Wednesday, November 29, 2006

The Measure of Success

"Mama, mama, did you hear that? Marie said 'ball'! 'Ball' is Marie's new word!"

My 5-year old and 3 year-old sons run from the living room to the kitchen to tell me this great news. Their eyes are wide with awe: yesterday their little sister couldn’t say the word "ball" but today she can! Their joy is infectious and it reminds me that each step in this magical process is a wonder to behold. How could I ever take this for granted?

My daughter simply wants to make herself understood yet could it also be that she is relishing in the fact that she can finally imitate the sounds that she hears around her? And I often wonder these days whether she views words differently. For example, does "ball" have more or less importance, difficulty or sense of success than "grrrr-ruff, grrrr-ruff" (the sound she makes for a dog) to her? Does she realize at her one and a half years of age that "ball" is the item and that "grrrr-ruff, grrrr-ruff" is the sound a certain animal makes? When will that realization take place? Or does it happen gradually? Do we need to learn something like that or does it slowly just appear in our understanding of language and grammar? No matter what is happening in that little mind of hers, it is going a mile a minute and watching her little mouth learn to pronounce words is an absolute joy for the whole family.

With their English-speaking grandmother around for a few weeks, my sons have been asking for more translations than usual. Sometimes it is from English to German, other times from German to English. "Mama, was ist 'graben' auf Englisch?" my 3 year-old asks. "Dig," I tell him. "To dig in the dirt. Or, I am digging a hole in the sand." He thanks me and runs to my mother and says, "Grammy, I want to go outside and dig in the dirt."

It surprises me that a 5 year-old and a 3 year-old understand the concept of translation. They seem too young to understand this. But perhaps this is simply the result of growing up bilingually? Why wouldn’t they understand the concept of translation? It most likely comes naturally to them to realize that there are one-to-one translations for the specific words they don’t understand. How many times has their daycare provider or grandmother or other people asked, “What did you just say? Can you say it in English? I don’t understand German.” Course, for someone who never completely learned grammar rules until she studied Ancient Greek and Latin in college, a child comprehending language constructs of any sort is pretty amazing to me.

All three of our children have tended to first focus on speaking everyday words that are similar or have similar sounds in both languages: ball/Ball, milk/Milch, house/Haus, bread/Brot, more/mehr, go/gehen. I usually don’t give this much thought since I speak both German and English but it is when my mother, an English-only speaker, is around that I realize how this process impacts our everyday life so directly. It is amazing how these words do the job even if only the first sounds are spoken. When my daughter says, "mich" it could either be milk or Milch - either way, she gets what she needs. Or when she wants to go outside, she tries out different variations of "guh" and with a pointing finger toward the door (and the fact that she has a hat, a jacket and boots on) it is pretty obvious to everyone that she is trying to say "go" or "geh(en)". But what it all comes down to is that my mother understands her and assumes that what she is saying is "go" and a German-speaker understands her and assumes she is saying "geh(en)". Either way she has made herself understood - talk about a conservation of sounds!

In the end, when asked how "successful" we feel we have been so far in raising bilingual children, I look at the expanse between each little step and realize just how far we have come as well as how much more there is to explore. We are in a jungle of language and culture, winding our way through vines, delighting in new plants and species as we traverse. There is no ultimate destination; there is no final point of "success". Yet, if we look to the small goals which we subconsciously set for our families, then I'd say that my overarching hope for my children is for them to have the ability to make themselves understood across both of their families' cultures and languages. If both my husband's mother and my mother can understand what my children are saying, explaining, requesting, describing and discussing without feeling that they are different, that they belong to "the other" culture, then I will feel a sense of success.

The irony behind having such a goal is that I don’t think it will never completely be reached... I am still growing in my ability to communicate in English, let alone German, and although I am American through and through, the fact that I am married to a German and lived in Germany means that all of my words and choices are influenced, to some degree, by German concepts and ways of thinking. I am no longer "just" American anymore. I am the composite of many pieces, all of which are so ingrained I wouldn’t be able to separate them out.

So, I doubt whether we, as a family, will ever feel that sense of accomplishment and success that completing a task brings with it. In the end, we know that we are moving in some direction and it seems to be a good direction. It does often feel like the "road less traveled", especially living in the US, and at times, just that feeling keeps me motivated and excited about this journey.

In my next blog I want to share my utter joy in watching my 5-year old learning to read! I'm not sure when it finally all clicked for him but the other day he pulled down his little learning-to-read books (in English) and hasn't stopped. We probably would have started with German books but we couldn't find any as good as these English ones.

I am excited to say that there will be a lot of information in our January issue of Multilingual Living Magazine from experts and parents on how to help your bilingual child learn to read! I think many of us are interested in what they have to say!

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Meeting Alice

I'm often torn between love and hate for our technological world. On the one hand, I cherish email. I am enamored by Instant Messaging. Being able to call my husband while I am riding on the bus to find out if he is picking up our kids from daycare is invaluable. But at other times I can't stand the attention my little laptop receives from me. My children can be pulling on my sleeve crying out, "Mama, mama, look at what I just made" and my response is a distracted, "Oh, right, yes, mmm hmmm, just a second, let me finish this email". My husband says, "Just shut the darn thing off!"

