Thursday, April 28, 2011

Can I do this?! Do I want to?

This post was written for the Blogging Carnival on Bilingualism, hosted this month by Multilingual Mania. Thank you so much to everyone involved...your posts and readership make a massive difference for us all!

I was doing an interview with a friend on Thursday, when one of her answers left me pondering:

"What can you count on me for?" I asked her, curious to hear her perspective.
"To speak German with your daughter," I heard, suddenly smiling at the irony. Just two days earlier, I was making plans to back off.

To speak German...,
the non-native language that has been plaguing me for weeks, leaving me feeling trapped and restricted in how I say what, and when...

With my daughter...,
the incredibly endearing two-year-old who is adamant about what she wants with whom and where...

If we'd had more time, I would have told my friend all about how close I'd been. She probably would have said, You've been there before, right?, and I would have said, Yeah, but this time I was really close. And I woulda been right--I was really close.

As you may know, if you've followed my blog at all, I've continued to struggle with this whole non-native endeavor. Am I good enough? Can I do it? Will our relationship suffer? Is it really what I want now that I have a feel for the sacrifices involved?

The past few weeks have been especially tumultuous for me, in regards to these dilemmas. I could think of little else other than changing my method and breaking free of my entrapment. Not throwing in the towel altogether, but allowing myself some opportunities to speak English with my daughter. However, being as strict as I have been about OPOL, I felt like I was about to give up. Though I've gone through a few brief phases in the past two years, I've generally spoken to our daughter in only German since day one, and requested that my husband do the same in English. It's been a roller coaster of emotions, to say the least, watching the ebb and flow of Kaya's English and German. One week, tons of German. The next, seemingly none.

When Kaya was a baby, other mom-friends would give me crap because we had such an "easy" baby. She slept well, ate well, and cried when most people expect babies to cry. I knew I had it good, and soaked it up for as long as I could. During this time, as I implied above, I continued to speak German to her, despite the awkward challenge of monologue in my non-native language. As tempted as I was at times to give up, I told myself I'd wait for dialogue before making my decision.

Well, here it is. The dialogue. Full sentences. Narrations her life as she lives it:
Kaya's hungy.
Kaya's done.
Kaya do dat.
Kaya will staubsaugen [Kaya wants to vacuum].

The day has come, I've reached my goal, and as I've been doing all week, it's time to re-assess. Is this what I want? Can I handle it? Is it as much of a priority as it used to be?

No. I don't think so. Not really.
The answers were pretty obvious to me, and their negativity was what had me truly questioning whether my method reflects where I want to be going. I'd talked to three very important people in my life--my neighbor, my Dad, and my 'surrogate' mom--all of whom supported me immensely in doing what I felt was best: backing off the stricture and doing what felt more comfortable and easy.

My concern, I told them, was that as much of a gift as bilingualism is, I'm not sure that Kaya isn't losing out in some other way, at the expense of our attempt to raise her in two languages. It's the classic argument, right? Can a non-native speaker really foster the essential connection in their non-native language? A month ago or so, I had no doubts. A blogger friend even asked me, "What's changed? What happened to cause the doubts that didn't seem to exist before?"

Kaya is two.
That's the difference.
At least that's how I make sense of it.

I tell myself it's harder because I'm not only trying to parent in my non-native language, but because I'm constantly faced with being tested in it, too. It's one thing to be the parent I want to be in English...that, as many of you know, is challenging in itself. But in German?! While we were taking a parenting class last year, I remember the struggle that I had, attempting to process all of the info in German--What would that sound like? How would you say that? And how am I going to get it to come out in German when it isn't even natural in English?

And that's what I doesn't come out naturally at times, especially in those moments when all I want is to get my message across as quickly as possible, and to feel confident in my role as a mom. Not lame and stupid and awkward, speaking my third language.

