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.