Thank you Irmie for making a topic request. This is the first time outside of work I’ve been asked to write about something – I feel like a real writer now!
Irmie wanted to know more about the bilingual habits of our household, so here goes.
When I first moved to Germany I took language lessons but it was slow going. More about that here, if you’re interested.
However, I had various jobs that required me to speak German and over time I achieved a level of functional fluency, the sort where I could call someone an idiot quite plainly but couldn’t say something like, ‘When you sit down, do you get a headache, you chimp?’
Now I can, although it’s more likely to come out like, ‘When you seat yourself, do you feel any pain in the head, you monkey?’
Anyway, my improvement rate slowed dramatically as soon as I got good enough to say what I wanted to say and hit a plateau for a year or so. My German was good enough to get by professionally so I stopped working on it. I spoke German only in a professional setting or with friends but never at home or with Ralf and felt fairly lame and un-funny when I did speak it.
Then when we got an offer to live in California for a year or two (which turned into three) I worried that I would lose all my hard-earned language skills. K was two years old and just starting to talk so I also worried that she would not be able to speak German when we went back. I was eight months pregnant and about to go on maternity leave so the first thing I did when we arrived in California was to organize intensive Berlitz German lessons, six hours a week, for a month and a half until L was born. This bumped my German up a notch.
To keep in practice and make sure K wouldn’t have huge culture shock when we went back to the Vaterland, I resolved to speak only German with K while in California. I kept this resolution until about six months before we were to return, figuring at that point the mold had been cast and what mother doesn’t prefer to speak her native language to her children?
It worked. K learned English at pre-school but her mother language was slightly-off German with weird faux-Scandinavian pronunciation. But it was enough to fit in when we returned and since then she’s improved apace in German Kindergarten.
L was a slightly different story. I spent more time with her as a baby while K was in pre-school and spoke English with her, figuring that by the time we went back to Germany she’d just be starting to speak so could learn it there. And of course, she heard me speaking German to K. But her German is not as good as K’s and she’s more likely to speak ‘Dinglisch,’ which is a hybid between English and German. Then again, she’s only three so I’m not too worried about it.
R for the most part spoke English at home unless I reminded him so it’s pretty much been me keeping the German flame alight all these years. When their German grandmother notices some linguistic peculiarity of theirs I glare at him soundly and the perfect son shrugs back innocently. He is perfectly happy to let me shoulder the blame for our kids’ funny accents.
Today both girls attend a German Kindergarten so we are again an English-speaking family.
Ironically, now that we’re back in Germany my German’s slipping again.