The role of the German-speaking parent in the development of a child’s other language
Ever since I started working on multilingual upbringing with parents and their children, many different families have come to me, such as Anna and Chris with their son Viktor. Victor is growing up learning both Slovenian and German. Viktor’s father mentioned something crucial in conversation: “I’m also responsible for Viktor learning Slovenian!”
In everyday family life, the father speaks German to the child and the mother, Slovenian. Between themselves, the parents speak German. The mother grew up bilingual herself, speaking Slovenian and German. Viktor goes to a German-language Kindergarten. So there aren’t many opportunities for Viktor to hear and actively speak Slovenian. This makes it all the more important to strengthen the language. But what did Chris mean exactly? I dug deeper. “My son can tell I support both of his languages. I not only consider German important, but also support his lingual and cultural development in Slovenian. I may not actively speak that language, but I morally support Anna’s efforts.”
He gave me an example. When the family was in Slovenia and Viktor heard the local language spoken on the streets, he made fun of it and sought an ally in his father. “I didn’t go along with the joke though. Later, when we were alone, I told him I thought that language was beautiful and I wished I could speak and understand as much as he does. I felt him becoming uncertain. Later on, he became proud that there was something he could do that his old man couldn’t. I have thus managed to influence his development in Slovenian without speaking that language with him.”
The story of Viktor shows how important the moral support of the partner that speaks the dominant language can be. It is the key element behind “multilingual parenting.”
Language and Feeling
There are parents who have not grasped this vital approach. One mother that speaks Polish to her daughter told me that the father discouraged it. “We speak English at home, my husband’s native tongue. He believes it’s enough for our daughter to speak German and English; with that she can get around the entire world. Why should she learn Polish as well?” The father fails to recognize that language isn’t always used purely for communicating. Language also transmits feelings and emotions that a parent can usually best express in their own native tongue, which is vital for the emotional relationship with the child. It also opens doors to the cultures that define the child.
Languages are constantly prioritized in the political and societal discourse, whether directly or indirectly. Multilingual children are quick to realize what kind of reputation their languages enjoy. And if they sense resistance, they become insecure. In order to strengthen their commitment, they require both parents to stand by all the languages and cultures that are part of them.
One father described how he learns Russian with his young daughter, since his wife speaks it with her. At first, he couldn’t understand a word, but now he’s doing better and better. He’s especially good at terms of endearment, he chuckles. The decisive factor is appreciation, not competence. Is there a greater sign of approval toward the second language in the life of a child, than if mommy or daddy, whichever one isn’t native in it, actually wants to learn it too? Hardly.
I can see how the eyes of my daughter light up every time her father tries a few phrases of broken Bulgarian. She beams and lovingly corrects his pronunciation, somewhat proud she can teach the grown-ups something for once.
Our multilingual children need a clear affirmation of everything that they love.
Originally published in German on Standard.at on March 15th, 2016
Zwetelina Ortega offers workshops in English and German for multilingual families. The following workshops coming up are:
Saturday, September 24th, 2016, 10.00 – 14.00
LIMU Café – Follow up (in English and German)
Tuesday, October 4th, 2016 18.00 – 20.00
Samstag, October 22, 2016, 10.00 – 14.00