"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!