Tuesday, September 4, 2012

OPOL + ML@H = ??

Just yesterday, I became an auntie to a beautiful little girl who still remains nameless. Kaya got a new cousin, and Geoff became an uncle to Billy and Heather's daughter's sister.

In just a few hours, it will happen again. Only different (and less complicated!). Geoff's little sister will have the baby we've all been eagerly awaiting for months, especially after all the bouts of false labor she's had over the past many weeks.

Last week, when we decided we wanted to host a German exchange student, Heather pointed out that we'd all be getting 'new family members', and it jokingly became a race to see whose 'baby' would arrive first.

It looks like we've taken second place.  Estella arrived this morning, a mere 16 hours after the arrival of the yet-nameless Harrington. But I gotta say: those ladies, Heather and Julie, have worked and are working a LOT harder than I expect I will ever need to with my 'new arrival'. At least I hope that 'our' 15 year old doesn't wake us at 3am for feedings, or cause extreme breast pain during mealtimes or excruciating burning upon arrival (so far so good on the latter two!). 

Clearly, there's a lot of change going on around here. To top it off, Kaya's first official day of school is tomorrow, with a sweet little Faery Garden Ceremony at her outdoor immersion forest and farm Mother Earth School (post on it's way for that one day soon)!

So, it's only natural that Kaya was in quite the mood today.
And me too.
Poor Estella. Poor Geoff.

But despite those moods, something pretty cool transpired today (on top of all that other stuff!). As late as it is, I can't pass up the opportunity to write about it while it's fresh...

When I first called Laura, the International Exchange Coordinator (IEC), she told me that it wouldn't work to have a student speak exclusively German to Kaya. It's against the visa rules: they are supposed to speak only English. I understand. It's silly for a student to come all the way to the States only to spend time speaking their own language excessively. I did that in Germany, and regretted it. The last thing I want to be is a host family who supports or demands for that type of exchange.

And at the same time, I was, and still am, under the impression that it's possible to immerse oneself in the community language and still speak one's native language (sort of similar to what I do with Kaya every day. My German has improved immensely--and my English has only suffered a wee bit!).  For that reason, I asked this Laura if it would be too much to ask for a student to have a relationship with a 3 1/2 year old in German, and an English relationship with everyone else. Her ultimate suggestion, a day later, is that we could sign on as a Welcome Family and see how it goes--see how it fits with everyone involved.

With further consideration, however, I decided that I didn't want Estella to miss out on the opportunity to build an English relationship with a child--it's with children that we can often speak from our hearts, with few inhibitions, with fewer concerns that we will be judged or corrected. For this reason, I began to wonder how we could foster both--a true exchange, where Kaya gets the opportunity to have a German relationship with a native speaker, and Estella gets the opportunity to speak English with a kid. In thinking about the common methods that people use to raise their children bi- and multi-lingually, I was reminded of Minority Language at Home (ML@H), where the household language is in that of the parents, or minority, language, and the community language is spoken outside of the home. The more I thought about it, the happier I became with the idea, and while we were Skyping with Estella and her family on Sunday, I proposed the idea in response to Estella's question about what language to speak with Kaya.

Here's where the cool part begins to come in. After we hung up from our Skype call (which was great! and very exciting!), Geoff, Kaya and I were sitting at the table eating breakfast. We had all been on the call, but Kaya had remained mostly silent, playing with her beads and doing some 'show and tell' to the family on the other end. While drinking her smoothie, she says to Geoff, in a very excited tone, "I'm goin to seak Gurman wif Estella at home, and den, when we're not at home, I'll seak ingwish wif her." I looked at her wide-eyed, impressed that she retained all of that from our call, and then stated it so matter of fact to Geoff later.

