Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Emotional Connection in a Non-native Tongue

The other day, I received an email from the host of January's Bilingual Carnival, proposing that I write an article addressing the emotional connection quandary that arises in raising a child OPOL in one's non-native language. She reminded me that "folks on the outside" might wonder why we are choosing to raise our child this way, especially as a couple with no close familial connections to the target language.

"I never seriously considered raising my children in French," she shared with me in her recent email, "not only because my French is a little rusty at this point, but because I was concerned about being able to communicate with them emotionally in an adopted language. If I'd been a native speaker or truly thought in French or if their dad were French and we communicated that way, I'm sure I would have spoken French with them, but I was nervous that I might not ever be able to really convey my feelings for them in French because, well, I don't *have* feelings in French. Does that make sense?" she asked me. "Most OPOL families I know do have some familial connection to the target language, and so it makes a lot of sense that they make that choice, but I always wondered about that conundrum for families like yours, and if you ever find yourself at a loss for words in German not only when you're frustrated but when you're overflowing with love, pride, etc. (I guess we all find ourselves at a loss for words--even in our native languages--at those moments!)"

Ready to Give Up
If I had made the time to write five days ago, I might have started my personal post with something like, "I'm SO ready to give up! It seems like ALL I have heard from Kaya today is English, despite my constant conversation with her in German. Once again, I'm making ALL sorts of meaning about what it means about me (I don't play with her enough, speak German with her enough, pay enough attention to her), and about what it means about Geoff (he plays with her SO much more than I do, despite his full-time job; he speaks so much more English with her than I do German, THAT must be why there's an imbalance in her language tendencies! How am I going to keep this up once she's really immersed in a culture that speaks English (daycare, school, friends, etc.) as opposed to just being home with me all day?!"

A friend called me in the middle of my 'moment', and gasped when I told him I was ready to quit. "Quit what?!" he asked. "Speaking German with Kaya?!"
His tone was enough to remind me of the immense support that I have, support that makes a huge difference when I really do feel like giving up.

Today, with distance from that challenging evening and thus a much different perspective, I am eager to share my excitement for why I continue to do what we chose.

Clearly, as Abigail expressed of herself, and I implied in my story above, I have had emotional concerns about communicating with my daughter in German. There are multiple times a day when I wonder if I'm saying something 'properly', as a native-speaker would say it. As you may know (perhaps from reading about my Language Experience), I grew up in California, speaking all English, all the time. After starting my German study in college (after 8 years of Spanish), earning a B.A. in Foreign Language, spending a few years living and working in Germany, and teaching and tutoring high school German for 5 years, I ultimately decided to plunge into raising our daughter bilingually in German and English. So, as a non-native speaker of German, there are moments when I get SO tired of hearing myself re-structure my sentences, either aloud or in my head, and often find myself wishing that I weren't so damn grammar-aware. I get so burned out on my internal dialogue regarding which verb or preposition or structure sounds best and is most accurate. Like the other night, when I was SO sick of hearing the German ME. Sometimes, I just have to take a break from the self-criticism, curl up in bed, and put my German on mute.

Why Do It, Then?
So why, you might wonder, would I put my daughter in a position in life where she could possibly learn a language 'wrong', full of errors and non-native manners of speaking?

There are a number of reasons that I turn to, all of which bring me right back to my dream to raise a child in two, possibly even three, languages. I wrote about some of them in a blog post back in August 2010, entitled More Benefits of Bilingualism, but will add a few salient points here that I'm borrowing from an article I read by Michael B. Paradowski:

-"The substantial long-lived cognitive, social, personal, academic, and professional benefits of enrichment bilingual contexts have been well documented.
-Children and older persons learning foreign languages have been demonstrated to:
  • learn more rapidly in their native language (L1)
  • be more efficient communicators in the L1;
  • be consistently better able to deal with distractions, which may help offset age-related declines in mental dexterity;
  • develop a greater vocabulary size over age, including that in their L1;
  • have a better ear for listening and sharper memories;
  • parcel up and categorize meanings in different ways;
  • display generally greater cognitive flexibility, better problem solving and higher-order thinking skills;"
-On a more personal note, I find that there is nothing more important to me than the ability to communicate, interact and build community with those around us. For Kaya to have the opportunity to expand and create broader communities in her life leaves me with a feeling of utter happiness.

And on top of ALL of those reasons is this one, the one I come back to the most:

Of all of the personal accounts that I read (and there were many), I never read about anyone raised in a bi- or multilingual household that had any regrets that their parents raised them with opportunities for additional language acquisition. The accounts were numerous, however, of dissatisfied individuals wishing that their parents had taken it upon themselves to raise their children in more than one language.