What it all comes down to is balance. I need to simply outline my priorities and set time for each. Spending time with my family is my top priority (why else have I made the effort to only work three days a week) but I also need time at home for things that are not family related, like the Bilingual/Bicultural Family Network and Multilingual Living Magazine!

Many months ago, I came across a few blogs from bilingual/bicultural families like mine and soon was in email contact with a the writers. They were eager to be in contact, as was I, and soon we had formed friendships. Most I only know via their written words: I have never heard Lilian's voice and I don't even know what Clo looks like. It doesn't really matter to me that I am unable to meet with these new friends in person. There is something so meaningful about knowing what is REALLY on their minds; topics that wouldn't necessarily come up via in-person chats over coffee or tea. When I meet others in person, I rarely discuss the intimate details of making a bicultural relationship work or how torn I feel not being able to live in more than one country at the same time.

Maybe it is me. Maybe I am the one who keeps verbal conversations simple and superficial. Maybe when I hear the words come from my mouth I simply don't know how to say what I really want to say and so I don’t say much of anything important. Do I need more time, more contemplation to come up with the right words for the thoughts rolling around in my head? I am a people-pleaser at heart so when I meet in person I often feel nervous, limited, hesitant, worried, anxious. I want everyone to feel comfortable, I don’t want to create any confrontation or offend anyone. Yes, when I write about my thoughts via email or a blog, I feel a kind of expanse of space and time, a limitless freedom to be who I am. There is no one to offend since I am not writing to anyone in particular other than myself.

Then there is Alice. When Alice sent me her first column, it brought me to tears. It all started when I contacted her about her wonderful blog and if I could include it in our blog list. Then came a few email discussions about the dream of a newsletter or magazine for bilingual/bicultural families and whether she wanted to contribute.

It was the middle of the night of February 2006 and I had been sitting in front of my computer for over an hour, just staring. I felt hopeless. I felt that I had nothing to say. I felt that my dream of a magazine was over, that none of us had anything to say, especially me, and that I would have to simply let it drop. My husband couldn't console me, even though he tried.

Then Alice's email arrived. She had sent me a column for our new newsletter. I opened it and as I read through it my skin started to tingle and I started crying. It was beautiful and it was brilliant! Her words were exactly what I was looking for and I was so thankful and honored that she was out there sharing her feelings, thoughts and humor with me. She gave words to the world of a bilingual family, she was painting a picture, together with humor, of the struggles that so many of us face!

At the end of August of this year, I met Alice and her beautiful, wonderful family for the first time. We had decided that while in Germany visiting my husband’s family, we would rent a car and drive down to Austria to visit Alice. Somewhere in southern Germany, near the Czech border, I called her to let her know what time we would arrive that night. That was the first time I had ever spoken with her! After 6 months of almost daily email contact and that is the first time we ever heard each other's voices! I was nervous and a little worried that hearing each other's voices would dispel the image and myth we had created of the other. I can't speak for Alice but for me it was a delight and only further defined this wonderful person with whom I had formed a close friendship.

We arrived late that night in our rented black Mercedes (was the same price as a standard car that could fit three car seats). It was raining and our borrowed GPS navigation system had wanted to take us on small back roads through the Austrian countryside before we had figured out how to reprogram it. But we had now arrived and were about to meet for the first time. Alice met us part way to her home and helped scuffle our bunch of 5 into her dry home.

First meetings are always a little awkward and we had a lot of experiences that we were bringing with us. We were meeting each other for the first time “backwards”: We met for the first time already knowing each other's difficulties, struggles, foibles and pet peeves rather than first putting up our best personas until our true selves slowly seeped through. But meeting that way means having already gotten to know each other and not needing to start from the beginning. We met already having gained the trust of the other. I knew that Alice wouldn’t put me down for my insecurities and she knew that I would do the same for her. We knew that we were working together, not against one another, and had nothing to prove. In fact, we spent more time explaining to our husbands what we were talking about since they lacked our history.

The most fascinating for me was seeing where Alice lives, her town, her home, her laptop, her children's rooms. This was Alice's world. Her long shelves full of English literature books, a testament to her studies in the US. The things she delights in discussing when given the space and time. Of course, with our 5 kids under the age of 5 running around, we were often distracted and lacked the peace of mind to engage in drawn-out discussions.

We also met Alice's brothers and mother and in-laws. We were given a glimpse into her world of extended family, and it was a delight! English and German and Spanish mixing together fluidly and somewhere in the middle were conversations about life and love, past and future. Children running around in socks in the back yard... voices yelling out, sometimes in English, sometimes in German.

Writing this makes it seem so other-worldly, so unique. But it didn't feel that way at the time. It all felt so natural, so normal while at the same time so special, rewarding, a true honor It was a weaving of lives and families as if we had all known each other for ages while at the same time we were relating the basics of our lives - how we met, where we live, what our life is like in Seattle, what life is like in Europe vs. the US. Nothing to prove, nothing to defend, just a mixing of people and information.

