Saturday, December 29, 2012

The Secret's Out!

I've been wondering when this moment would come. I read about this phenomenon a few years back in the middle of my big research phase, and two days ago, on the way to soak at the Kennedy School, she muttered the statement that let me know that the moment has finally arrived.

I was sitting in the front seat, and she, in her car seat in the back. She had been telling me about how she'd bitten her tongue, but that that probably wasn't the reason her tongue was hurting. We were talking about why, in fact, her tongue might be hurting, at which point she said, "Meine Zunge tut mir Weh, wenn ich 'coughe'...". [My tongue hurts when I cough.] After I heard this cute word that she so naturally created in Denglish (in German, the way to form a word in the first person is generally by adding in -e), I turned around and looked at her, smiling. Often, I struggle to understand what she's saying when she throws in a German word...but the fact that she 'Germanized' it made quite a difference. Definitely worth a smile. Within a couple of seconds, however, she was uttering her all-too-common gutteral honk. For those of you who have never heard this sound, you are lucky--and any curiosity that you might feel about its truly unpleasant sound can be replaced with the relief that you've never heard it. To those of you, however, who know the sound to which I am referring, either by your own child or by ours, you can imagine the frustration on Kaya's part that accompanied this utterance while attempting to communicate her message.

"Es ist OK, Kaya, ich verstehe--'wenn du hustest', oder?" [It's OK, I understand--'when you cough'", right?] I replied, attempting to soothe her. "Jaaaa," [Yeah] she said, relieved, and once again sitting normally in her seat after having crumpled her body with the honk. "Baby, ich weiss, manchmal ist es schwer, weil du manchmal nicht weisst, wie man 'was auf Englisch oder auf Deutsch sagt. Und das ist OK." [Baby, I know, sometimes it's hard because you don't know how to say something in English or in German. And that's OK.] And then it came. I tried to keep my jaw shut as I heard it. "Ja, aber du sichst Englisch..."  [Yeah, but you speak English... (pronounced just like that, without the -pr- after the -s-)]. Just like they said it would happen--around this age (nearly 4) or a bit later--she's finally processed (or maybe just now vocalizing) that I can speak English, too...but don't with her: "Ja, das stimmt," [Yeah, that's right...] I added, incredibly curious about where this was going. "Warum sichst du dann Deutsch mit mir, wenn ich Engrisch seche?" [Then why do you speak German with me when I speak English?] And I thought all those little moments when I'd responded in German lately (after she'd addressed a question or comment to Geoff in English) had gone unnoticed. Wrong. Not with our observant little Kaya. She had noticed it all, and was now calling me out in her confusion. I was tempted to slap myself with a proverbial wet noodle, and grow annoyed that I had broken my rule of only responding to her when she'd said something in German--even if it was clearly a question or statement that was or could be my 'domain'. But, instead, I breathed in some acceptance, and then told her, in German of course, that I wanted her to know German, and thus, I need to speak German with her if I want her to have that ability (clearly, there's enough fodder in this response for another blog post!).

Since the vocalization of her big realization, nothing has really changed in her tendency to speak German with me. She doesn't seem to be looking for loopholes, for example, or trying to work it so she can speak the language that clearly comes easier for her. So that's good. I have noticed, however, that her code-switching has increased quite a bit lately, after what I assume is a green light from me and my tendency to do so. It's AMAZing to me how few repetitions it really takes on my part for her to start and continue to throw in English words in the middle of her German sentences. Yesterday, for example, as we were crossing the street downtown, she did this very thing as we were talking about something that she didn't know the German word for. As if it belonged in the sentence, in this very way, she threw it in, without skipping a beat (I knew I should have written it down!).  Just now, at dinner, however, I captured a pretty good example: "Mama, kannst du mein chicken schneiden?" [Mama, can you cut my chicken?] This example is a bit diluted, only because right before she asked me that, she used the word "Huehner" in place of the English word 'chicken', but switched to the English word when I didn't respond--though I'm not exactly sure why [Huehner means chicken, but it is the plural form, and a word that is used less often in this situation.]. But all in all, the way that she's using these words allow them to fit right in, grammatically, with the sentence she is saying--just in the opposite language.

It seems to me that this tendency is pretty normal among bilingual kids. I recall hearing this habit from many kids who were in the German playgroup with us, as well as from our neighbors. I've actually been surprised that Kaya hasn't been doing it up until recently (well, at least once she finally started speaking solely German with me), and it makes me wonder if a lot of it has to do with the fact that I've been avoiding it like the plague (and thus causing me excess stress in those moments when one or the other of us can't seem to figure out which word to use). Whereas I used to think that one way was better, and only strive for the other, I now wonder: What is it worth? Is code-switching, or whatever these kids are doing when the 'right' word isn't available, bad, or is it just a normal part of bi- and multilingualism, and it, like everything else, could be left to just exist as opposed to being judged?

