Heart Language

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When I’m at the soccer field cheering for Liam in English, it’s not unusual to hear other comments being yelled in Albanian, Dutch or Turkish. While skipping around the gym during our weekly mother and child fun exercise hour, I’m not the odd-ball out because I only speak to Alida in a language other than German. I overhear other mothers calling to their children in Portuguese, Hungarian, English or Thai. German is the language we parents use to communicate to each other, but often our heart language is a different one.

Raising bilingual kids has been an exciting and interesting journey. (I’ll write more about our personal experiences in a post soon!) But I’m glad Patrick and I aren’t the only parents running this experiment with their children. We’re lucky enough to represent a small piece within a large community of couples who are raising bilingual children. Patrick’s brother and his Japanese wife have been encouraging in their example of raising two kids, now teenagers who are fluent in German and Japanese and strong contenders in English and French (school subjects). Patrick has a teacher friend whose husband is French: their children switch effortlessly between French and German during their holidays in France. A dear teenage friend of ours speaks beautiful English with the kids and me, but alternates to German with Patrick. Thanks to her Canadian mother and German father, it’s easy.

We’re not alone and thankfully we have many parents around us who we first questioned thoroughly about the best way to do this bilingual thing and whom we now can ask when we’re unsure about a certain child’s language development, for example. It’s fun to compare and hear stories: one little girl developed her own language because obviously if her papa spoke one language and her mother a different one, then she too needed her own. Eventually it became too tricky for her to keep track of all three languages, so she ended up concentrating on the two her parents speak. Another bilingual child identified the language his mother spoke with women and the language his father spoke with men, meaning with all women (no matter if they understood or not!) he spoke his mother’s language and with men, his father’s.

Even when in our globalized world raising bilingual children is nothing extraordinary, it is still a gift. And being able to give our children two languages from the very beginning is a gift I am thankful to be able to give.

Over a year ago a mother of one of these bilingual families gave me a book to read:
Mit Zwei Sprachen Groß Werden, Mehrsprachige Erziehung in Familie, Kindergarten und Schule by Elke Montanari. (I was unable to find an English translation, although it doesn’t mean there isn’t one, but the English title might be something like “Growing Up with Two Languages; Multi-lingual Nurturing in the Family, Preschool and School”.) I just read a scathing comment about it on Amazon.de claiming the book is not “scientific enough”. That is exactly why I found the book to be so great. The author is encouraging in all matters of multilingualism; her main credo being if you have the opportunity to involve more than one language in your child’s life, do it, no matter how much or how little (and in an authentic way).

A disclaimer here: I (and I believe to speak for the author as well) do NOT encourage people running their small children all over kingdom-come to learn languages they have nothing to do with on a regular basis. I’ve seen shows about parents who send their nine-year-olds to another country for an “exchange” in order for the child to learn another language and wonder in the end why their relationship with their child had negatively changed.  I’ve heard of people hiring Chinese nannies so that their children will have an advantage in the “real world”. This is NOT what I am talking about. Forcing foreign languages in that way upon children is succumbing to the “What My Child Should Be Able to Do Perfectly by the Age of Ten” checklist and has nothing to do with authenticity.

One point that stuck with me is how Montanari identified some languages as being seen as “good” or “desirable” (unfortunately I don’t remember her exact terminology), and others as the opposite. Of course which language is desirable has changed over the course of the centuries. At one time Latin was the diplomatic language, used for international relationships; in the 18th century French took over. Thanks to the colonization by the Brits in the 19th century and the United States’ rise to world power status in the 20th century, English is now the “in” language to speak.

