Sunday, April 3, 2011

Madam Mix-a-lot: Interpreter Extraordinaire

For the past week, I've been riding this roller coaster of challenge and triumph, as I watch the flip-flopping language pattern that so clearly defines Kaya right now. Just when I think I'm ready to give up (like Saturday night), Kaya flips the switch and starts speaking mass amounts of German (like Sunday at Gramm's birthday dinner). The high carries me for a few days, until I begin to wonder, once again, how long I can maintain this strange relationship of bilingual communication.

At my lowest point this week, a friend of mine helped me recognize that I was making all sorts of meaning out of the language that Kaya uses at any particular moment. Naturally, I wasn't aware of this in those moments...I was just frustrated and impatient and overwhelmed. When I'd hear her speak English, I made it mean all sorts of things:
  • despite all my efforts, my daughter still isn't learning
  • surely this pattern will only continue--if I can't deal with this now, how will I deal with it for years to come?!
  • she's not going to be an active bilingual
  • I'm not doing enough--I need to do more
It's possible that some of these things may be so, now or in the future. But what I was reminded of this week, is that coming from a place of overwhelm and defeat is completely disempowering (at least for the person feeling it). None of us really knows the truth, even the experts. We can do our best to interpret the research, and then, as a fellow bilingual parent responded, we're left with common sense and love to guide us on our parenting path.

When I come from this place, I feel excited. I feel at peace with whatever language comes out of Kaya's mouth, and can trust in the process, whatever it is. This is exactly how I was feeling last night as we were driving to Gramm's for dinner. I began to notice that I was unaware of what language Kaya was speaking, because I was more focused on being with her than that on what or how we were communicating.

This must sound so strange for some of you.
How can this woman be so focused on language that she's ultimately disconnected from her daughter
I wonder the same thing, sometimes.

It's all a process, though. A serious roller coaster, as I mentioned above. Every time I 'see the light', I tell myself that I'm going to remember how this ride feels; I'm going to remember that riding it is just part of the process of the gift I've chosen to give our daughter. And then I forget again. And again. And go seeking solace from my family, my friends, and my growing community of multilingual parents.

Which is exactly why I share my fears and doubts, because as strange as the above experience may sound to some of you, I'm confident that, to others of you, it hits very close to home. I've been told by a couple people lately that I worry too much. Six months ago, I would have been in complete agreement with that statement. Now, however, I believe that I don't worry more than the average Joe on Main Street--I just publicize my concerns more than most, airing my doubts for the purpose of connection and consolation. I think that most of us, as humans, worry. I think, however, that we live in a society where it's safer to keep to oneself, safer to hide the doubts, safer to be perceived as strong and confident.

I'm learning that our perception of safe isn't always spot on. And when I'm inaccurate, I pay the price in self-worth and in my connection to humanity.

As I often do, I got off on a tangent. Initially, I was attempting to share the story of Kaya's tendency to interpret over the past few days. At this point, because I didn't write it down, it's hard for me to remember the details, but I'll see what I can do to dig some up...

Yesterday, Kaya told me, in German, that she needed a new diaper ["Kaya braucht eine neue Windel"]. Thinking that she was just wet, I told her that we'd wait a bit until she was done drinking her milk. When I checked her pants, however, it was obvious that Kaya knew best: she definitely needed a new diaper. Jokingly, I told Kaya to go tell Dada, who was standing just outside the door, that she needed a new diaper, that he could help her. She climbed off my lap, sauntered over to Daddy, and proclaimed, in English, "Kaya need a new diaper." I was shocked. Even though I clearly remember her doing this many months ago (telling Geoff she wanted milk after she'd told me she wanted "Milch"), it seemed really different this time. Perhaps because it was a longer statement, and was in direct response to me telling her in one language to tell him something that she then communicated in a different one. It happened a couple more times that day, unfortunately with statements I can't recall, but each time, left me smiling and amazed. Screw the child-labor laws...she's around the corner from a paid salary!