Meeting Alice also meant meeting Austria. When we headed back to Germany, we had a better understanding of what it meant to be Austrian and a deeper understanding of Austria. During a trip to Linz, we were inspired to purchase a map of Austria and books of Austrian fables for our children (and, well, maybe for us parents too). Our children talk about their visit to Austria. They remember the street cars and underground train in Vienna. They remember playing with Alice's daughter and picking flowers outside the monastery in Alice's hometown. Visiting Alice has meant making her and her family a part of OUR life, not just mine. Seeing her in person with my family has meant all of us sharing in the experience. To me, that is priceless.

We will visit Alice again (if she will have us). We aren't done getting to know Alice and her family. We aren't done getting to know Austria. We haven't completed our tour of Vienna and my children really want another lollipop from the Turkish bakery around the corner from where we stayed. And the next time we visit, we are going to simply continue where we left off (if not further ahead) and this time we are going to have studied up on Austrian history BEFORE we cross the border. And if we are lucky, we'll get our black Mercedes rental again and drive 220 kilometers an hour on the long, flat stretches but this time I'm going to have my video camera in hand to document it all. *grin*

Thursday, September 21, 2006

The Sweetness of Language

Language has its way of capturing the minds and hearts of young and old - the melodies, the intonations, the rhythms, the meanings. Although I am confident in our choice to raise our children bilingually, I have my moments of weakness and insecurity. Before heading to Germany I was anxious as to what the reactions of family and friends would be to my speaking German with my children. As a non-native speaker, I make many mistakes which my children pick up. I am trying to improve my German but it is sometimes hard to keep up. I was worried that family might feel that my choice to speak German with my kids was only teaching them incorrect German.

It is possible that some do think this. However, our first evening in Germany dispelled many of my worries. It wasn't that anyone said anything to me about bilingualism or my language abilities. In fact, I was in the other room when it happened: I had phoned my mother in California to let her know that we had arrived safely in Germany and then passed the phone to my oldest son so that he could talk with "Grammy". In the livingroom, where he was speaking, stood quite a few German family members. When my son's telephone conversation began, the rest of the room suddenly went quiet and everyone listened as he spoke. He switched comfortably between English with my mother and German with his siblings and others in the room - transitions without hesitation, without contemplation. I listened from the other room as family members discussed their awe and amazement that a child of only 4 years old could converse so comfortably in two languages. They were not only delighted with what they were witnessing, they were praising my husband and me for making the effort to speak German with our children and their delight with how well they could speak both languages. My heart filled with warmth and joy and my earlier concerns melted away. I felt that at that moment, our efforts were truly coming to fruition. At that moment, it was clear that what we were doing was not only wonderful but completely necessary.

What delighted me the most was that family and friends didn't ever treat our children differently. They never assumed that they had to speak English to our children. They spoke to them using the same sentences, using the same words as they did other German children. This may have seemed perfectly normal to everyone but I know better. I know that this meant that our children really, truly have the chance to feel comfortable in more than one culture. This means that family and friends actually think of our children just as German as any other German children, just as family and friends in the US think of our children just as American as other American children.

I have no idea what the future holds but I have returned home with a renewed sense of confidence and commitment. I am looking forward to improving my German - if not for the sake of myself, then at least for my children. I can't help but think that some of the over 300 lbs of books that we brought back with us from Germany will help (the majority of which are for the kids).

Since we are planning on homeschooling our children, we have returned as fully prepared as we can be. My husband's sister-in-law spoke with the principal at the local school who was delighted to give us books that the school has used to help teach children to learn to read in German. We purchased two year's worth of activity books, early reader books, story books and much, much more. In fact, it was hard not to pick up a few children's books each time we had the chance to borrow a car and go shopping.

What I was reminded of during this visit with family and friends in Germany is that life is full of unexpected joys, kindness and honesty if we keep our minds and hearts open to them. The world actually does want us to succeed in our goal to raise our children bilingually and biculturally despite the fears and anxieties upon which we and others tend to focus. As our children grow older and the reality of our choices become more visible and obvious, I am sure there will be new challenges and concerns and I'm sure I will be riddled with new anxieties and fears. In the meantime I feel ready for whatever challenges our bilingual family might face. Of course, I say this as the holidays are approaching - the time of year when being a bicultural family can be rather tough and a husband living abroad feels the distance between himself and his homeland. But that is another blog...

Stay tuned for my next blog where I meet Alice face-to-face for the first time!

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Language Skills

The time has come... tomorrow we head to Germany for an extended visit. During this visit, all family members (except my mother-in-law who was with us when she was born) will meet our daughter for the first time! They will hear our middle son speak actual words and sentences. It is amazing to realize how much changes in just two years.

