s comprehended on a deeper level the honesty of her mother’s tongue. It is those moments that fill me up and remind me it doesn’t matter if they speak fluent English; my kids can communicate in the language of my heart.
When we began this journey of bilingualism it seemed exciting and scary. While introducing ourselves at my first mother-baby-group with Fenja, I tacked on that I am an American and speak only English to her. Everyone “oooed” and “aahhed”, appreciating the advantage my child would have, but I felt more vulnerable than I had in years. It had become easy to merge imperceptibly with the Germans around me. Only by choice or after longer conversation was my Americanism revealed. And now I was “the American” in the group, no longer just another mama with her baby. Bilingualism demanded I become comfortable being different.
Sometimes it’s hard work too. In those first years switching between German and English left me exhausted. My brain was being pushed as it had been when I first came to Germany. Back then putting German words into a coherent sentence left me ragged. I would take hour-long naps on the tiny blue sofa hoping to give my brain time to recover, but even in sleep, it didn’t rest. I would dream of people trying to communicate, speaking the poor broken language I used. When I woke I felt tired and headachy.
After an hour of mama-baby-group I would nap with Fenja. It was joy to speak my mother-tongue with my baby, but a chore to look up and make other sounds come out of my mouth. Again I often felt tired and headachy. But as with anything, practice makes perfect and after almost nine years of practicing, my brain can now keep up.
I see bilingualism as a great gift Patrick and I are able to offer our children, and perhaps a small recompense for “giving up” my own country. I am impressed when my children understand my English mutterings, even when fast and mumbled, and proud when I see their eyes light up at their own ability to express themselves in English. It’s fun to hear my kids translate for their visiting friends and amusing when at about age three they realized for the first time that their mama really does sound different from most everyone else. (“Most everyone” because we are blessed to be imbedded in a community where several native English speakers are friends, giving our children a place among others like them. They even get to have piano lessons in English – a great learning experience and fun for Mama!)
My kids do not speak fluent English, but I’m convinced it’s there, ready to make an appearance when needed. I no longer ask what we’re doing wrong. Instead when we do things at our house like “laufing” (laufen, German verb for “to run”, with the English –ing ending) and schlafing (schlafen, German verb for “to sleep”, with that English ending again) or when Liam asks for more bones at lunch, and I know he means green beans and a conversation like this takes place:
Alida: Was gibt’s zum Mittagessen? (What are we having for lunch?)
Mama: Something yummy! Spinach omelette with potatoes.
Alida: What for potatoes? Mashed potatoes? (looks concerned)
Mama: No, those little crushed potatoes. You like those!
Alida: Oh, I am glad because I love not mashed potatoes.
I know we are only adding to our lovely language salat(d).