A while ago, I attended a fair on language learning and teaching. I really enjoyed it. There was, among many interesting presentations, a panel discussion on growing up and living with more than one language. Which made me think about my languages.
If you have been following my blog, you might have noticed that even though I write in English, I sometimes recommend German websites. Okay, I admit it… 😉 I’m a bilingual with two mother tongues: English and German.
As I suppose is the case for most bilinguals, this was not a conscious decision that I or anyone else made. It just happens to be that way. However, recently I’m getting the feeling that it is en vogue among parents to want to raise their children bilingually. As if being a bilingual is something to aspire to. Maybe a result of globalization.
For a long time, I hadn’t given my bilingualism much thought. Recently, though, I’ve started noticing things. To be honest, being a bilingual is not always great. It can make you feel like the odd one out in certain situations and you run into problems non-bilinguals simply do not have and thus can’t comprehend.
And while I sometimes enjoy being bilingual, I can’t help but wonder if my life would not be a whole lot easier if I had but one language. And by being bilingual I don’t mean speaking different languages; I mean having two mother tongues and two cultures that go with it; I mean living and breathing more than one language, not just speaking and understanding them somewhat.
Which causes me to wonder whether it is such a good idea to artificially try to raise children with more than one language.
Yes, I admit it: Sometimes being bilingual can be fun. It feels good to be proficient in two languages, and it at least doubles the range of internet content you are able to understand. 😉
The basic issue, however, is not understanding or speaking two languages. It is how you feel. In my opinion, language is connected to identity big time. I feel like I’m a completely different person when I speak a different language.
I prefer using one language in some contexts and using the other for other contexts. And sometimes I just feel like using one language more than using the other.
Which is not as simple as it sounds. Because I’m not necessarily the one to decide which language I may use at a particular time. It depends more on who I’m talking to. Putting me in a position where I feel I just cannot properly express what I want to say in the language I have to use at that moment. I cannot think of words or try to superimpose the grammar of one language on the other, which leads to awkward results sometimes.
What is more, being a bilingual more often than not inevitably incorporates being bicultural. And while it might sound alluring to be able to cherry-pick the best from both cultures (which can be enriching, no doubt about that), I sometimes feel like I was living between cultures rather than within either one. Sometimes that makes me feel very lonely.
The reason why I started wondering about this topic recently is that there are no English writing groups, so I have to participate in German writing groups. Doesn’t matter, as long as I’m writing, right? That’s what I thought.
Funnily enough, or maybe not so surprisingly, I find it extremely difficult to write in German. Especially fiction. While my sentences are, of course, grammatically correct, and even mostly nicely written (I’m told), I just cannot get myself to feel good about my German writing.
The problem is, of course, that I never, ever read German fiction. I read in English. And I have not voluntarily written anything fiction in German ever! While I feel perfectly comfortable about German non-fiction writing and am quite impressed with what my fellow writers put down on paper, I just cannot get myself to like the sound of my own German writing.
To my own ears, it sounds contrived and cumbersome and just plain weird. It is really frustrating. Then again, when I write in English, I sometimes have German expressions creeping in that I don’t know how to translate properly at that moment.
Maybe it’s just me, but sometimes I feel like if you have more than one mother tongue, you don’t really have a mother tongue at all.
I tried to get a good definition of what a mother tongue is. Many say that it is the language you calculate in, others say it is the language you speak without flaws, fewer say it’s the language you first heard as a baby.
I disagree with all of those definitions.
I do calculus in German because I had my maths lessons in that language, but still English feels so much more like my language because I read and write in it most of the time and my demeanor is much more confident when I speak English.
Whether or not my speech is flawless in either language I don’t know.
And hinging everything on what you first heard as a baby is ridiculous. It says nothing about our language proficiency in our later lives.
What all of those definitions lack is the aspect of identity and culture. I can only speak from my own experience, but when I speak another language, I feel like a completely different person. But both of these people are me, somehow. Sometimes this feels like a severe personality disorder. 😉
I couldn’t fathom what I would be like if I had only one language. Would I be better off with only one, definite language identity? Or would I be bereft of the richness of two worlds? I don’t know. And if I had children, they probably wouldn’t be able to avoid hearing quite a lot of English as well from my part, but I would always be wondering whether or not I was doing them a favor.
Maybe it is really a matter of how you are confronted with language and language identity in your childhood. Growing up, German was mostly the official language I had to use for school matters, English was the language of my personal life, the one I mostly used for my hobbies and my passions. Maybe that is the reason I now feel more like myself using English even though the two contexts have mixed and mingled by now.
In my later life, I learned some Spanish and Italian. Not that I use it much and that I would be particularly good at either one because at the moment I have very little chance to use them actively. But with these L2s I never felt those difficulties I have with my two L1s.
What do you think? Should we raise children bilingually? Are you a bilingual yourself or do you know someone who is and have another opinion about this topic? I’d love to hear it. So if you like, leave me comment and tell us what your experiences are…