I have to admit that I am a little nervous. Not necessarily about the flight, despite the recent high alert issues at airports, since that is pretty much out of my control. In fact, I am very excited about the flight since it will be a direct flight (usually we have to transfer to a different plane) to Copenhagen followed by a car ride into Germany. Strange to think that we will leave one country, arrive in another and then drive into a third - all in less than 24 hours.

The aspect that is worrying me a bit is my language. It is easy to get away with speaking German to my children in the US since (1) German speakers are delighted to see that I am making the effort (2) German speakers don't have any personal attachment to me or my kids so they aren't worried that my kids might not be learning correct German language skills (3) non-German speakers are usually interested and excited that we are raising our children bilingually.

But what will family in Germany think? Now that my two oldest children are speaking in complete sentences, asking questions that demand detailed answers, and are sometimes unwittingly challenging the limit of my language abilities in German, I am worried that family in Germany will start to feel concerned. Will they feel that I am holding my children back linguistically when they hear how imperfect my language skills are? Or will they be delighted that I am making the effort? I assume it will be the latter but when it comes to these kinds of issues, it is always hard to know how family, who are emotionally involved, will react.

In the end, I get along very well with my in-laws so I'm fairly certain they would feel free to discuss their concerns with me - if they have any. The catch is that they are all Northern Germans, which means it sometimes takes them a while to get around to saying something. But when they do say something, it means they already will have taken the time to consider their thoughts first.

What it really reveals is that no matter how confident I sound, no matter how much encouragement I get from others, no matter how many times people share their delight in the effort I am making, deep down I still feel insecurities and question myself. Life is not lived in a vaccuum and the impressions and comments of others have an impact. On the other hand, maybe this is the way it should be? Maybe it is my insecurities that keep me open to new ideas and allow me to adjust and come up with new plans as needed. But it also means that if I get out of balance and lose too much confidence, then comments from others might have more impact than they should. Balance is the key.

So, we will see what happens and what kind of conversations we have about raising children bilingually. It will probably not even be much of an issue since the pattern is to speak German with one another anyway. Most probably won't even think about it. They probably will be delighted that their grandchildren, neice and nephews, and cousins can communicate with them without any problem. Beyond that, our conversations will most likely be about changes in life since we were last there, politics and the meaning of life.

Stay tuned and I'll let everyone know how it went when we get back in September.

Thursday, July 27, 2006

Taking the First Step

On the weekend we purchased our first homeschooling curriculum for our children: a Pre-K program in English. If it looks good, then we will try out the Kindergarten program as well. It feels like something real has taken place; a movement of sorts, from just thinking, dreaming, envisioning, to actually taking a step. What is it about actually paying for something intended for a specific purpose that makes it feel so real to me? Our next step will be finding items that can work as a complementary curriculum in German while we are on vacation in Germany. As many of you probably know, homeschooling in Germany is illegal.

Although the curricula we are purchasing and putting together are for my children, they could care less whether they have a curriculum or not. They don't care whether the items we have are new or used, are loaned from the library for a few weeks or are actually owned by us. They are in their own world of immediacy and items like books are simply to be read, toys to be played with, regardless of where they came from. So, the question is: for whom is the curriculum? Is it for my children or is it for me? Does it take purchasing a curriculum to make me feel like a "real" homeschooling mom? Aren't the hours spent sitting on the sofa reading books, building structures, adding and subtracting items for the fun of it, practicing writing while creating a birthday card all considered homeschooling as well? Ultimately, what is the difference between homeschooling and doing interesting things at home? I am really not sure but I have some kind of faith that makes me believe we will figure it all out as we go along. At this point we still have room to make mistakes, try out different methods and curricula and to find our way toward what it really means to homeschool.

When we decided to raise our children bilingually, there was a period of time when we went through the steps of making a conscious decision; going from just raising our children bilingually in some kind of natural, haphazard way to coming up with a kind of plan, thinking about a process with desired outcomes and possible pitfalls and then taking that first, small, tentative step followed by a steady, comfortable gait. Once we took that first step, we became a new family in many ways. We didn't necessarily DO things differently but we felt different about what we were doing and we felt that we were starting along a path that although would demand continual deciphering skills, would nevertheless contain mileposts, roadmarkers and a general flow of direction (albeit, a direction, mileposts and roadmarkers of our own making to a great degree). We went from saying we were intending on raising our children bilingually to saying, "Yes, we are raising our children bilingually in English and German." Before we took that first conscious step we just weren't sure what kind of answer to give.

Will we regret the decision to homeschool our children bilingually? I have absolutely no idea since we haven't really even started but all I can say right now is that it just feels right to all of us and we are waiting in anticipation for that package to appear on the porch any day now. In the meantime, our oldest child continues to request that he "do homeschooling" which means working in a math workbook that we purchased recently at our local math and science store. I go over the pages in his math workbook with him in English and my husband goes over them in German. Which, as all new choices do, brings up a new set of questions: will I be confusing my children if I homeschool them in English even though we all speak German at home? Will it all work out if we do the work in English and then when we are just sitting back chatting it is all in German? There is something inside my head that is telling me, "Yes, it will be just fine," but of course there is another part that says, "Hmmm, how can you be so sure?"

