I have been reflecting on my family’s recent road trip to France to visit our daughter who is studying in a language programme there for part of the summer. It’s not unusual for Swedish teens to head to all corners of the globe for språkresor (language trips). In fact, it might well be part of why you’ll find Swedes just about wherever you go in the world. They love to travel and do it well. At the heart of our trip was language, a subject that is constant in any bilingual family – only we tend not to think about it until we’re faced with those whose “normal” is different from ours.
While visiting some old family friends on the way home, they were asking us how it worked with two languages constantly on the go within one family and one conversation. Swedes are extremely good at switching to English when a person who does not speak Swedish enters a conversation (out of respect), but it’s rare that they would continue with two languages at once. Or is it? In my experience here, it’s not actually so rare at all, not if your spouse’s native language is different from yours, your children attend international schools and you work in a bilingual or multilingual environment.
The issue of language has always fascinated me. While some people may think it’s strange to speak two languages at home, others can’t imagine living any other way. It’s normal to us and normal to many families we know here. When our children were born, we had never even discussed which language we should speak. It was simply natural for both of us to speak our native language to our children. We’ve faced some criticism for this but if the shoe was on the other foot, I wonder how readily one would give up their language just to fit the status quo. More to the point, we feel it is the greatest gift we could ever have given our children – to grow up with two native languages. From the time they began speaking, they naturally associated Swedish with their father and English with their mother and switched back and forth between the languages without giving it a single thought. I remember having monolingual friends for dinner when the children were toddlers and how perplexing it had seemed to them to watch these young children at the table switching back and forth between the parents without even thinking.
What the children chose to speak from early childhood to each other was simply up to them, whatever came naturally. This happened to be Swedish. I asked my son when he was about five years old why he spoke only Swedish to his sister. His answer, “Why would I speak English to a Swedish girl?” So that was that.
Our trip to France and our daughter’s experience at the college there has shown us once again that there are many, many families just like ours. Several of her new friends there speak two, and in some cases three languages at home. We visited a friend of mine on the way down to the Riviera. We had studied French together twenty-eight years ago while we were both au pairs. She had married a Frenchman and settled there. On our visit, I met her daughter who is bilingual. I noticed she was speaking both languages to her mom at any given time. I asked her about this and she said that she simply says whatever comes into her head first. This is their family’s normal, which didn’t faze me at all. In fact, it’s exactly what happens time and time again in my work and at the children’s schools.
Whether it is colleagues switching languages in one conversation depending on the person with whom they are speaking or parents gathered at a school function, switching languages continuously or speaking one language while the other person responds in another language, it works. In fact, I had two students years ago who (at the age of 6/7) spoke French to their mother, Dutch to their father, English in class, Swedish to some friends and English to other friends. Then they moved to Shanghai and learned Chinese! For this reason, I was particularly baffled by our friends’ curiosity, considering here in Scandinavia, if you put a Swede, Norwegian and Dane together, all three will speak their native language to each other as though it is normal. Which it is here! Scandinavians grow up hearing and interacting with all three languages.
So why question me about English and living in a family with two active languages? When my children and husband speak Swedish in front of me, I understand everything, I simply respond in English. If it’s not considered rude when Scandinavians speak their native languages to each other and everyone can understand, why then would it be rude to add English to the mix when everyone in the family understands English? Outside the home, and certainly with those who do not speak English, I speak Swedish. I speak Swedish to my neighbours and my in-laws, in the shops, a variety of friends and anywhere else it calls for that language. Swedish is an integral part of my life, but I am English and I won’t apologize for wanting my children to learn it equally as well.
In the 2014 article, “12 things parents raising bilingual children need to know” by Rita Rosenback on Multilingual Parenting site, she states that bilingualism doesn’t happen by magic and that parents need to have a plan. Although this is true, in our case we never laid out a plan as such. Everything moved forward in a very natural way. Of course, being a true blue Canadian and a lover of language, I was adamant from the onset that English would be part of our family’s daily life and yes, I wanted the children to have an English education as well as a Swedish one. With that in mind and a very, very early application to The English School Gothenburg, where both languages thrive, life as a bilingual family evolved naturally from there, addressing all the key points in Rosenback’s article. My favourite point she makes, “There will be doubters. Ignore them, they do not know what they are talking about.” Probably the most important point in the article, however, is to be consistent. This is something we have taken seriously. It is for this reason that our children are consistent in return. Video here based on the article.
Every family is different, choosing what works best for them. There is no right or wrong, it’s just what it is. If I were to do it all again, for my family, I wouldn’t change a thing.
I’d love to hear what languages you speak at home and how it works in your family.