Why I No Longer Worry about Language Balance

Beta is spouting more and more English lately, thanks to Dora. She wanders around the house saying, “Hi! I’m Dora. Do you I like stickers? Good! I like stickers, too!” and regularly calls me ‘mommy,’ except for when she is really distressed, in which case I’m still äiti. I’ve actually started wondering if I should stop letting her watch Dora, since it’s having such an influence on her language and is skewing things so much toward it. Since English is our community language, it has a clear advantage as far as usefulness is concerned. DH and I have to artificially inflate the importance of Finnish and German so that they keep speaking it to us and that English creep doesn’t eventually win out.

Then I realized that cutting out Dora would be entirely pointless. With Alpha, I probably would have cut it out. But in the intervening time, I think I’ve come to accept that there is absolutely no way we can effectively control the language balance in our lives. We can influence it in some ways, but completely control it? No.

Here’s why:

1) English will win–no matter where you live. It’s a major global language. No matter where you’re growing up, you will need to know English. Even North Korea teaches it. My kids are obviously going to figure that out eventually. If English is one of your bilingual languages, eventually it will pull out ahead. That’s just the way things are.

2) Kids develop their own preferences for languages. Right now, Alpha prefers German because he has the highest likelihood of being understood when he speaks it. Beta moves between all of them fairly easily at the moment, but I’m betting that will change as she gets older. Many older multilingual kids refuse to speak their second language unless they have to.

3) Bilingual children have periods where they refuse to speak a language. My husband grew up speaking Swedish as his mother tongue and Finnish as his father and community tongue. In spite of the fact he and his siblings went to a Swedish speaking school, they still figured out Finnish was the important language to speak and stopped speaking Swedish to their mother and told her they didn’t want to speak it anymore. So she stopped speaking Swedish to them. DH really regrets doing this now and insists he will always speak to his kids in Finnish no matter what they say. But this seems to be a normal story for bilingual children. It’s a normal phase of growing up.

4) Multilingualism is a start, not an end. Humans’ ability to retain languages is dependent on their ability to continue using it. No matter how much effort you put into their multilingualism at a young age, it’s the rest of their lives that will determine if they maintain it. Again, my husband’s Swedish is a perfect example of this. Since moving to the US, he has almost completely stopped speaking Swedish. He still reads it quite a bit and speaks the weird Swedish-Finnish combination used by his family, but practically no pure Swedish. When we went to Stockholm in December, his Swedish was so rusty, it was quicker for me to figure out what they were saying to him in Swedish and and answer in English than for him to answer in Swedish. In the end, both he and the Swedes just ended up speaking English because it was faster. He’s still trilingual, but he needs some WD-40 to get out the squeaks. My kids may be trilingual now, but whether or not they can still speak their languages well at 30 is firmly out of my control.

So I’ve given up worrying about keeping all of the languages in balance. They more or less are. We read an English book and a German book before naptime and DH reads a Finnish book before bed. We usually watch an English show (Dora) after naptime, then Sandmännchen (German) and Palomies Sami (Finnish, Fireman Sam) before bedtime. There is a sort of balance and it seems to be working. Tweaking it at the moment probably wouldn’t bring much improvement.

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Never Give Up, Never Surrender

I just left Germany and I think it’s going to take a few weeks for my confidence to recover. Germans, or at least the Germans I know, can be a bit abrasive. They aren’t afraid to point out and critique when they think you’re doing something wrong. This trip, they spent a lot of time discussing and critiquing my son’s speech. Their first conclusion that it wasn’t because of my speech, i.e., how I speak German. “Nein,” one told another, “vom Sprachen ist sie eigentlich ganz gut.” Well, that’s good, I thought. It’s nice to know that son’s speech difficulties aren’t directly fault. I was slightly insulted.

