“Mom, can’t you talk like everyone else?” I have waited for this question to pop up; in fact, it’s been nine years in the making. At first, my daughter would only hint at the not-so-subtle difference: “Do other moms talk like you?” What started with a slight awareness has since morphed into an occasional plead for reason when out and about in public. She’s even mastered a perfectly blank stare that provokes a translation – ASAP! I attribute the fact that she doesn’t roll her eyes to accompany the little language face-off to her sweet manners. Even when slightly miffed, she’s got tact.
I’m not a native speaker. My mother tongue is German, and I never miss an opportunity to teach both of my kids. Being raised in a bilingual household that’s predominantly monolingual (since I’m the only one who actively speaks it), I have made a dogged effort to keep our “Rs” rolling and each sentence twice as drawn-out. How else will they learn it? Yes, I have DVDs, books, even toys that speak with a dull German voice that’s, um, a bit scary, but as anyone getting over the Rosetta Stone sticker shock knows, only full emersion works.
Many moons ago, we lived in Miami, where my daughter was born. I quickly learned at the playground, the supermarket checkout line, and virtually all other places that mothers didn’t think twice about switching to English when a non-native speaker entered the picture. At first, I thought that was rude, then I realized that it’s a gift to have such powerful language emersion.
Growing up, English was my favorite subject in school, where it was mandatory for eight years. So I was surprised that I couldn’t understand the American boy, my future husband, I met after I graduated – my vocabulary was barely sufficient to exchange pleasantries, let alone fall in love. It truly takes a much greater effort than an occasional Dora episode to master a new language.
Now I speak German with my kids non-stop, sometimes Deutschlish, when I get tired. Their preferred language and comfort zone is still English, a natural by-product of growing up here. So I have stepped it up a notch and made an effort to not consciously switch once I’m in earshot of someone else. So please, if you stand beside me at the Redner’s checkout line, I’m not being inconsiderate, I’m teaching. Chances are, I’m merely telling them that that candy bar is completely out of the question or to get that finger out of the nose, rather than make fun of someone else.
Think of it as a walking cultural emersion program that sips coffee while reprimanding behavior through impossibly long-sounding, strung together nouns. Don’t worry though; I won’t pause like a certain explorer to wait for my kids to repeat “You.Need.A.Time.Out.Now.” They known when they’re in trouble, no matter the vernacular.
By Marion Kase
Marion Kase is a working mother who lives, plays, and, well, works out in the burbs. She captures a dirty sock laundry list of mundane, sometimes hair-pulling observations, as seen from the brim of my coffee cup, for all the unsung heroes in our wonderful community on her blog, Helicopter-Caterpillar.