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

My Week of English

I just spent a week speaking English with my children. Although we are a German-speaking household, when my mother visits, I speak English with my children when she is around. Many say that this will confuse my children, at the very least, and could cause problems in other areas (identity, code-switching, etc.). Despite such warnings, this is the decision we have made as a family. In the end, we know that for us there is a lot more to raising multilingual children than just language.

For us, raising multilingual children is also about raising multicultural children. Indeed, multilingualism is actually only one facet of this dual approach of language and culture. When it comes down to it, family is the most important focus for us. What is the point of it all if family members are disenfranchised and bitterness arises? What would our children think if a kind of "family feud" were to erupt because of our issues with language?

This doesn't mean I completely give into the wishes of others (since in the end I don't think anyone really wants that). Instead, we all meet half way; a sort of compromise, if you will. This means that my mother accepts, and perhaps even encourages, us speaking German at home with our children but when she visits, I make the transition of speaking English with them and her so that she can be a part of it all.

It took quite a few years to come to this decision and it was the Bilingual/Bicultural Family Network that helped us find the answer for our family. In the beginning, I was extremely resistant and my mother felt very left out and perhaps even a little lonely during our visits together. Despite our arguments, I know that deep down we were less angry with one another than feeling hurt and a little betrayed.

It took many visits, inquiries into ourselves as to what language and culture meant to each of us and what, exactly, were the issues that were on our minds the most. My mother needed to hear why speaking German was so important to me. Sure, it seems obvious but it was important for her to hear it, to know exactly what it all meant to me. And I needed to know which aspects were bothering her the most and why. I had created all kinds of assumptions as to why she was upset but many of them were completely inaccurate.

One solution could have been for me to speak German with the children when she was around and then translating everything. This was simply not an option for me. This is my mother. She is my flesh and blood. She raised me, cared for me my whole life and now I was going to translate to her what I just said to her grandchild in a foreign language! No, not an option for me. It is strange enough that I speak a foreign language to my children. However, I was also not going to pretend that when she wasn't around I continued speaking English with the children. I'm not sure that she would have even wished that I not speak German with the chidlren, but even if she had, it wasn't an option for me either.

There is always the question of what would we do if my mother (or any family member or friend who didn't speak German) lived with us for an extended period of time? I'm not sure what the answer would be but I know that we'd all come together to discuss it and that we'd ultimately find a good solution. We'd find out how each felt about different choices and we'd find something that felt right for us all. No one winning and no one losing. Just a few humans finding their way along a less traveled path of language, culture, identity and diversity. No one said it would be easy but it is certainly interesting!

Tuesday, July 4, 2006

American Independence and the World Cup

Uh oh. That day has arrived again. The 4th of July has arrived and my husband is smiling and gritting his teeth. We are running around with flags and red, white and blue everywhere (food, flags, decorations). What my husband can’t stand is the flag-waving and arrogance by certain people that takes place in the US on this day. It frustrates him, it makes him nervous. He is slowly becoming numb to many ignorant statements: “America, the greatest country”, “The US is number 1”. The hubris in such statements simply makes him shake his head in wonder. As an American, I just ignore such statements since I hear them as fluff, nothing real or important. And I can't help but associate the 4th of July with my childhood: barbeque, fireworks, the warm envelopment of summer and sprinklers. For me, the 4th of July is a glorious day of laughter and fun. And did I say how much I remember the fireworks?

Ironically, my husband, who is German, will be participating in something oh so non-American on the American Day of Independence: he will be watching Germany play in the World Cup together with his other German friends! I find the irony simply delicious! Should we all wave German flags as the games begin and then trade them for American flags after the game is over and we set off our fireworks and eat our potato salad and apple pie? Should we begin the day with Wurstchen and then move on to Hot Dogs? Start with football/soccer cheers in German followed by picnics in English?

I’m sure that in the end it will somehow all fit together and somehow it will all make sense. But right now I feel a little nervous. I want to have a plan, to know what is coming, to know who will do what when and speak what when. Perhaps I am worried about whether cultures will clash or whether everything will transition smoothly between language, culture, identity and loyalties. I tend to stand between worlds, as a kind of mediator, the referee watching the game of my bicultural family and making sure we all play by the rules. No one can be completely at fault. Sometimes a yellow card is issued but never a red card. No one can or will be thrown out of the game and there can be no exchanges of players. Whether wounded or not, we must continue.

I’m still not sure how or why certain things have the meaning that they do. Why does a piece of fabric with stars and stripes waved by my children at a 4th of July march drive my husband to frustration? My husband explains to me what it was like growing up a German and the relationship with flag waving: it happens only in special situations. Perhaps that is why watching the World Cup right now is so emotional for him. The crowds of spectators there in my husband’s country of origin, millions of them have arrived, setting foot on German soil. My husband is here. And then he witnesses all of those fans in the stands waving their flags. They are just pieces of material yet they seem to represent something my husband misses so much: his homeland, his family, nuances that are only his own.