So, I spent a lot of time explaining to them how Alpha has a mushmouth, where he just doesn’t enunciate properly.  A lot of times he doesn’t open his mouth to talk. When he says “ich moechte etwas zum essen,” the word essen is spoken entirely with his mouth shut. He doesn’t open it. When he says “kaputt,” he pronounces it “pakutt.”  So the Germans started correcting and telling him to speak more slowly and more clearly. Except that everything I’ve read has said you shouldn’t correct young kids when they make mistakes because they don’t hear it is as a mistake; they think they’re doing it right and if they knew they were doing it wrong, they would say it right. Correcting them will just make them more hesitant to speak. They advised me to send him to a logopedist, what we would call a speech therapist in the U.S. and wondered why I hadn’t already since he was almost 5 and would be starting school soon. I decided it wasn’t the time to bring up the fact that we were planning on homeschooling and just explained that I had discussed it with his doctor and she said that we should wait a bit longer to see if the issues resolve themselves and if they don’t, we could see a speech therapist then. In other words, she’s not concerned and is extremely supportive of our multilingual family.

But at his 4 year appointment I didn’t mention my continuing concerns with his language development, mainly because I’m afraid I’m coming across as an overly worried crazy mother. But on the other hand, I mentioned to her several times that Haakon seemed to have an unusual amount of wax in his ears (both times he’s seen other doctors at the practice for ear infections, they’ve had to clean wax off his ear drum before they’ve been able to confirm ear infection. I took the kids to get their hearing tested and the ear doctor found that there was so much wax in his ear, his ear drum was almost occulated (I’m not sure the term she used, but basically it might be preventing his ear drum from swinging as much as it otherwise would.) This could mean he’s not actually hearing all the sounds in all the languages as he should. Even a small decrease in hearing can affect language acquisition, according to a pamphlet I read at the office.

I told the Germans all this. “Well, I guess our health care system is better,” one informed me. “We do hearing tests right after birth, then the doctor sees them every few months when they’re young babies, then twice a year, then every year after that. ” Yes, yes, we do hearing testing, too, I informed her, it’s just that my children weren’t born at a hospital and the midwifery clinic wasn’t set up to do hearing tests until recently. And we do frequent visits under a year, then every 6 months, and then at age 2 or 3 it becomes once a year. It’s just the same and has nothing to do with my son’s speech, thanks. I’m alright with waiting to see if his speech issues resolve themselves because my husband had similar speech issues. He didn’t get speech therapy until he was 6 years old and now speaks fine, aside from occasional periods of mushmouthiness where he’s either too excited or too lazy to enunciate clearly.

“Maybe it’s the multilingualism.” No, it’s not. Trust me. There is no evidence that being multilingual causes speech problems. Besides, how would you even prove it? Raise a kid multilingually, then delete all that and reraise the same kid again as a monolingual and see if he has speech problems? Both monolingual and multilingual kids have speech issues. It’s completely unrelated. Again, I point to my husband, who grew up with Swedish and Finnish, and also attended an English speaking Kindergarten. He had speech problems. His sisters, who were similarly raised, did not. “Yes, but he was raised with only two languages. Maybe the third one is just making it that much harder for him to speak and be understood.” Sigh. It’s a typical trick: I counter one assertion and they soften theirs slightly to make it seem more plausible. But again, I tell them it doesn’t make a difference. Linguists say that children can learn up to 5 languages at one time. I tell them about the linguists DH talked to. The mother was Finnish, the father was Norwegian. They lived in Cambridge, MA a while while they got their doctorates in linguistics (adding English) and then accepted a job position at a university in Berlin (adding German to the mix). They then hired a Russian nanny to take care of the kid, making a total of 5 languages. They weren’t worried at all.

Honestly, I don’t get Germans.  They all seem to want me to stop speaking German to my kids, or at least my son, without realizing that if I stopped speaking to him in German, they wouldn’t be able to talk to him at all unless they speak English.  I probably wouldn’t be able to continue speaking to Beta in German if I stopped speaking German to Alpha because consistency is key. As one German told me, “but you need to have consistency when it comes to when the languages are spoken,” (and I told her all about One Parent, One language and the community language in addition to that). Kids will immediately notice if the rules for a sibling are different than the rules for them. If I speak English to Alpha, Beta will pick up on that and figure out that English is in fact the most important language. German has increased in dominance in our household due to the fact that my husband speaks and understands enough for the Alpha to be able to skate by on German alone. Since he’s been more strict in pretending not to understand German with Beta, she’s speaking more Finnish.