I can at least do that, I think to myself. Make the effort and push through what feels like a sacrifice, at times, to provide her with opportunity. What she does with it is up to her. Even if she loses her German completely, if I end up jumping ship on the whole German-thing tomorrow, it helps me to think that her brain chemistry has been affected enough to benefit her capacity for learning and experiencing life more fully.

I'm completely aware of my 'worst-case' tendency. I go there first, when I have no confidence in my German, in my parenting ability, in my ability to push forward through the self-doubt. I go there, as well, because there are surely some of you out there that may be tempted to talk yourself out of it, and my goal is to encourage you to avoid the temptation.

On better days, from a more glass-half-full perspective, I smile to know that I am often mistaken for a native-speaker, at least when conversing in those topics where I am completely comfortable and at ease in my skin. Despite my doubts about my abilities to communicate various words here and there, and my need to look up words I've never before used, I have enough confidence in my German proficiency to keep me afloat in my dream. I also really love thinking about how far I've come since Day 1, when Kaya was first placed in my arms.

First German Love
All of a sudden, with her in my gaze, I was immersed in my first German 'relationship'. I was overflowing with love, and had given myself one language option (to try on for a minimum of 3 weeks) through which to communicate my love to my new daughter. I had a number of friendships in college while I lived in Munich, and continue to communicate with German-speaking friends over Skype, email and bi-annual visits to Europe. But Kaya is the first love of my German life. Abigail expressed her concern that she "might not ever be able to really convey [her] feelings for [her kids] in French because, well, [she doesn't] *have* feelings in French." I didn't have feelings in German, either, until I allowed (and encouraged) myself to fall in love in my non-native language. There's a first for everything if you allow the possibility, and that's what I did with my Kaya.

It was scary and awkward at first, for sure. I remember reading one author say that she used to hold her baby while he was sleeping and share with him, in English, all her deepest feelings that she couldn't express in her non-native language. Having that as an option really helped me forge ahead with my 'experiment', and in the beginning, I certainly did that on a number of lonely nights. But, over time, after I'd connected these seemingly awkward phrases with my authentic feelings of love and passion, they became part of me and my life with my daughter. Just now, for example, my husband just asked me to go check on her because she was still fussing a bit after he'd changed her diaper. As I approached her in her crib, lying eyes half-open on top of the covers, I tucked her in, blanket by blanket, and rubbed her cheek with the back of my hand. "Ich hab' dich soooo lieb," I whispered softly in her ear. "Du bist mein allerliebster Kuschelbaer..." {I love you soooo much. You are my most-favorite snuggle bear.} It feels so natural now, speaking German with her--simply the verbal method that I use to communicate to her how truly important she is to me. Initially, they were just words that I learned in my college classroom. I felt like a robot spitting out strange phrases to this beautiful, perfect creature for whom I'd give my life. A complete dichotomy. Then, as I read more and more German books about love and snuggling, and used these new phrases over and over in our lives, it began to feel more natural, to the point where I now enjoy creating our language of love, making up nicknames and word-games that may or may not sound native at all.

At this point, I can't imagine speaking English with Kaya. Sometimes, I'll say a few sentences, simply to see how it feels, and I find myself immediately switching back to German because it feels so awkward. I used to 'allow' myself the 'luxury' of expressing a sentence or two in English when I was utterly overwhelmed with life and the moment. Lately, however, I've become so comfortable with expressing my frustration in German that I don't need that 'allowance' anymore. That, too, has been a learning curve. This is HUGE progress, I'm just now realizing--where I used to find myself seeking relief from my guilt and fear regarding how much English I used with her in my frustration, I now spend more of my energy addressing how to best align my German phraseology with the type of parent I want to be, regardless of which language I choose to use.

Living in the Now

Abigail said something to me in her email about confidence, about how the amount of confidence that she has in French seems to affect how much she perceives everything around her. This got me thinking about how the language(s) that we choose to use in our lives is just like everything else: simply another aspect our lives that so clearly reflects how we live. Let me explain.

I used to wonder what it would look like when Kaya is 4, 5, 8, 12, asking me things that I can't even fathom being able to explain in my native language, let alone German! The thought has been the source of many a doubt, many a fear that has left me wanting to abort mission and go monolingual with Kaya. What I've been experiencing lately, however, is the power of living from right now, since it's really ALL we have. Yesterday is all in our mind, and tomorrow is yet to exist. Right now, on the other hand, is here, in our laps, in our hands. How do I feel about my relationship with Kaya right now? What wishes to do I have for her life right now, and for tomorrow, if and when it comes? These are the questions that empower me, leave me feeling alive and excited about German and English and life and possibility. When I live from this place, from the place that "right now, I'm choosing to speak German with Kaya", I feel excited about what is possible. I have more energy and less fear, more passion and less doubt.