In Germany they begin learning English at least in elementary school, if not even in preschool. English is the one language required across the board, no matter what type of school a kid attends. In some schools, especially in a university-track school (called Gymnasium) a pupil might choose to begin with a different language, maybe French or Latin, but it is almost impossible to end a high school career without some English schooling. Most of the German people speak some sort of English, even quite often pride themselves in their ability to communicate in the language. Even if you want to speak German in a rough-going beginner’s way, you can be hard-pressed to find Germans who won’t find it better to switch to English. But the point is it is defined as “good”; therefore, our children, according to comments made to me, are especially lucky to be learning such a fabulous world-worthy language.

I agree English happens to be a good language to know and to grow up hearing, but if I were Hungarian, my mother-tongue would be no less valuable. And passing it on to my children would not be less important. My children have a huge advantage because they are constantly told from others how lucky they are to be learning English. It has been and continues to be made clear to them that their second language is “desirable”. Of course this is an easy way to motivate, although being able to speak to Grandma and Grandpa also entices. Having several native English speakers in our community is an added bonus, which naturally encourages practicing English, and makes it more than just a strange Mom language.

Of course learning a more obscure second language can make it difficult for a child to see the necessity in it. They can’t see any immediate importance of knowing and speaking that language. Maybe the child never hears anyone other than family speaking it and wonder, “What’s the point?”

BUT, and I’m going to repeat myself here, it doesn’t make the language any less valuable. A mother tongue is a heart language, no matter if the world considers it to be “desirable” or not. It is Heimat (That word again! For more on it, see this post.); it is a mother’s whisper from long ago. Nowadays languages are often identified as “first” and “second” languages, depending on what language is stronger. My children’s first language is German because they live in a community where German serves them best, but English is more than just a “second language” to them. It is their “mother’s tongue” (a “father’s tongue” is no different) and expresses warm cuddles, loud laughter and softness; it lends identify across country borders. It is my heart language and with it, I communicate tenderness and love, and I am confident my children have heard it.

What breaks my heart is when I hear people in one breath praising our efforts at “teaching” our children English, while shaking their heads at Turkish families who continue to speak Turkish in the home. (In Germany there are many Turkish immigrants; often people speak negatively of that language, although I think it is no different in the States. Think Mexican immigrants and Spanish.) The usual argument goes something like this: These people live in Germany now, and so they need to learn the language here. They need to integrate. If they want to live here, they need to at least try to fit in!

How can I be praised for speaking my language at home and others are denounced for it? How can a person be denied his mother tongue, when without it he cannot fully express himself? The language that helps these individuals remember where they come from; the language that holds fast a connection to family members in the native country. All foreigners should proudly speak their language and obviously pass it along to their children. Yes, they live in another country now, and yes learning the language of this country will help them succeed here too. Most are more than willing to do this.

But I am convinced if Turkish parents – I’m going to continue with our Turkish friends as an example, but any other nonnative could be used interchangeably – would be encouraged to speak proper Turkish with their children, those children would go on to learn proper German when they come into kindergarten. How often have Turkish parents been told by Germans that their children must learn German? Obviously the parents begin to waver and want what’s best for their children and so renounce their own beginnings and speak German with their children. As I can attest, any learned language is rarely spoken from the heart. It is often riddled with mistakes, and is in a way, cold or without feeling. These children come into a school setting having learned neither proper German nor Turkish, the language that would have given them a place to spring from. And instead of being told how special they are because they can already speak two languages, they are made to feel ashamed because they can’t speak proper German. Do we really have to wonder why there are Turkish people who don’t feel welcome in this country?

Bilingual children, and not just ones with “desirable” languages, need to be built up and encouraged. These children need to feel proud of the gift they have been given. They are not just learning another language, like later at school. With their mother and father tongues they receive a gift of belonging, of a beginning. And with it they are better prepared to continue their lives’ journeys. It is a gift that we cannot refuse them.

When we finally learn to embrace this gift of multilingualism, the mosaic of our communities can only become stronger and more colorful. On the surface the German language connects us, but looking closer we see each tiny piece that is a different language, each of which speaks from the heart.


Don’t forget to look for a post coming soon about our personal adventures in raising bilingual kids!