“It must be so frustrating for him, though. How can he make friends if they can’t understand them?” I’ve never found this to be an issue. He has friends. Little kids have ways of communicating that have little to do with words and I’ve never seen them incapable of understanding each other and, honestly, the implication that I was hurting my child by raising him multilingually was again, extremely hurtful. So I told her the story of the friends we had to ditch and their oldest son. Thus far, he has been the only child I’ve ever seen treat my son like he couldn’t understand him. Two incidents spring to mind. The first was when the friend’s son was calling Alpha but was mispronouncing his name so Alpha ignored him. Finally, the boy grew frustrated and physically yanked his head and yelled his name incorrectly directly at him, both hurting Alpha and making him cry. The second incident happened a few months later at Alpha’s third birthday party. We were discussing eating the cake and the boy talked to Alpha and said, “Do you want to EAT, Alpha? EAT?” while making eating motions in with his hand. The boy was not quite 5 at the time and it rather confirmed to me that his parents had been talking amongst themselves about how Alpha couldn’t understand or speak English in front of their son, something that is not only inaccurate but also extremely inappropriate. It’s kind of along the same lines of being racist and talking about how black people are inferior and only good for manual labor in front of your kids when your close friends just happen to be black. Their son also reminded me of the Hellman’s commercial, where the little boy goes up to the bride and says, “My mom says she can’t believe you wore white!”

Other than that we haven’t had a single incident of another child acting out negatively due to Alpha’s speech or multilingualism. They just take it in stride. Some older children might say, “what did he say?” But that’s it. Since a lot of them still don’t have the clearest speech themselves, it makes sense. Alpha and his closest friend, L., have always understood each other perfectly and run around mimicking what both of the other one says. It’s never been an issue. He’s popular and well liked at his preschool in even if people can’t understand always understand him.

So the end of it is that it’s pretty much confirmed that he will need speech therapy, which is no biggy in the end, especially if it gives him more confidence with his speech, unless things do clear up on their own. But I’m getting tired of defending multilingualism. Sometimes I wish that Beta were my oldest instead of Alpha. That way people would hear her near-perfect pronunciation in all three languages and be impressed instead of hearing Alpha’s garbled speech and think we’re screwing him up.
“Well, it’s your choice to keep to continue it, but it might be better if you dropped one.” Yes, it is my choice to continue it because I know that even autistic children are capable of being multilingual and have stronger cognitive function and communicate better if they are bilingual than if they’re not.  The benefits outweigh the costs, even if the costs mean that I end up feeling beaten down because of it.

Participating

I got some good feedback from Alpha’s preschool teacher today: for the first time ever, he shared at circle time in preschool! In the beginning he flat out refused to say anything. The teacher allowed them to refuse to share but they had to say “pass” and Haakon wouldn’t even say that. Then after a while he relented and started saying “Pass.” Today, he decided to open up and share. So he talked. And talked. And talked. For 3 minutes. “I couldn’t understand any of it,” his teacher admitted, “so I just let him talk and when he was done I told him,  ‘it sounds like you had a very exciting weekend!'”

I was very pleased to hear this. It means he’s getting more comfortable with preschool and it means that his newfound chattiness at home is carrying over to school. He talks all the time right now and tells long narratives about….well, most of the time I don’t have any more than a vague idea what he’s talking about. Today at dinner, Alpha kept talking about halloween topics: about hanging up a skeleton outside the house and other various decorations and how they would say “wooooooooooO!” and then Beta would run away screaming and so many other topics. Yesterday he told me he was a ghost, I was a monster, Beta was a pumpkin and Papa was a dinosaur. I guess those are our costumes for next year!

