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!

No comments: