Being expat

My multilingual journey


(updated in 2020)

Some time ago I read an interesting article from a mum raising multilingual children in a multicultural environment. She told her multilingual mothering story in a very positive and encouraging way.

I would like to encourage mothers, fathers, caregivers to not be afraid to speak several languages with their children. If you are bi- or multilingual yourself: don’t be afraid to make your kids become part of your multicultural world.

As a multilingual mum, I know how enriching it is to call several cultures and languages your own. “There is nothing better in life than understanding other cultures from the inside, including their sense of humor and their way of thinking. The more languages you speak, the more you are able to find yourself in the right place and situation” (I quote the author of the post).

My multicultural experience started when I was born. My German parents lived in Italy, so Italian and German were the first two languages I was exposed to since the beginning. German was our family language and Italian was the language we spoke with locals, with Italian friends and with those who didn’t understand German. There was never any question about not learning Italian, neither for my mum, nor for us children.

And this were the late sixties early seventies! There were no lessons for adults at that time, so my mother learned Italian thanks to TV, radio and daily contact with locals. She is a very skilled and curious learner. I think she passed this passion on to my sister and me. She never questioned the utility of the languages she learned. I remember that at the age of 4 I once came home cross after having played with our neighbours’ boy, complaining about him not wanting to learn German. He was a bit older than my sister and taught us songs, rhymes etc. and I was upset because he refused to learn German songs or rhymes from me. I couldn’t understand why he was talking always Italian with us and why he wouldn’t talk German too, like we did.

My mum told me that we were guests in this country and that we were supposed to learn the language of our hosts. Not the other way round. Or at least, if our hosts didn’t want to learn our language, we didn’t have to insist or feel upset about this. – This made perfectly sense to me. Even if later some of my Italian friends were more likely to learn German, I still think my mum taught me what it means to be an immigrant.

I learned German and Italian simultaneously, since the beginning. My parents only spoke German and our babysitter only spoke Italian with us. I can’t remember when I started to talk Italian, but it was pretty much at the same time I started to talk German. The 3rd language, French, followed at school, when I was 6, the 4th, English, when I was 11. I had Dutch friends in school and picked up some typical expressions and ended up liking this language too. At age 13 I took Latin classes until age 17. The 6th language I acquired was Swiss-German at age 20 – but I already understood Swiss-German because I watched a Swiss-German TV channel from age 4-6 (alas it wasn’t possible after that) and when we traveled through Switzerland and the Swiss-German part of it when visiting family in Germany once or twice per year. We also spent some holidays in the Western part of German speaking Switzerland (Wallis).

I never took Swiss-German lessons: I just repeated what locals said and fully immersed into the Schwiitzertüütsch. During my studies in Zurich I learned Spanish through texts, learned Old Provencal and Old French, as well as several Italian, French and German dialects and regional variants.

I learned the following language, Dutch, at age 38, which I also read and write, and which allows me to understand also Flemish and other local dialects. I had the opportunity to briefly dive into Norwegian, which I seem to understand, and am currently learning Korean as an autodidact.

———

As some parents are very concerned about their teenage children refusing to talk a minority language at some point, I would like to reassure them: bilinguals or multilinguals will always have one or two dominant languages, depending on their personal preferences, the language(s) their friends (peers) speak, their work environment etc.

If someone learns a language and attains a good or very good proficiency in it but then stops using this language in his daily life, he will always be able to reactivate it at any time if needed.

I used not to talk German every day for several years when I was in my twenties, and ended up doing lots of code-switching with people I knew were able to understand the other language I was mixing it with (Italian); but with a bit of effort, I managed to make full sentences again. Today, German is our family language, as well as Swiss-German and Italian.

I speak at least two or three languages of my languages per day, and read or write in the other ones. As I tend to say: I am all my languages and I feel the most complete when I get to use them all in a day!

Are you a multilingual parent as well? What is your experience with your languages?

Bildschirmfoto 2013-03-20 um 16.16.35

15 replies »

  1. I keep coming across cases of children who are refusing to learn/speak their parents’ languages, and will rigidly stick to the language of the country/region they live in. I guess children don’t like to feel that they are “different” from their peers and they may reject their parents’ native language(s) because of this. Is this common, in your experience?
    BTW, I keep meaning to point this out, I hope you don’t mind – there’s a typo in your headline blurb. It should read “mum in her forties”. I never spot my own…

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  2. Thanks, ladyofthecakes, for pointing out the typo in my blurb! I’m somehow blind for my own typos… (I’ve corrected it, and please, if you see any more, don’t hesitate to let me know, ok?)
    As for the children who refuse to learn or speak their parents’ languages, this is very common, yes. It can occur at several stages, depending on the phase they’re in. Especially when the children are attending local schools they might refuse to speak their parents’ language because, as you say, they want to belong to the group. Unless they have some really good friends who share the same language this period can last for a very long time (I know from cases where it did last for over 10 years!). It’s very important for children (of any age!) what language they friends/peers talk. But parents shouldn’t worry too much: even if a child doesn’t reply in their (parents’) language, as long as they respond, i.e. they understand what they say, they will at least build up a passive competence in that language. I know, it’s very frustrating for parents to see that their children don’t value their language. Spending holidays in a country where this language is spoken is a good start to help the child realize that there is a “world” where this language is dominant and important. I might write a post about this too, thanks for this input!

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