Steph works in advertising and customer relationship management. She comes from Germany. Her husband Karl is an architect originally from Lebanon. He speaks German, she doesn’t speak Arabic, they communicate in English. Their daughters had the potential to become trilingual from birth. What are the turns their journey took?
I studied Linguistics in Wuppertal, Germany, but always wanted to study Design and Psychology so I chose those as my secondary subjects and initially preferred them. Back then I didn't think a lot about multilingualism. Halfway through my studies I discovered Linguistics are actually quite interesting although I kept preferring the social aspects over phonetics and syntax. There were lots of interesting workshops and seminars I regret not having chosen to study at the time. Arabic would have come in handy in hindsight.
On learning English and cultural references
Ironically, I was never particularly good with languages. I nearly repeated my 10th year at school because of my low grades in both English and Latin but passed the exam the second time around: I went on a six-month exchange program to Seattle, USA, and learned to speak English. I still had the impression my writing could improve and signed up for Erasmus, the European University Exchange Program, and came to London for the first time.
During my initial six months in the country, I hung out a lot with fellow Germans. It was a lot easier this way but I soon realised that my language didn’t progress at the speed I wanted to. Speaking so much German hindered my advancement in English.
When I came back a couple of years later for my Master’s degree I consciously decided to search for a different experience and avoided meeting other Germans living in London. It’s not that I cut out friends, I simply didn’t push for friendships when a new acquaintance happened to be German as much as before. I found other nationalities to hang out with: A South African and a Pole were my best friends at the time. We all lived in the same student accommodation.
This helped improve my English a lot. Internationals also make it so much easier to blend in, from a cultural reference point of view. You can survive among them without knowing Graham Norton or ever having watched Big Brother - back then I was missing the cultural references and thus access to these conversations. I understand it now and can use it but it isn't my point to make. I feel funny saying things such as “I’ve had a Blue Peter afternoon” when we’ve been immersed in lots of arts & crafts activities. It is a learned reference, not one build on personal experience.
On tipping scales
Today, being a German speaking mother of two, I have the reverse effect happening to me again: Because I speak more and more German in my daily life to improve my daughter’s bilingualism, my English is in decline again. The more German I speak the higher its impact on my English. It’s a tricky balance to maintain but I’m happy to do it.
You believe that it would be beneficial to your -not their- English to talk to your children in English. Suppose you do that, wouldn’t it have the opposite effect of you losing your German?
My German has suffered already. It doesn’t improve. I feel words eluding me or that I have more difficulty finding the right expression at the right time. It has remained what it had been when I came over to England. I watch a little TV in German, but it’s not a lot. I don’t happen to stumble over new words or new expressions easily. To experience German culture through the printed press is not the same as living it. I miss modern colloquialisms. My German is 15 years old!
I really hope we can keep it alive because I find it beautiful. It is not just for the language. To be able to speak to my children in German is my anchor for keeping in touch with my roots. Keeping my culture and my tradition alive for myself as well. It is a part of me I don’t want to lose.
On what changes with children
You came here and you were looking for non-German friends. Did that change when you became a mother?
Was it the same kind of conscious decision? Did you actively seek other German speaking parents the way you actively avoided them before?
When I was pregnant I also took NCT classes and met a lot of people there. It was nice and the songs we sang were wonderful but they didn’t mean as much to me. I built stronger relationships with other German speaking parents. It wasn’t so much the common language. I felt isolated from my culture and it was beautiful to live a little “Heimat” when everything else in your life becomes chaotic.
When my daughter was born, I spoke to other multilingual mothers and took their experiences on as sort of case studies. A friend of mine had a child a year or two before me. She wasn't the most persistent mother when it came to speaking German to her children and I saw the impact it had, which made me think: I want to be different. And so I searched for German speaking playgroups and befriended more and more German mothers.
On wishing to raise multilingual children
Have you and your husband spoken about how you’d like to deal with languages in your child rearing?
We spoke about wanting to raise multilingual children. In hindsight I had already taken my decision. My dad had sent me a couple of books on multilingualism which I barely touched. It was my gut telling me to speak German.
My husband wanted to speak Arabic, too, but realised over the years that he has more trouble than me to persist. If he reads to our daughters in Arabic he translates it. He didn't persist enough for them to pick it up from the start. He follows their interests, which means if they prefer to read a story in English he will indulge them. It slipped from there and I believe after a while he found it cost him too much energy to insist on Arabic.
For me it was somehow easier but even I slip up from time to time. I thought I always spoke German until our eldest once told me “Please speak German to us”. Subconsciously I must be making exceptions. This for instance happens when I pick them up from school and they chat about their day in English. I just insert an inquisitive “says who?” from time to time to follow their story and just like that, the conversation becomes English.
A daughter who explicitly asks you to “Speak with me in German” is a magnificent proof that she associates her mother with one language and wants her mother to remain that way!
True, although this doesn't stop her from answering in English. Sometimes my daughters will reply in German, funnily the youngest tends to do that more often, but it remains the exception.