So for now, that's what I'm doing. I'm speaking German with Kaya.
It's tempting to focus on the past, on the fact that I'm in my 3rd year in this journey, with a year of blogging under my belt. But that's not living in the now, right? So, I bring it back, again and again, to the now.

Right now, I'm choosing to speak German with Kaya.
And loving the opportunity to share it with you!

Thank you, Abigail, for the encouragement to expand...

For Additional Reading on Topics Pertaining to the Above Post:
Language Development at 20 months (Aug. 2010)
My theory about why Kaya's English, at 13 months, was more developed than her German (Feb. 2010)
Language Strategies: What I do and have done to foster our German (Jan. 2010)
My concern about my emotional connection with Kaya (Jan. 2010)


  1. Thanks for this post. I wish my English was as good as your German. I spoke only English to my daughter for 2 months and then I quit, overwhelmed with insecurity and fear. Now I speak a little English to her everyday, and I also try to create English environments with Tv, music or games.

  2. Strangely, given that there is no way I could do it, I hadn't really thought about what a strain raising a child the way you are is for the non-native speaker in charge of the non- native language input. And I do read you blog!

    Anyway, glad you are persisting!

    1. As LATE as my response is to your comment, thank you! I really appreciate your support!! =)

  3. -Mamay, we each do what we can in the moment that we are doing it, right? As much as we can give them, in all areas of life, is wonderful, as far as my outlook is concerned. If we get hung up on what we're not doing, we have less energy to do anymore and see the good in what we're already doing!
    Solnushka, thank you for letting me know that you're here and interested and learning. It's the reason why I write....well, one of them...knowing that you guys are all out there with similar thoughts, feelings and situations. Thanks so much for your vote of confidence, and I look forward to hearing from you more soon!

  4. Tamara, if we had moved to the UK last year, I would be a similar position to you i.e. speaking in a non-native language with my kids (albeit with a native speaker husband to back me up). So go for it, sounds like your German is just great- and hey, my English sometimes feels like it's letting me down these days, so maybe our situation today is not sooo far removed either....

  5. Jen,
    It's great to hear from you...I've been to your blog and enjoy it a great deal. Looking forward to finishing your post about the Maeuschen, too!

  6. Don't give up!!!! I'm here to tell you that those walls will appear and reappear! I have three children 10, 7 and 4 and they are trilingual today. I was raised bilingual in California (Spanish and English) but sometimes it felt unnatural to me to speak in Spanish because English is my true native language! My children must make a lot of mistakes in Spanish because I sure do! But they speak it fluently! They can communicate with me and with others in all three languages. Don't give up, the rewards are too great! You will see! Try building your German community there where you live. Playdates are great, even if just the parents speak the target language initially!

  7. Hello Tamara,

    I am sitting here nearly tearing up after reading this entry. I am a French teacher (non-native speaker) and I have begun the journey of speaking French to my 14 month old in this past year. Your thoughts, feelings, and experiences really resonate with me and I have been having lots of that inner monologue this month myself. Reading this has inspired me to push through my fears and concerns. Thank you SO much for making me feel validated and less lonely in my own head!! :) I shall keep pushing on!

    Hillary in Cincinnati, Ohio

  8. Busy as a Bee, now as with all of the support you've given me over the years, I truly appreciate it all! Thank you! You're REALLY does pay off. Kaya is fluent in two languages, and impresses me in her abilities in each. Thank you!!

    Hillary, you are the perfect example of one of the primary reasons I wanted to start this blog in the first place. Thank you SO much for your comments, for spending the time to commit yourself to this journey, and for sharing of your self so authentically! I hope to hear more of your journey down the road...!
    with love,

  9. To me it's so normal to speak English to my two boys, even though it isn't my first language. My 7 year old is completely fluent in both languages, but whenever he makes a mistake, grammar or otherwise, I cringe. But then I listen to the "naturally" bilingual kids and they make the exact same (or worse) mistakes. We who practice "artificial" bilingualism often are way more language conscious than the "natural" ones. I really admire you for choosing such a complicated language as German for your endeavor. And don't forget soon she is old enough for more complex books,where she will be treated to super-pristine grammar and vocab.

    1. Thank you for your input, I really appreciate it! I, too, realize how hard "we" are on ourselves, as non-natives, and I think I would be a little easier on myself were I to have more access to native language speakers Kaya's age. I heard one speaking the other day at her German immersion camp and wanted to stand there and listen to her all day. I'm pretty sure her German was flowing more than K's, but at the same time, Kaya isn't a super chatty kid in general. I do think her English is better, and I do worry a bit about being able to maintain our deep level of communication if her German doesn't stay 'up to par'. Thanks again for your comments...i totally appreciate them!


I LOVE reading your comments, they make such a difference! Thanks for sharing!