Tomorrow we will do many things: we will eat American food, we will cheer on a German team, we will share our lives with American family and friends and we will share our lives with Germans. We will witness flags from different countries being waved and will allow ourselves to feel whatever we might feel. And then in the dark, my brother will bring out the fireworks and we’ll stand in the middle of our little neighborhood street with our oh-so-very-American neighbors and share in a tradition that we can all agree upon.

Wednesday, June 28, 2006


My children are still young so we haven't yet engaged in deep discussions about language. However, I look forward to the time when we can. For example, I am extremely curious as to which language they dream in. My husband and I speak German with the children but they hear us speaking English all the time. In their in-home daycare, they hear Spanish and English spoken by the daycare provider and her assistant, and engage in conversations in English with other children and adults. Our playgroups provide German input from adults and other children. So, I wonder to myself whether at night, when their eyes are closed and they are in dreamland, do they also dream in two languages? Do their minds categorize languages in their dreams according to dream? Do beings in their dreams speak different languages depending on their characteristics - and what might those characteristics be? In a One-Parent-One-Language household, will children have dreams in which each gender speaks a different language? For example, will a male cat speak Chinese and a female cat speak English, reflecting the gender-language combinations that occur at home? Or do children only dream in one or the other language when they are sleeping?

Thoughts like this come to me often and I spend far too much time contemplating them. My hypothoses lead into ways I'd test them if I had the means. Groupings of families and individuals, each defined by backgrounds and influences... are there commonalities? Are there distinct differences? Who are we anyway? What is language anyway? Particles and synapses and somehow, amazingly it all fits together and we function. Very impressive! When presented with such a backdrop, speaking with my children in a second language seems very basic and simple; not even close to the complexity of the human mind in general.

It frustrates me that I probably will never know the answers. I am impatient and would like to know, even if only for my own knowledge. I wonder if there are already studies out there that focus on these issues? Have there been dream studies done? I recall so many studies that I have read and watched on television over the years. They have all fascinated me and been a great delight to learn about. However, that was before I had my own bilingual children. Now that I have my own, I long to find those studies again! They now hold so much more than an academic interest. They now influence decisions for my whole family.

We have some studies listed on our BBFN website but I know there are many more.

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Live A Life Less Ordinary

Do we know why we are raising our children to speak more than one language? I sometimes wonder what ever happened to doing something for its intrinsic value, for its beauty and the inspiration that it provides. Do we only read books because they will help us make more money? Do we only take classes that will help us advance in our career? Why do we often fall into the trap of believing we need a compelling financial or career-oriented reason to pursue something?

I will be the first to admit that I'd be delighted if raising my children bilingually and biculturally will aid them financially down the road. And I can understand why earlier generations didn't speak a second or third language when they were told that speaking a different language at home with their children could cause confusion or, at the very least, put their children at a disadvantage. I am sure I would have questioned why the experts were recommending against it but I probably would have felt pressured to not go against their test results and recommendations. Out of fear of doing something to disadvantage my children, I very likely would have caved under the pressure. Facts are facts, right?

My husband was the child of such a family. Despite his parents and grandparents speaking the local dialect at home, they were told to only speak High German with their children. So strong was the recommendation, parents and grandparents (as well as members of their generation in the community) spoke the dialect together but only High German to the younger generation. Of course the children picked up much of the dialect by hearing it but there have been some regrettable side effects:

* Local dialects are disappearing around the world. A major effort has been underway for a while now to revive the dialect. This is happening around the world as dialects and languages are falling into disuse and disappearing. As we all know, children will learn a language if they feel there are necessary reasons to learn and use it. Keeping a language alive as an academic exercise is wonderful but it will not truly keep a language, and the intertwined culture that goes with it, alive.

* The older generation, who often still speak the dialect, have not been able to overcome their habit of not speaking the dialect to the younger generation. Part of this comes from a subtle gut response: if the person they are speaking with is younger and especially if he or she does not sound like a native speaker of the dialect, then the older person automatically switches to High German.

* Children who are now being taught the dialect in schools are lacking the cultural associations that go along with a language. They are learning the dialect as an academic pursuit. At least there are grandparents around who grew up speaking the dialect but as mentioned above, it does not come naturally that they, and the older generation in general, will speak it comfortably with these students learning it for the first time. Especially with something like a dialect, learning the language purely in school is more sterile and limiting. Nevertheless, it is definitely better than nothing!

Language is a sensory being. It exists within the medium of life, within the medium of context. It takes on the characteristics of its surroundings and landscape.

If we want the language that our children learn to be sterile and flat, then we should make sure NOT to provide them with any stimuli other than the static words. If we only see language learning as the means toward a financial goal or success in terms of a better job, then there is no need for us to make language learning fun or part of our lives. In fact, if this is our motivation, then it would probably be best that we not even be involved in the language learning of our children since we might confuse the issue and actually provide an emotional context that would only muddy the issue later.

