Linguistic sleight of hand – bilingualism at any cost

Mother helping young daughter to go down the slide

Listen to Brenda tell the story

Having kids unleashed an unexpected ferocity of purpose in me. I was willing to go to extraordinary lengths to raise them bilingually. All I had to do was think about what Angela Merkel sounds like speaking English to reaffirm that my kids were going to speak accent-free. Other binational families had shown me that bilingualism does not come naturally, as one would like to think, but must be actively nurtured. It takes more than just speaking the language.  

Children are not born with the knowledge of the value of a second native language; they simply imitate what they hear. If they hear a motley mixture of several languages, for instance, this is exactly what they will speak. I had met such children and was horrified at their cobbled-together sentences consisting of random bits of German and English, known in German by the playful term Sprachsalat, or language salad. Parents are also guilty of speaking in salads, such as with the phrase “Go play on the Rutsch!” meaning “Go play on the slide!” Quaint, but salad speak will not get you very far in life.

My kids were going to speak perfect English, a prerequisite for integrating seamlessly into my American family. Understanding jokes would not be enough; they would have to be able to tell some of their own as well. In short, they would have to just generally be part of the gang.

I had a multifaceted strategy that was as subtle as it was effective. No holds barred.

At home, I spoke only English and found a delightful babysitter from Oregon who only spoke English with them. Although I speak fluent German, anytime my kids were present I immediately switched to English. My Bavarian in-laws were very understanding and not offended by being excluded from conversations.

I stopped short, however, of the radical measures taken by my very French neighbor (she even taught French at the Institut Français, which is about as French as you can get). She pretended not to be able to speak German in the presence of her kids. They would even translate for her in stores or anywhere else they went in public. I can only imagine how loudly they exclaimed “Merde!” upon discovering that their mother spoke fluent German.

I amassed a small library of DVDs of cheesy sitcoms from the 1960s. This was not out of nostalgia, but rather because these predate the era of stylishly realistic movie mumbling that makes you angrily crank up the volume. Back in the day, actors enunciated and spoke a clean, understandable language – ideal for teaching English. My young daughters watched fairies cavort in Barbie movies and laughed at Lily and Herman’s antics in “The Munsters.” Only in later years did they discover that not everyone in Germany grew up on a diet of such sitcoms and 1960s musicals like “Mary Poppins,” “Chitty-Chitty Bang Bang” or “Camelot.”

This strategy was not without flaws. As a kid, I was enthralled by “I Dream of Jeannie,” in which a genie (played by the beautiful blonde actress Barbara Eden) fulfills her master’s every wish. No, no hanky-panky here – this was a family sitcom, after all – but the misogyny was embedded in the very theme of the show, which I completely missed as a girl but which makes my jaw drop now. Seeing the show as an adult, I also had a tough time accepting the character of Major Nelson, the squeaky-clean astronaut who “owned” Jeannie (that’s painful even to write), since he was played by Larry Hagman, the actor destined to play the deliciously evil, cackling character of J.R. Ewing in the TV show “Dallas” from the 1980s and 1990s.

I corrected even the tiniest mistake with a vengeance. My younger daughter said “come with” approximately 5,000 times, as in “I asked her to come with,” a direct translation from German. After correcting her gently for weeks and then somewhat less gently for months, without success, I rolled out the heavy artillery. This consisted of leaping in the air, waving my arms as if the house were on fire and shouting: “With ME! With ME!”

At some point – and by at some point, I mean years later – she stopped making the mistake. I’m nothing if not tenacious.

In some ways, I created a benign kiddie version of “The Truman Show.” I consistently left books, magazines, “The New York Times,” and anything else interesting in English on the coffee table. These visual cues were so strong that my kids couldn’t resist picking something up and reading it. It amounted to nothing less than an artificial cultural and linguistic bubble. I even went around the neighborhood at the end of October distributing candy to hapless neighbors, explaining to them what Halloween was so that my daughters and their friends could go trick-or-treating on our street.

It wasn’t until my daughters were teenagers that they found out the other kids weren’t reading The Chronicles of Narnia or The Magic Tree House series. Let alone the iconic prairie fiction of Laura Ingalls Wilder from the 1930s and 1940s, Little House on the Prairie.

And when my older daughter was 15, she discovered my secret.

Over the years, I had spent a lot of money and time playing the family librarian, buying books that reflected my children’s American heritage like Huckleberry Finn, Uncle Tom’s Cabin and The Great Gatsby. I presented the books with a flourish, saying “You’ll love this! It’s a classic!” Then one day, my daughter asked me which of two books I liked better, both of which were “classics.” I had to confess I hadn’t read either of them.

She was flabbergasted. 

“You mean you’ve been buying us all these books – and haven’t even read them yourself?!”

I protested. Feebly. She did have a point.

“Well, I’ve read some of them…”

I have been the butt of many a joke about this ever since. But at some point it didn’t matter. The trick had worked. My kids were hooked on books. Now they recommend them to me. Since they left home, I find myself with enough time to catch up on many of those classics. Does it really matter that I recommended them first and read them later? Chronology is overrated if you ask me.

Once they turned 15 or 16, all their school friends also started mixing English into their German, thanks to the omnipresence of English in Germany, so they did it, too. But by that age, both languages were firmly anchored in their brains.

Twenty years down the road, I am thrilled that they are bilingual. They read books in both languages easily and can pass as “real” Americans in the U.S., at least until their cousin asks them what they think of LeBron James or whether they like Hot Pockets. Then again, neither American sports nor American ready-made cuisine was part of the education package. I guess I can forgive myself for those omissions. As long as they know who Mark Twain is, I can rest easy. I might even read one of his books someday. 

Brenda Arnold

Photo by Yan Krukov in Pexels

See also:
Kraut and about – what are all those Germans doing abroad?
On a train to everywhere – Germany’s €9 ticket and its surprising consequences
Bombs away! The WWII gift that keeps on giving

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