Between those uninspiring feelings, and my sense that I haven't been speaking to Kaya as much as I might if I spoke to her in English, I feared that she might be losing out on a big part of her mom. And as much as I know that there are no truths, no guarantees, my understanding of neurology had me confident that those foundations are not worth sacrificing for anything, including multilingualism.

I still believe that, I have to say.
But what's changed is my strategy.

After talking to my Dad on the phone, and hearing him tell me that, according to my concerns, I should change my method "forthright" (I kid you not, he used that word!!), I began to wonder if I might not regret my decision later. Of course, this wonder wasn't new...I've been kicking it around for weeks, frozen by fear of the consequences of "giving up" on something that I might not be able to get back. It's had me feeling trapped, this fear, and is exactly what I've been trying to shake for the past 6 months. Kaya may speak 'a lot' of English right now, far more than I continue to expect under the circumstances (another topic for another day), but what I do know is that she's not speaking English because she hears me speaking it to her--and that, for me in my current position, is incredibly relieving.

In the past, I've talked about creating possibility, about the power of seeing what you want and going for it, even if it seems completely out of reach. I decided, while sitting on the couch with my husband, that it's time, once again, to employ that tool. Instead of feeling stuck in strategy, trapped by my own rules and regulations...despite being tested and awkward and tired and tempted...I can focus on the possibility and follow through with my initial dream of active bilingualism for Kaya.

It really came down to this: If I give up now, at what could be the most challenging parental phase of our lives (adolescence aside!), how will I feel later?

Of course, there's no way to know until I'm there, but my sense is that I'd rather not make any rash decisions, about anything if I can avoid it, when I'm being tested by a toddler. We really should use this excuse far more often than we do, fellow parents. I can't pay the bills, honey...I'm being tested...

The other thing that had me holding on was this awesome piece of advice by another blogger-friend: "...we have created this environment which is really remarkable, yet we feel, in weaker moments, that we are doing something artificial. Maybe we are, but it's all our little angels know, so for them, it is their reality...I just think that its easy to forget that actually, for Kaya, it is as normal to hear you speak German as it is for her to hear her dad speak English." This is so true. The last few days, as I was mulling all of this over, I spoke a few sentences to Kaya on different occasions. Each time, she'd been simply focusing on whatever object was in front of her, as she often does. As soon as I spoke English, though, she quickly turned to look at me, and paused, as if she were clearly processing that something wasn't quite 'right'. She notices, I have no doubt of that now. And as this friend continued to remind me, "inside her brain, Kaya understands German whether she chooses to respond using her German words or not." This, too, was a great reminder. I'd been telling myself that all my efforts were for naught, that the challenge isn't worth it if she's not even learning how to speak 'my' language. But what I forget in those moments of high expectation is that there's a lot I don't know, and making a decision based on those feelings can leave me, leave us, with oodles of lost opportunities.

So, at this point, I've decided to stick it out: I'll stick with OPOL for six months, which will just about see us through our 3 1/2 week trip to Germany in October. At that point, Kaya will be closer to 3, in a different language phase altogether, and hopefully, fingers crossed, won't be testing us as severely. I know, I know...testing continues. But I'd rather 'risk it' and see, than be driven by fear and overwhelm....the conclusion I seem to land on every time.

Thanks, once again, for joining us on our journey...

P.S. I know that there are many of you out there, bloggers and parents who I value and respect, who don't use OPOL as your method. You may bounce between methods, and might utilize the inconsistencies that leave me feeling so fearful. I just want you to know that, in no way, does my fear nor my dialogue here, reflect my attitude towards you and what you do. I recognize that we each do the best job we can, with everything we do, and we each have our own set of expectations and concerns. As much as I know that I share concerns with many of you, I also recognize that my concerns may feel eons away for those of you employing different strategies that work better for your life. I applaud you for whatever you do, it all makes a difference--I'm just not very good at extending the compassion and appreciation I have for you, to me (working on it though, and one day, SOON, I'll be a master!).


  1. Tamara

    I am glad to know that my words have helped you get to where you want to be right now. I feel like I have gone some way to repaying you for the support you have given me over recent months.

    I understand your rollercoster of emotions. I am continually amazed at how committed and excited I can feel one day and how unsure the next. It would be great if our goal here came without the added weight of responsibility that comes with being a non-native.

    It is not without difficulty but it is, without doubt, achievable and there are people out here (like me) to support you where we can.

    Keep us posted.

    Bonne Maman

  2. Bonne,
    Thank you, once again. Your words REALLY did make a BIG difference in this whole low-point in the roller coaster ride...and, naturally, I continue to be so thankful for that. Without you, and the rest of our communities (esp. the bilingual and non-native one, too), I wouldn't have made it past this dip, I'm sure.
    I've been reading a book called, Raising Multilingual Children, and it has me feeling not only VERY relieved that I "made it through" (by choosing what I did), but also very reassured in some other aspects, as well. A post is brewing...
    Will certainly keep you abreast!

  3. I feel for you! Two year olds are challenging enough. Feeling less than confident in your communication medium must make it double hard. Good on you for sticking it out. I'll offer a couple other points to ponder: just as she will grow out of her terrible two's, her attitudes and competencies concerning German will constantly shift. As parents we will always be one step behind. (not very motivating, but something to accept). Also, no decision is permanent. If you change your strategy, there is nothing stopping you from changing back in other circumstances. Be kind to yourself! You are doing a great job and inspiring othere Moms along the way.

  4. My parents spoke to all seven of us children in Spanish, we were all born and raised in California and rebelled against our true native tongue by always answering our parents in English!!! When I turned 21 I spent 18 months in Ecuador and it took me just a few months of speaking to transform my understanding of Spanish into fluency. Even if your daughter continues to say most things in English, you'll never know how you're influencing her life until you see it through! Good for you for hanging in there!

  5. Bonne Maman hit the nail on the head...inspired one day and just off the next. I think we all just need balance.
    I wish I found so many other families in this situation before...I don't know why I thought I was alone.

    *KUDOS* for keeping up with your little one.

  6. Hey Tam,

    I know that you've wrestled with this. I just want you to know that I think that the effort that you've put forward the last few years to enrich Kaya's language is admirable and absolutely impressive.

    I'm glad you've decided to stick it out through your trip. That being said, I also totally support you in whatever direction you take with this in the future.

    You've given Kaya a great language foundation during a really crucial time in her life, and more importantly you've loved her through that same crucial time.

    Much love,


  7. Thanks for your candor here, Tamara, with which I can deeply empathize.

    I think parenting--at least conscious, conscientious parenting--involves regularly re-assessing what we're doing with our kids in all aspects of their lives. Because children (and parents) constantly change and grow, what worked last week might be a disaster tomorrow. (Don't even get me started on potty training!) It's a dynamic experience even without bringing our non-native languages into the mix!

    I will confess, though, that I'm delighted you're committed to keep speaking German with Kaya for now. :)

  8. Notsospanish~
    I truly appreciate your reminder that, despite what I believe in any particular moment, I ALWAYS have the choice to start RIGHT now, and RIGHT now, and again RIGHT to be who I wanna be and do what I want to do. Thank you, for both that, and for your continued support. Your writing brings joy into my life, and validation, as well. I look forward to reading more about your life in Spain!

    You bring up a very good point, which I naturally really appreciate hearing here. It can be so challenging to do something when we wonder if it really will make a difference, and the reminder from others that we won't always know what difference we're really making...very helpful indeed. Thank you!

    Chasing Rainbow~
    Kudos to you, as well, and thank you. I'm so glad that you're finally finding support in this, community so to speak. It's helped me immensely, hearing from all of you guys, knowing that I'm not alone. Amazing how that can bouy us in the toughest of moments. Look forward to keeping in touch through our process!

    thank you, not only for your comments, but for your willingness to go the extra step and add them here. It means so much to me, to us, to have your support in this and in the other areas of our lives!

    And Sarah, last but not least!~
    So glad that my tendency to speak my heart helps us relate. I think your point about re-assessment is a good one, one that I will keep in mind as we move along here, and do my best to avoid feeling trapped by any decisions I've made in my past. Sounds so easy...but feels SO hard sometimes. I'm also delighted to hear that you're rootin' for us to keep on truckin'! I'm in the process of writing a post bout some reading I've done that has also made me VERY glad I've stuck it out for now!

  9. Hi Tamara!

    I skipped through the first couple paragraphs and was worried you were going to 'give up' the non-native bilingual journey (for lack of a better term). Selfishly I'm so glad you've decided to keep with it - you inspire me to keep going speaking German with my daughter. I never even thought I would be able until I started reading your blog and a couple others. I refuse to believe 'giving up' as an option, though I'm sure I'll get there.

    Do you have any excellent ideas or tips for improving your German? I often worry that in the coming couple of years I will feel even more inadequate as my daughter's German and language becomes more complex. (She's 21 months now.)

    Share your advice, if you can! I'm sure I'm not the only one wondering. :)


  10. Hang in there - it is totally worth it and Kaya (my daughter's name as well!) will continue to learn German. There are long, long, long dry spells of English only, but the German is still there. It really is! It only takes a little bit.....have faith!

  11. Lauren,
    thank you SO much for not only taking the time to comment, but for sharing how much of a difference my blog has made for your in your process. As I may have shared before, it's a big part of the reason I do this, to build and strengthen the community that we are so fortunate to have.
    I've been thinking about the improving German idea, and will consider writing a post about it...I haven't been doing much lately, so I'm not all that inspired...but I know how it goes. The inspiration will come along again one of these days!
    Thanks again,

  12. Kiersten,
    Thank you, to you as well, for your validation and support with this. That's REALLY really great to hear, about the long spells. I've been feeling really at peace about it all lately, and that contributes to that peace as well, without a doubt. Look forward to reading your blog soon...and how fun that our daughters have the same name!

  13. I know how you'll feel if you stop - you'll regret it. I regret stopping 3 years ago, even though I know all the reasons I did and just how tired I was (I was hugely pregnant with my 7th child, 3 children with speech problems, my oldest was leaving for college, I had no German support at all). Now, 3 years later, I think, "If I had never stopped, we'd be having conversations in German now that aren't just Gute Nacht - Gute Nacht." I read Sarah's blog and other people's blogs and I regret it.

  14. Hi Jeanne,
    I really appreciate hearing your input here. I've been thinking about you a lot over the past week since you wrote, and have been wanting to share the following.
    I hear you, about the regret. You're probably right, that's probably how I would feel, which is exactly the reason I chose to stick out it for another little while (small steps). I appreciate your validation on that point.
    And on the other hand, I've wanted to say that I really believe we all do the best we can in life. You chose to do what you did for many valid reasons. I strongly believe, that under the same circumstances, I would have stopped, too. Seriously. I'm confident that you are an amazing woman, an amazing mother, with only the best of intentions for all of your children. No, I don't know you, but I do know that you are human, and believe that we are inherently good and want the best for ourselves and those around us. Thus, I'm confident that, regardless of the language/s your children may or may not speak, they have opportunities ahead of them, and in their laps now, that may not have been there if you HAD chosen to stick with the German. It's so tempting to play the what-if game...our brains go there effortlessly, don't they? But for me, it's a really disempowering place. You did what you did, whatever the reasons, and that's perfect, primarily b/c it's in the past and there's nothing we can do to change what happened yesterday. It is my hope that, with this response, you (and others!) can come from the perspective that "what is, is" and it's perfect exactly like that. When I work with the now, I'm a lot more inspired and less (if at all) overwhelmed with what might be or what "should" have been.
    Thank you, once again, for stopping to add your thoughts. I hope to hear from you again!

  15. Thank you for your very freeing comments!


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