My sincere hope, however, is that we want more for our children than simply financial success and a successful career. My hope is that we can't help but be motivated by more powerful visions for our children's lives. My hope is that we long for our children to experience our language for what it is - to taste it, to savor it. If this is our desire, then we must remember that we are an important link in this coming to fruition. No, we must remember that we are THE most important link in this coming to pass.

We need our children to grow up not only hearing the language. Our children must be given opportunities to live the language, live the culture, live a life imbued with our languages and cultures. I firmly believe that it is important that we should allow ourselves to ignore the financial and career gains that our children might reap by learning our languages and to focus more on living our languages and cultures to the fullest.

Most importantly, we should remind ourselves of the influence we have on one another. What we say to other families about why we are raising our children multilingually and multiculturally has a strong influence. Encourage other families raising multilingual children to focus on the beauty of life and the sheer joy that multilingual living provides us! Live a life less ordinary! Live a life so full of language that you will forget that your children are indeed benefiting in other ways.

Saturday, June 17, 2006


Although I am not a native German speaker, I am on board with my German husband to keep German as our "home language" and speak German with our children. This poses many challenges, to say the least. The most difficult for me is at the end of the day after having worked 10 hours in the office to find the fluency of German that I like to think that I have.

The other day I was picking up our three children from daycare (ages 4, 3 and 1). My oldest and youngest were already in the car sitting in their car seats and I was encouraging our middle child to get into his seat. In German, I said, "Can you please get into your 'chair'?" My oldest son looked at me with a knowing smile, sighed, and said, "'Chair' Mama? It is 'seat', not 'chair'!" and then sighed again. I couldn't help but smile and said, "Yes, you are right, it IS 'seat', not 'chair', thank you."

There was a decisive moment in the past when my oldest child started speaking. My husband and I sat down together and decided that German would be our home language. And I can see that there will be many more such moments as life progresses. I will have to remind myself that although I am not a native speaker, what we are doing is the right thing. And who knows, the time will probably come when my German won't be advanced enough to engage in the level of discussion with my children that I wish. At that point my husband and I will sit down again and have another discussion. I'm not sure what we'll decide but I am confident that we'll find a solution that works for all of us.

Friday, June 16, 2006


We all know the feeling: so many ideas, so many visions and so little time. If only I had more money. If only I had more time. If only, if only. I am in awe of this website and this magazine, which the time and effort and vision from people around the world has created. On a late night like tonight, I carve out a few more hours to work on the magazine. Between working 35 hours a week and a family with three children, I have come to do this website and magazine with the utmost efficiency during the late hours of the night. No moment can be wasted.

It is between two worlds that we slowly put the pieces together. Editor and Managing Editor, Alice and I, we communicate via google chat for the first time tonight. We cross borders and time-zones. We consult on the magazine, we share information about ourselves - we have worked together for months yet know very little about one another. I know that Alice has a keen eye and sharp language skills but I'm not sure what her voice sounds like. I learn about her via her blog and I have come to know her via her essays and column. And tonight, as we piece together a magazine, I realize how easy it is to bridge the expanse of our earth. To be here and there at the same time, even if only through our consciousnesses.

When morning comes, I'll feel a sense of guilt. The hours that each of us, each of you, has contributed to create something so special feels like a guilty pleasure to me. Do others share in the joy in this website and magazine creation, or is this simply the culmination of selfishness on my part? To read your essays, to learn about the world through your eyes and words brings me such joy, I wonder what I have done to deserve such wonderful luck. Where did all of you come from? How did we find each other? Why do you choose to share your thoughts? Do you also experience the sheer joy that I experience when knowing that we are all in this together, that our concerns are shared throughout the world?

I will head to bed now knowing that there is so much more to be done before the magazine will be ready. I have also failed to update so many things on the website, again. I'll have to put them off until tomorrow. I have faith that all of you will understand and forgive me for having let these things slide. You have probably noticed that this project is a labor of love more than anything?

In the end, I question myself: why do I do this? Why do you do this? Why do we read the words of others? Why do we long to know what they are doing, what they recommend, how they have gotten to where they are now? Do we fear that we are perhaps doing something wrong? Most of us lack parents who have already gone through raising multilingual and multicultural children, so we are on our own, so to speak. And even if we are fairly certain that what we are doing must be the right thing, there are still so many other elements that we would like to know, would like to examine, want to understand.

In the end it seems that a magic is performed whereby words and images and colors and text all coalesce into something we have decided to call a magazine. We know we had something to do with it but the parts are too numerous to calculate. Pieces are directed to where they belong and a thing of beauty is formed. One by one the pieces fit into their perfect order and when the last piece has been fitted, the magic begins.

Some of you may wonder where the magazine is this month. It is the 15th, right, so where is it? This month things are changing... we are becoming more mainstream. Expect a new magazine in two weeks, on the beginning of July. And if all goes well, then you will be able to print it out this time. No promises since one can never tell how much time one will have, but it is possible that all of the pieces will fit together and a few more hours in the middle of the night will have been carved out for creativity and creation.