This morning, on a slightly different note, as I was reading her a book before nap time, Kaya conjugated a verb into the present tense that I had just read to her in the past tense. For those non-grammar types out there, the example should help clarify. The book, called Gross und Klein, Wer Passt Rein [Big and Small, Who Fits in There?], is about a badger who brings a pile of pants for his friends (what else is there to bring to one's friends?!). The raven grabs the whole pile for himself, naturally, and begins to try them all on. Successively, they are either too big or too small, as announced by the various animals who are better suited for the particular pair of pants. As I was reading the page about the badger having brought pants with him to all of his friends [Der Dachs hat seinen Freunden Hosen mitgebracht], Kaya repeated what happened, but changed the verb, gebracht [brought], from the past tense into the present: Er bringt Hose [He brings pants]. This happened all in German, which not only made me happy, but impressed me a bit as well. I suppose she took something complicated and simplified it into something she knows well, the present tense, but I was surprised because the past tense form of the verb, mitgebracht, is irregular and doesn't sound at all like the present tense, bringen.

All in all, I'm feeling more at peace with Kaya's tendency to mix. I decided last week that, instead of feeling so angst-y and full of doubt, I want to feel trust in the process, in whatever stage she is at in whatever moment she is in it. So, after sending my desire out into the universe, I am continuing to feel more relaxed about the words that leave her mouth in whatever language they leave it. So, instead of responding constantly with, "Hast du _____ gesagt?" [Did you say ____?] or repeating back, inquisitively in German, whether she did this or that, I'm just allowing myself to respond with love, however I feel like responding. Admittedly, I was getting pretty sick of hearing myself ask her all these questions all the time (as I think I blogged about a few weeks ago). And feeling very taxed by the process! As a fellow bilingual wrote from Italy, "none can tell what [response] is best and in which respect. One approach could be better at promoting bilingualism, another at promoting the child's self esteem, another at promoting parent-child relationship, just to name a few." When I remember this, I feel freed from having to do it any particular way. It seems so obvious, not to put all my strategy eggs in the hands of one expert...but it's so amazingly tempting and easy to look outside ourselves for the answer. Not to mention, believing that there is 'an answer' at all.

I know, I know, I'm still riding that high from the excessive amount of German last night at dinner. That fear and doubt will certainly be back, and I'm sure you'll hear about it from me again! But I swear: it's going to get easier and easier to get back on my horse of peace and love, and ride into the sunset anew, smiles a plenty.

I swear.


  1. You totally have my understanding. Sometime I realise I'm so obsessed by linguistic matters and I don't want them to get in between me and my Son.
    I know it sounds cheesy but parental love is part of an educational process and cannot be just left aside in the corner.

    P.S. I am amazed by what Kaya reached. My Son (Italian/English) is just a couple of months younger than her and doesn't pronounce much at all. Lazy males...


  2. Federico,
    Thank you so much for your comment and your validation. It's SO helpful to know that you are out there, obsessing at times as I am, fearing that they will keep us from having the relationship that I want to have.
    I'd love to hear more about what you mean by the educational process of parental love...will you expound?
    And, thank you, as well, for sharing your thoughts on Kaya. It's a really really good reminder to me that she is progressing well, regardless of how frustrated I grow at times. I'm inspired to add a video of her language in action, in part for me to see later and compare the progress.
    THANKS again!

  3. I think you shouldn't be worried for or disappointed by Kaya's mixing. I was born and raised in Italy and my mothertongue is Italian but, luckily enough, thanks to early study, continuous efforts and long-term experiences abroad I came to develop a near-native knowledge of English. I realised soon that the more I practised English the more I tended to mix the languages...and it happens all the times, even while I'm not talking to my daughter. Some words come to my mind directly in English or Italian and translating them whilst speaking is hard, and sometimes impossible for some seconds. For this reason, we have reached a sort of linguistic compromise in the family: I try to speak English with my husband too when Elanor is with us and if my husband doesn't understand - which happens 70% of the times since he never studied English - I repeat the whole sentence in Italian.