As with every other post I share, I would love to hear your comments. Support from my readers keeps me inspired, and writing, and the idea that we, as bloggers, mothers, parents, family, friends, and other interested individuals, are connected from around the world is pretty spectacular.

Or just IS. =)

Estella reminded me that, yesterday morning, as they were sitting together, wrapping various parts of Kaya's toy birthday cake (her favorite game to play, of late--wrapping AND birthday), Kaya invented yet another word: einwrappen. An ingenious mix of the English word, 'wrap', and the German word, 'einpacken' with the same meaning.


  1. It's fascinating to read all about Kaya's linguistic development, which in many ways mirrors that of my own children at that age. Now that mine are 8 and 5, they STILL mix languages frequently, BUT only with people they know are bilingual! They both spend a lot of time in a bilingual environment, at home with me and at school, so they tend to just use the first word that comes to mind, whether in English or French. It's good to know that they are perfectly able to stick to one language when necessary though, as I have noticed they never mix with their monolingual English cousins.

    1. Tallulah, this is very fascinating, and i really appreciate you sharing it. It makes me want to go to German RIGHT now and find out! It is very hopeful, however, I really appreciate your input with your kids being so much older. Kaya's been mixing with me a lot lately, I think because she's around so much more English. I don't worry so much about the mixing, moreso about how challenging it is sometimes for her to come up with the message that she wants to get across.

  2. I love how in tune with all of this that you are! As you know, I am bilingual in Spanish and even at my "old" age (ahem) I find myself blurting out an English word when I am in the middle of Spanish and don't know how to say it. Actually, on really rare occasions, I will find myself doing the same in reverse - my brain can't find the word in English so I will utilize the Spanish. I tend to find myself doing the former with Rosa (our bilingual Stepmom) and following up with her as to what the correct Spanish word is.
    I just think that it's great that Kaya doesn't allow her lack of German vocabulary to frustrate her and that she is fortunate to have a second language to fall back on for the word. Think of those monolingual kids who don't know the word in English... Then what?! ;-)

    1. As long as it's taken me to respond to your comment, I totally appreciate your sharing this. I have thought about your point quite a bit, actually, and it definitely helps me look at the whole thing in a more positive light. So, thanks!! =) xo

  3. I have read about this phenomenon of children being raised with the OPOL method eventually realizing that their parent, who normally only speaks the target language with them, also speaks English. My child is still only 15 months old so it is very hard for me to understand how the child could be fooled for so long :) Is it because your child really NEVER hears you speak English (which I assume would be impossible living in the US and having to speak English in your community, if not right there in your house with your husband)? Or is it just that developmentally your child only connects to you the language that you speak with her, and somehow tunes out the language you speak the rest of the time? Do you have thoughts on this? I just can't wrap my head around this. I would like to use OPOL with my child and I am actually looking at this same issue from the other way around, as a matter of how long can I refrain from speaking ONLY the target language (Spanish) with my child? At what point will I need to speak only Spanish in order the get the benefits of the OPOL (ie, instilling the feeling that it is "natural" for my child to speak Spanish with me and not English). Thanks for your thoughts.
    Jennifer G

    1. Hi Jennifer, my hugest apologies for not getting back to you sooner. Generally, i like to respond to comments right away, but things got really crazy there for a while, and then, as much as I had your comment highlighted in my inbox, it got away from me until now, when i'm finally cleaning out my box. SO, Kaya def. hears me speak English, and has her whole life. I think it's just a developmental milestone that they hit, when they are more aware of the world around them, noticing that there are others in it than just them (and the person with whom they are speaking). That's what makes most sense to me, according to what i've learned about brain science and child development. In regards to refraining from going OPOL, I think it's important that we each do what works for us and our family. While there are external benefits of OPOL, specifically regarding language development, i'm sure there are benefits of the other methods as well, benefits that can't be measured in tests and such. Personally, I'm finding that the longer I do this, dancing in this bilingual journey, the more I find that there are no definitive answers, and we just have to go with what we think will be best under the circumstances. It helps for me to know my commitments: I'm committed to having a loving relationship with Kaya, to raising a good steward of the earth and world community, and optimally, one who is bi or trilingual. In that order. So, sometimes, I throw in an English word or phrase now, where I wouldn't before. And when I do, her Rx is awesome and makes me smile (you spoke English, mama!--she'll say, in German, laughing!). I don't know if this helps, but let me know how things are going now. Would love to hear from you again, and I'll do my best to respond before 6 months goes by ( embarrassing!). =) Tamara


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