Bilingual Families

'It must be nice to be bilingual.'

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.

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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. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA 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.

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3 thoughts on “Bilingual Families

  1. Hello, Susan.
    Thanks for offering this thoughtful article.
    My family experience was determined by two factors. The first was that my parents were committed to getting out of Germany. They brought me to Canada as an infant, with my mom’s mother tagging along, specifically because it offered a new life, a break with Germany’s violent past and rigid culture. All three of them spoke English reasonably well already, so that smoothed out the transition.
    Yet, despite their antipathy toward German culture, they pretty much ran our young household like a German family, at least for the first few years that we lived in Niagara Falls. We spoke German at home until I started kindergarten — the word itself embodied the integration that I was subjected to. My parents were amused that I would play with other immigrant children in the neighbourhood, and they heard Chinese, Italian, Portuguese and perhaps Dutch all being used by my playmates at once. Everyone got along just fine, and we children learned Canadian culture and language literally on the streets.
    The other factor was timing. After a few years of being immersed in it all, all three of the adults in my house gradually stopped using German at home. Once I was in school, I brought home a veritable flood of new ideas, and — you know me well enough to understand this — they couldn’t shut me up long enough to translate any of it. Then my brother and sister were born and there was even less time and effort available. Television also was growing into the powerful cultural force we know today, and of course there was not yet the variety of programming that we take for granted in the 500-channel 21st century. That pretty much arrested bilingualism in our household. My brother and sister are not fluent in German, and, as you know better than almost anyone because you were a big part of it, I had to make an effort to upgrade my German when I was a mature student at Western University.
    I can say from my heart that I loved having a strong German and Canadian background, and that my parents and grandmother were all very aware of the benefits of growing up with a wider, dare I say global, perspective. Generations of well-educated European children have had this advantage.

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    • Thank you, Peter, for this wonderful and fascinating response to my post. Having parents who also left everything they knew in Great Britain to come to a new world and start a life there, I can imagine the trials your parents must have endured as well. It could not have been easy to hold onto ones language and culture while adapting to another especially, as you say, with the powerful force of television developing at that time and a son like you full of ideas and curiosity – too much to translate. 🙂 I can understand how they gradually shifted to English entirely, but you know me as well – stubborn and determined. Unlike your parents at the time, it helps that one of our home languages is the language spoken by the society in which we live. That way, nothing needs to be translated, both languages are simply ever-present. Like you and your family, we are also aware of and value the benefits of growing up with a wider, global perspective.

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  2. Love your post honey. Couldn’t agree with you more. At least you have some experience growing up in a family that spoke Scottish and English. Ha! Ha!. Take care, Dad.

    Sent from my iPhone

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