***

Beta’s language skills are advancing rapidly. Her pronunciation is surprisingly clear with most words but a lot of them sound similar. For example, nackig and dreckig usually sound the same. Since she’s usually naked, I have to take a closer look at the context to determine if she or something else is also dirty. A lot of her speech consists of stock phrases, although she does use 2-3 word sentences. She asks “Wo bist du?” a lot and adds the name of whatever she is looking for at the end of it to indicate “Where are you” or  “Where is so-and-so?” This is also how she plays peekaboo. If she wakes up in the morning and sees DH is already up, she will ask me “Wo bist du Papa?” and after a few times has learned to automatically answer for me, “Oben” (upstairs).

She is definitely in that annoying toddler stage where she has to have everything the EXACT way she wants it and is a bit obsessive compulsive about it. If she wants to wear a shirt, it has to be that particular shirt otherwise THE WORLD WILL END. If the shirt gets wet, it needs to come off IMMEDIATELY. She still uses her sign and “hmmecker” to indicate she wants to nurse, which is good because the way she says it sounds exactly the same as the way she says “schaukel.” So sometimes I start to head towards the swing when I notice she’s signing. In case of refusal or me telling her to wait, she will drag me to  my chair and tell me “setz dich hin!”

Her Finnish is also progressing. She repeats words well after DH says them, usually with Alpha beside her providing the correct Finnish word. He refuses to speak Finnish himself, though, for the most part, unless he’s lecturing one of us. Today Beta brought me “Hauska Maatila” (Funny Farm” and wanted me to read it, so I did, pronouncing the Finnish as well as I could and using the German words when I knew I didn’t stand a chance in hell. At the end of the book, I said “Das Ende” and Alpha sternly corrected me, “Auf Finnisch ‘das Ende’ ist ‘loppu.'” I thanked him and told him he was correct and said “loppu.”

He knows it, he thinks it, he just won’t say it. I hope he doesn’t have a grudge against Finnish. I hope he will be encouraged to speak more of it after he sees his grandparents and gets to use a lot more of it on a daily basis.

Language Updates

Beta’s language skills have been growing by leaps and bounds. DH took both the kids out for the day over the weekend and she told him that “Cola on hyvä” [cola is good]. I’m a bit embarrassed by her cola fixation. She’s never had any, we’ve never given her any, but she hears Alpha asking for it a lot. So she has reached the conclusion that every liquid is called cola, except for breastmilk which is called “mmm lecker.” Alpha ends up yelling at her that it’s “WATER, NOT SODA!” which is unnecessary but whatever.

It’s interesting watching the two of them interact and I definitely think that the oldest child loses out because they don’t have anyone to play with when they’re very young. Beta picks up so much from Alpha and the two of them have developed a lot of games together that are apparently a lot of fun. One is sitting at the table and suddenly declaring the other child’s food to be “meins” then the other child will say “nein MEINS” and this will continue. If Beta starts it up, Alpha will agitated very quickly and start yelling at Beta that it’s NOT HERS IT’S HIS. It really makes him upset and I have to try to reassure him that Beta will not be taking his food.

Other than that, Alpha seems to be the boss. “Komm, Beta, wir gehen ins Schaukelzimmer.” He will yell at her. [Come, Beta, we’re going into the swing room] or “Komm, Beta wir gehen nach oben.” [Come, Beta we’re going upstairs]. But today Beta surprised me and yelled at Haakon, “Alpha! Guck nach oben!” She was just repeating what I had just said, trying to get Alpha to look up at us in the play equipment, but it was still pretty cool. Her speech sounds a lot clearer than Alpha’s. His speech is still fairly garbled and he doesn’t pronounce a lot of letters right. Still no need for concern; even monolingual kids only start getting most of the sounds in their language right at age 4 and he has 3 languages to get the sounds right in. His doctor says there’s no need for concern yet and many of the things he says appear to be clearing up, so it’s very encouraging.

In other news, Alpha will be starting preschool tomorrow! It’s a big change for us, that’s for sure. He’s been really looking forward to it and hopefully still will now that he knows only he will be going to preschool; Malla and I will be heading back home. I’m hoping this will build his English confidence and competence.