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Life as a Gazelle

One of my fondest memories as a child is leaping through the countryside behind our California foothill home pretending I was a gazelle or another lightfooted animal from the African plains. I can still remember what it felt like to imagine I was in that far-off land, the air blowing against my face and the long grasses brushing against my shins as I leapt and bounded.

My thoughts of all things African really came to fruition after my family invited a man from Africa to visit us in our home. I have no idea from which country he came but I can still remember his dark chocolate skin and beautiful accent. His eyes were dazzling and concentrated. He listened carefully to every word and replied deliberately and warmly.

I realized then that there was something much bigger out there than I had ever before imagined. An expanse beyond what I had ever contemplated and which National Geographic documentaries couldn't come close to capturing. It was then that I told my mother I would one day visit Africa. And, as would be expected, to bide the time I became a gazelle.

There is something magical about meeting people from other countries, especially when you are a child. As a child our world seems so clearly defined and most of the time we know what to expect. We have a fairly good idea of how each day will progress and picture books are the limits of our worldly exporations. But when we first meet that person with the gloriously different accent who acts and dresses and behaves so differently, we stand in awe, amazed by this encapsulation of a new culture before us.

This simple act can change the life of a child forever. As parents, it must be our job to help provide our children with profoundly awe-inspiring moments in their lives so that they will expect no less as they grow older, so that their curiosity and craving to explore the world will continue to flourish and blossom.

Many years later, with the Cold War at its height and movies about Russians and Americans fighting or falling in love filling our minds, I was certain that I'd visit Russia, meet the love of my life and we'd be married. I told my mother as much: "You know, Mom, I'm going to marry a Russian someday." "Sure, ok," she'd answer. "No, Mom, I really mean it, honestly!" I'd repeat.

Well, my life moved on, I went to college and then Ireland and in the end I didn't marry my Russian, and I haven't even visited Russia (yet), but I did marry a man from another land, another culture, Germany, and I can't imagine wanting it to be any other way.

Monday, February 20, 2006

Returning Home

As we all know and have experienced, living in another country changes you forever. You will never be the same and will never see things the same way again. I once mentioned this to a friend after living in Ireland for a year. She responded, “oh come on, don’t be so depressing”. But whether it is a depressing reality or not, for those of us who have lived abroad, this is simply the way it is.

The first time I experienced what experts call “Reverse Culture Shock” was after returning from a Year Abroad Program in Ireland. My home town, which often gave me a sense of comfort, upon returning seemed stifling and bereft of warmth. I moved about my days feeling that something was missing but no idea what it could be. Eventually I came face to face with the reality that my home would never, ever again feel the same as it had before. I sealed my fate as soon as I boarded that plane the year before.

I don’t think there is really any way to describe this feeling to those who haven’t experienced it themselves. What is it exactly that causes us to feel this way? Why is it more pronounced when living in a different country than just living in a different city? Does the degree of difference between our home country and the target country determine the level of change we will feel when returning?

Many descriptions of Reverse Culture Shock describe it as part of a continuum whereby eventually we’ll feel at home again in the US and the vestiges of the “shock” will have slowly worn off. Although it is true that the initial feelings of strangeness have subsided, I still feel that something will never be the same even now, so many years later. What I constantly contend with now is a continual pull to go back… go back anywhere as long as it isn’t here. Yet when I am back there, I feel the pull to return back here. It is as if I am living in a kind of suspended reality, never really here or there.

The joy of having spent time in another country is that you slowly become a part of it and one of its people. Our attention to detail is heightened and we make a concerted effort to understand and fit in until we become one with our new location. What I have seen and felt and heard and smelled in each of the places I have lived has made me who I am, like a wine picking up its surrounding elements.

I would never want the clocks to be turned back to the person I was before I set foot on that first airplane. Instead, what I want more than anything is to have my favorite elements from each country right here with me now. I want to have an Irish pub around the corner here in Seattle, full of Irish laughter and music and incessant chatter. I crave the smell of peat burning in the air and the Irish lilt.

But I can’t stop there… I want to have my favorites from Germany and France with me here as well and of course the Australian joviality and Tasmanian kindness. I want to somehow piece them all together into a quilt of my making and to wear it day in and day out to bring me comfort.

Ultimately what I have lost in hometown comfort I have gained in international comfort. Where once boarding an airplane was an amazing feat and arriving in another country 10 hours later unthinkable, I now feel a sense of familiarity when we are snuggled down into our seats for our long flight. I have a pretty good idea of the sequence of events whereby we will get from here to there and cherish the chance to head to my “other home” of Germany for an extended visit. And once there for a while, I can’t wait to snuggle back into my bed in my home in the US.

This first appeared as an essay in our February newsletter:

Wednesday, February 1, 2006

Getting Started

I guess it is time that I get on board and join the blogging world. Dear friends and cyper-acquaintances, please bear with me while I figure this all out. I still want to post anything bilingual or bicultural related to the BBFN homepage but here is where I hope to post those plus everything else. So much to say and no place to say it.