At dinner tonight, she said a similar thing, this time, however, after a day of putting it to practice. Her smile was even bigger tonight, however, which surprised me to see after the challenges we faced with the new method. "Ich wiw nicht mit ihr Deutsch sprechen!" [I don't want to speak German with her!] she said to me at one point today, as we were leaving for the park."Ich seche nur Engwisch mit ihr!" [I'm only speaking English with her!] This is after we'd been home awhile, and they'd been playing Candy Land together in German. "Kein Problem," [No problem,] I said to her, understanding how strange it must be for her that I am speaking English with someone that I want her to speak German with. "Wir gehen jetzt weg von zu Hause, du kannst deswegen mit ihr jetzt Englisch sprechen." [We're leaving the house now, so you can speak English with her now.] At the park, it began to sink in, and despite her initial resistance to my encouragements for her to do so, she finally asked Estella if she was OK...in English.  A smile wrapped around all of our faces...

It may turn out that ML@H is too much German for Estella. Or it may cause other ripples that I can't currently foresee. But for now, I'm fascinated by the idea of mixing some methods and playing around, once again, with what Kaya is capable of.

p.s. For those who are wondering, OPOL means 'One Parent, One Language', and refers to the method that Geoff and I use with Kaya where one parent speaks exclusively one language with the child and the other parent, a different language.


  1. question: Do you speak German with your daughter 100% of the time, even when you're out of the house? Or do you only speak German at home and speak English outside of the house? I'm raising my children with German as a non-native speaker and speak 100%, but I'm wondering if it would create better "balance" if outside the home I spoke English so they would understand that to people outside the home, they need to speak English.

    1. Hello! It's SO crazy that you should ask this now...for the past few weeks, I've actually been batting this idea around! Currently, I speak 100% German with Kaya, and she as well--only German with me. Because of this new factor as described above, however, I have been giving some thought, more like a little dream, to the idea of one day, perhaps, making the shift so I can have a relationship with her in both languages. Personally, I wouldn't and didn't consider this until now because she's now so firmly rooted in the language, and I feel confident in her ability and the foundation. I also just spoke with a friend today who did the same thing--foundation in minority language, 100%, then later, started introducing more community language into their relationship. Her daughter, however, is currently at an int'l school where they speak the minority language (English), and I do think that's a huge factor. At this point, I'm planning on waiting for a while, yet, to see how things change with our language (if at all) as she's more and more a part of English speaking communities in school and society. There is likely to be some resistance at some point to the German, as is normal for development. I just want to make sure that our foundation stays strong. How old are your kids? what is their language ability now? Thanks SO much for your interest here...I look forward to hearing more from you!

    2. My son is 4 and my daughter is almost 18 months. My largest concern about speaking German 100% with my son right now is that it makes people think they can't speak to him in English--like, if he he could, wouldn't we be speaking it instead of German? But, like yours, our relationship is in German. He doesn't usually talk to me in English anymore than he talks to his father in English (he uses Finnish then). He will speak Finnish while playing by himself or addressing both of us, though.
      However, one lady who is bilingual herself advised me that it could be seen as a bit rude to always only speak to our kids in German even when other people are around. I don't know. So I've started translating everything I say into English when I'm out or hanging around English speakers so that they feel less excluded and like they can't talk him.
      We're sending him to preschool this year (or as we call it, Kindergarten :P) so hopefully it will sort itself out and he will realize it's English outside the house. Right now he still yells at other kids in German and gets very frustrated when they don't understand.
      As for language ability, Alpha (my oldest), it's pretty good. He speaks full sentences in all languages, though his speak can be pretty garbled and we're debating whether or not he'll need speech therapy since he has a habit of speaking with his mouth closed.
      Beta (our youngest) is just starting to talk. She expresses things like "Shuh an!" and "MEINS" very readily and is learning body parts. My husband says she said a full sentence in Finnish and said "Cola on hyvä" (soda is good...she calls all drinks soda). So I'm not too worried about ability; they seem to be meeting milestones normally

    3. Oh, I have SO much emotion around what that lady said to you...and if it weren't so late, I'd say so much more. But for now, here's my opinion: the gift that we are giving our children far outweighs the passing concerns that exist for strangers feeling offended or left out or concerned that they don't understand the conversations between us and our children. Body language can do so much...smiling at others and speaking in English to them yourself can do huge things. It can, if nothing else, open a conversation to allow them learn, from you, that they CAN speak English to your child...


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