Suppressed languages

20 Feb 2012

I recently had a short stay at hospital with my daughter (2). Thankfully, she is fine. Just a nasty fall that needed monitoring for 48 hours.
If you follow me, you will know that we are all learning German in the family having moved to Germany 11 months ago, now. So in the hospital, under very stressful conditions at first, I was extremely grateful for doctors and nurses who tried a little English and/or French when they realised I struggled. 

While there, we were put in a room with another mum and her daughter (exactly the same age). The little girl's dad turned up once and (even though my German is not great) I am sure he corrected the mum's German while she was speaking to her daughter. Later in the evening, while on her mobile phone, she clearly spoke another language than German (couldn't identify it clearly - Eastern European). However she was speaking German to her daughter.
I, of course, spoke only French to LJ. The other mum seemed bemused at first. She didn't dare say anything despite my smiles, hellos and dankes. Finally, she mustered the courage to ask me what I was speaking to LJ and what my husband (who had been popping in and out) spoke. I explained. But my German being still limited I didn't have a chance to go into details and ask her about her situation beyond basic information.
It got me thinking. Was she not speaking her mother tongue to her daughter? How sad! I couldn't help but feel sorry for her.
I have never ever considered not speaking my own language to my child. The relationship wouldn't be the same. I guess not everybody feels this way.  It is so easy to give the gift of languages to a child when they are young. But I can understand some communities/families may feel pressure to conform or integrate. They think that by speaking only the majority language their child will have a better chance in life.
An interesting article I read this week explained how it can be so much more difficult to learn your mother tongue later in life.
This episode struck me and reminded me that multilingualism is still frowned upon by some groups of society. I was living in my idealistic multicultural/multilingual bubble! I should have known better.

N.B. By the end of the stay, her little girl was saying 'merci' to mine.


  1. That article is really fascinating.

    I read in Learning to Read and Write in Multilingual Families that a major factor in bilingual success is how the ethnicity of the minority language speakers is regarded in the country of residence. In Japan all the people I know from Europe and North and South America I know speak their native language from their kids, even in public. But none of the Asian wives I know do.

  2. I know people that speak only Japanese in the home even though their native language is not Japanese- it definitely happens. Sometimes with best intentions they start out with their native language but for whatever reason they give up. I don`t think it is always to do with thinking multilingualism being frowned upon. I speak Japanese with my husband most of the time but to my boys in English. They hear me speak Japanese a lot though not just with their father but whenever we are out and about. They hear me speak English to though on the phone, on skype, to friends here and of course to them.

    I also find it hard to understand but I guess there must be some reason behind it. Like you- I have never thought about not speaking my native language to my children but for some that may be hard if they have been living in a 2nd or 3rd culture a long time.

    I am glad your little girl is okay and now home from the hospital. Good on you for navigating a medical system that is not your own as well- I definitely know how tough that can be.

  3. I agree with the importance to speak your mother tongue or other languages to the kid and not just the dominant one as dictated by society. It makes their life so much richer and they will certainly have an edge over their peers if they can communicate in more then one language.

  4. @Lulu: Thanks for the well wishes. A new medical system in a new language IS such a challenge. But we are getting there.
    I agree though that if you are maybe a second-generation immigrant, for example, it may be tough to stick to your mother tongue.

    @Medea: very interesting that no Asian women do speak the minority language. There is definitely a cultural bias there.

  5. I, as well as a number of other active bloggers, speak a non-native language with our child/ren (German). Of course, I (and they) wondered at first...and certainly for much of the journey. But I wouldn't change a thing, at this point, as I listen and beam at my bilingual daughter speaking both German and English at 3. Granted, my (and many of their) situations are different than the situations to which you seemed to be referring in your post...I am part of the majority culture, wanting to give my daughter the gift of a minority culture (that barely exists in our circles). So for me, it's not a matter of feeling like I can't speak my native language, but rather, that I am (or more so was, at this point) willing to sacrifice so that my daughter can be bilingual. It may be the same for some of them, I wonder--as much as it may not seem that way on the outside. I can imagine that many minority speakers may be worried about losing/lacking relationship with their children if they speak/push their native language...and in their situations, I can imagine that they may want all the confidence that they can get in as many areas as they can get particular with knowing that they will be able to be and feel close to their children. I recognize that, though some of them may believe that they have to 'give up' their native language for whatever reason for their children, others of them may believe that it is in the best interest of their children to support them with the majority language. I assume this is to what you are referring...their erring assumption that they need to give up what would truly be a gift in the end? Of course, I make assumptions here, on your part...but I wanted to add my input, for the way I see it, these parents have the best of intentions, too, and I think they need less of our pity, and more of our support in the endeavor that they are undertaking with their children, too.
    Thank you for sharing your insight, here...I'd LOVE to hear more, and am excited to see if I can read more, about your time in Germany and how that's going for you...I have been blogging about our adventure for a few years now, and should you be interested in a few things German, you may find them on my site:
    Take care,

  6. Tamara: you make a great point. I admire what you do. I am not sure I would have ever been able to do it. But your reasons for doing it are so different to people in the situation I describe. Nevertheless, I wish more people would realise how beneficial bilingualism is/can be.

  7. First of all, I congratulate you, too, on navigating your hospital stay in your non-native language! Even as an advanced German-speaker, a visit to the hospital with a friend in Germany left me reeling! End when it's your child's health at risk, it must have made it even more overwhelming.
    Like Tamara, I choose to speak my non-native language (German) with my son. It's a choice I made long before I was even married, let alone having children. And it's a lot harder than I thought it would be! But like you, I also could not imagine giving up my own language/culture, and so I also speak English with him. Our policy now is to split the days - before naptime is German time, and after is English time.
    We have one other factor to make our situation unique: my husband is from the Netherlands but generally does not speak Dutch with our son. I wish he would, but I know I can't force him. It' impossible for me to imagine, but he actually feels more comfortable in his second language of English (I know I will NEVER feel this way about German!!). He is also not a person who feels strong ties to his native culture - something else I don't always understand about him. And finally, he feels that Dutch is not a particularly useful language in the grand scheme of things. As much as I disagree with his views on this topic, I can't force him to speak Dutch with our son. I just have to be glad that we are at least giving him the gift of bilingualism, even if it's in an unusual way. And he does 100% support my endeavors there!
    So that is just one other perspective on this crazy ride of a bilingual family! I look forward to reading more about your German adventures!

  8. Oh Kate! What an interesting situation! Thanks for taking the time to write about your situation. I completely understand your choices and I admire your method! It requires quite a bit of self-discipline I assume.

  9. I love the fact the other girl was saying merci to your daughter after two days :) Great post, thank you Annabelle.

  10. "But I can understand some communities/families may feel pressure to conform or integrate."

    (Sorry for my English)
    I think this is the point in the case of people from Eastern Europe.
    They are seen as "B series" citizens when coming to the "West", they "must" speak another language with they children, otherwise their spouse will not understand what they are saying to their children. Of course, it is not always so, but in most cases this is the true reason.

    It is very said, I agree.


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