  4. Oh, by the way, Elanor is still 5 months old

  5. Dear Dimbaraidel,
    I really appreciate hearing your validation through your comments. It's great to hear from others, as opposed to just my own internal dialogue, the value of trust in the process.
    I'd love to hear your plan with you do OPOL? Do you get overwhelmed sometimes? What do you do then?

  6. Dear Tamara,
    I'm trying OPOL but I must confess it's really hard sometimes since none of my relatives and friends speak English. Italy is very "narrow" environment when it comes to foreign languages: we don't like to learn foreign languages! That's why it's really difficult to do OPOL outside the house...but I'm trying my best with the support of dvd's, books, cartoons. I'm thinking about trying some playgroup when she's older because the English school is too expensive.
    About being overwhelmed, yes, I feel overwhelmed sometimes and...I just give up. I mean, sometimes I switch to Italian especially in "extreme situations": I can't find the feeding bottle, we don't have the nappies around, a friend is waiting for us and we are terribly late because Elanor doesn't want to be dressed. I used to feel guilty the first times but I understand it's normal because Italian is my mothertongue and - as I read somewhere when I was studying for my M.A. - it's simply easier to express some feelings in your mothertongue.
    At the moment, my only result is the word "hi" which she uses properly sometimes...I guess results would come in due course :)

  7. Hi Dimberaidel,
    Thank you, once again, for you input. It continues to be helpful for me to connect with other parents about this stuff...makes a massive difference to know that you are all out there, "suffering" with me at times. =)
    I completely concur with the OPOL challenge, and I'm constantly shocked at how often I am tempted to give up. I went through a phase where I would speak English in my most frustrated moments...also went through that lack of guilt phase, too. Not to imply it's a phase for simply was for me. Since then, my German has improved to the point where I can express more frustration in German...but at the same time, I hear all my mistakes and that just adds to my steam!! Today was really bad for that, for example. I'm learning, though, to just stop talking in those most challenging moments...which is good for both of us--most of what comes out of my mouth, in either language, during those moments of severe frustration isn't very helpful to either of us.
    It's GREAT to hear that she's saying HI. Results will definitely come. Keep up your stamina...your continue to inspire me with it. Look forward to hearing more from you in the future!!

  8. Hi Tamara, yes sometimes I think talking to other parents raising their children with a non-native language is the only thing that gets me through the tough moments... and there are a few of those! I've always seen it as a balancing act of bilingualism - something *is* lost when you talk a non-native language with your child (or is in my case, I think this also depends on your own language level - mine is good, but far far from fluent!), but something very precious is also gained. And I realised early on that so much of communication is through other means, touch, expression, tone of voice, etc, that there was no danger of my children doubting our connection, whether I could express it adequately in words or not! However, as you may've read from my own blog, I think it's something you can reassess as the years go by and I am now slowly easing off the minority language, which we can get away with since they go to an immersion school. I do notice that my eldest child's English at 6 is probably not quite at the level of a monolingual 6-year-old - I'm being super picky here, we are talking a few gaps in vocab and grammar, but she chatters away in both languages with an ease that takes my breath away! - but I know she'll catch up - as one of my adult friends raised in the UK with the minority language at home and school said, 'My parents only ever spoke to me in French, I went to school in French, all my friends were French - but I somehow speak English!' (and you cannot tell she is not monolingual English)!
    Take care,

  9. Omma,
    Thank you for your lengthy and thought-provoking response. It definitely gives me a lot to consider, and, as you said, provides immense reassurance in those challenging moments, which have been many of late.
    I'm on the brink about writing about my latest views and thoughts on OPOL...on what to do about my feeling so bound and challenged by not only toddlerhood, but 2-ness mixed with the challenge of non-nativeness...Hopefully, I'll crank it out soon, and I hope you'll consider adding your input to that post, too!
    I like the idea that you reinforce the idea to re-asses as the years go by. That is helping me a lot right now!


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