It's interesting because it’s usually the other way around: your first born speaks your language better whereas the younger ones “suffer” from their older sibling’s influence in the community language. Your case feels flipped.
At the moment, yes, but this might just be down to age. My older daughter also spoke more German a couple of years ago but the more she focuses on school, the more she becomes independent, the more she reads in English and the more her English vocabulary explodes, the less useful this is for her German. Of course I support her interests and I love her passion for reading and this is a natural part of growing up in England.
On enforcing your language
I used to read either English or German books to my children. Now I focus exclusively on German because it becomes more and more important to me to maintain the language. I’ve seen with others where it can go. I know of the slippery slope and would find it excruciating if they stopped learning. When my eldest tells me on Saturday mornings “I don't want to go to German school” it almost feels like an attack on the language itself.
She has asked me “What would I ever need to speak German for?” It made me think of a story I heard on the radio, where a father taught his son Klingon, the Star Wars language. They gave up because there was no social benefit to it. This is why I find it crucial to travel to Germany, to keep in touch with the grandparents, to have friends in the country.
We’re already thinking about organising an exchange with my best friend’s daughter who’s now 8 years old. It would be great to be living with another family. She doesn't speak English yet and I believe she needs to learn it first a little to feel more comfortable. But we could picture this working just fine in a couple of years’ time.
When your daughter asks you “Why do I need to learn German? What’s the use of this all?” how do you react?
It depends on my mood: “Because you’re German”, “To interact with your grandparents”, “Because it is beautiful to speak more than one language”. I’ve tried the “We have a secret language” approach - it backfired. She doesn’t care about that at all. “You’ll be able to study in Germany. Universities in England are really expensive”. Currently the “You can improve your GCSEs and A-levels with it” works best. But “It’s part of us” is probably my main argument: I’m German, you’re also German, this is who we are.
Have you ever encountered a scene where one of your daughters told you to stop speaking German?
No. But I remember a friend from university who had a child early on and had multiple encounters on buses where people told her to stop speaking German to her child and switch to English. Proper discrimination! I don’t know how I would react under such circumstances. Luckily this has never happened to me. Everywhere around me people are excited that I speak another language on top of English, so I’ve never felt embarrassed to speak it in public or felt uncomfortable using it.
On family politics and identity
Do you feel a difference in attitude between your family and your in-laws when it comes to dealing with multilingualism?
My parents want our daughters to speak German and it would never even cross their mind to speak any other language with their grandchildren. They grew up in Germany speaking only German, their English is good but not great. My dad writes emails to my oldest daughter in German and has gifted her a kindle. He wants me to buy her more German books to read.
In contrast, my in-laws speak extremely good English and all grew up speaking more than one language by default. In Lebanon you need to know at least two languages or else it’s considered ridiculous. My husband’s mother doesn't even try to speak with our daughters in Arabic, all interactions take place in English. She knows our children don’t speak her language. She would of course be delighted if they spoke Arabic and whenever they’ve learned a few sentences she applauds the effort and is super happy but it remains a phrase learned by heart and is not a conversation.
Is this related to identity? Your children are not perceived as Lebanese and thus not expected to speak Arabic?
Identifying as Lebanese is very complex and multilayered. It deals with faith, status, politics, culture. But to your point, yes, my children aren’t perceived as Lebanese. I also think if I were Lebanese it would be a different ball game. If I were to speak Arabic, then they would expect my children to speak Arabic as well.
So it’s a mother’s duty? As in “mother tongue”? The father is off the hook?
Hm. No. Yes. It’s the mother. If I would be the Arabic speaking parent and my husband was the German speaking one, there would be a higher expectation for our kids to speak Arabic, too. The same is true for if we were an Arabic speaking couple living abroad. Then they would automatically expect us to maintain the cultural heritage of the Arab world.
Has your husband asked you to learn Arabic the way he learned German for you?
No. I’m interested in it but he never demanded it. Many of our German friends don’t speak English that well and it’s more in his interest. Unfortunately for me he’s really talented at languages. He taught himself Hebrew, can chat in French. If he’s interested in something, he’ll invest in it.
I’ve always wanted to learn Arabic but don’t feel particularly good at languages. I know myself - I’m not the kind of person who’ll sit down and motivate herself. I need the extra push and haven't found it yet. It’s on my bucket list.
Do you think your children see this and deduct “Why should I learn the language if neither mum nor dad make an effort?”
I don’t think so. If they knew this, maybe. That I don’t know Arabic whilst they try isn’t something they’ve noticed. The few sentences they know I know by now, too.
On Tips and Tricks for other parents
I would find it great to have another German continuity in our children’s life. The German Saturday School isn’t that for me. They go there, do it, and are done for a week. If I could have daily child care support, that would be the absolute ideal. An au pair would be wonderful but doesn't fit into our lifestyle.
Your daughters are 5 and 7 and both at school. What would you recommend to new parents setting out on this adventure?
It helped me to listen to my gut feeling. I heard and read what others did but only took on what I thought possible within my means. The expectations one can have about oneself can be extremely high. Maybe don’t expect miracles. Try out how it works. You can always add on more but it needs to fit into your life first.