He’s learned the names to all the Thomas the Tank Engine Trains and was telling me the names, but one stumped me. I couldn’t figure out what it was. I tried a few locomotive names but he kept saying no and repeating the name,” On-ri, On-ri.” then it hit me: Henry! In other news, my son speaks English with a French accent.

Don’t Underestimate Them

Once again, I have woefully underestimated Alpha’s linguistic abilities. A few days after I wrote the previous post, he, Beta, and DH were at Home Depot looking at some stuff and Lasse muttered to himself in Finnish, “Again, I’m being a fucking idiot.” Upon hearing this, Alpha replies, “I’m a fucking idiot!”

Ta-da! So, he can say a whole sentence in Finnish and his pronunciation wasn’t too bad either. As it turns out, kids always know more than they let on.

Today, DH went downstairs to check on Alpha to make sure he was laying down but he was nowhere to be found, so DH asks, “Alpha, missä sinä olet?” (where are you?) and then Alpha calls from the bathroom in English,

“Papa! I’m shitting!”

They always say that cuss words are the first thing you pick up and I’m definitely putting the blame on DH’s shoulders for these incidents. I very rarely say shitting, though I have been know to say shat.

So congratulations, Alpha! Maybe you don’t need preschool after all! With a mouth like that, maybe you shouldn’t go to preschool!

Literally Speaking

Beta saw some birds flying at the park the other day. She pointed at them and said, “Flugzeug!” I replied, “Technically, you’re not wrong.”

***

It amuses me to no end to hear Alpha making his own mistakes in German. I know he’s going to make a ton of mistakes since I make quite a few with my German; it’s unavoidable. But there are somethings I say right that he says wrong. Kind of like how his little friend always says something falled down instead of fell. So I will walk into a room and hear Alpha yelling at Beta, “Nein! Das it nicht gute Idee!” instead of the correct “Nein! Das ist keine gute Idee” (No! THat’s a bad idea”), which is what I tell them all the time when they’re doing something that is A Bad Idea or when they do something dumb and it hurts them.

Another thing he says is, “ganz zu”(wholly, completely too)  instead of “viel zu” (way too). So he’ll walk into a room with no lights on and say “Es ist ganz zu dunkel!” instead of “es ist viel zu dunkel.” I’ve figured out why he does this; I once told Alpha that something was totally dark (“Es ist ganz dunkel”) and he took it and ran with it. So at the lake yesterday he kept pulling me to some water that was shaded by trees, saying “Komm mit! Wir gehen wo es ganz zu dunkel ist!” (Come! We’re going where it’s completely too dark!”) Ok, compadre.

Unfortunately getting him to speak Finnish is still quite the chore. He understands, but refuses to say more than one word in a row. He’s just not in the habit of doing it. He knows DH understands German and that’s good enough for him. We’ve discussed DH refusing to acknowledge German, but we know if we do that it will lead to a lot of frustration and a lot of screaming on Alpha’s park. So we’re not eager to try. They both went to Home Depot the other day to pick out some paint colors for Alpha’s New Room. I selected 4 different color pallets that he could choose between them and he and DH spent quite a while selecting between them until Alpha chose the one with “Mango Farbe!” (Mano color)

On the drive home they talked about the stars and moon and so forth. Alpha told DH, very importantly, “Papa, ein Mann wohnt in kuu.” A man lives in [the] moon, the last word being in Finnish. That’s pretty much as advanced as his Finnish speech is at this point. We’re hoping our trip to Finland this winter will improve on it.

Palomies Sami

We had an interesting incident the other night, but first a bit of background.

In the last care package from Finland, my mother-in-law included some dvds, among which was one called “Palomies Sami,” or Fireman Sam (I guess…it’s a translation of a British show and I don’t know what it’s supposed to be called.). One day when Alpha wanted to watch a show I suggested it to him and asked him, “Wie wär’s mit Palomies Sami? Wollen wir Palomies Sami gucken?”  He agreed and watched a few episodes.

I never referred to the show as anything but Palomies Sami.

My husband found the DVD upstairs in his computer at night when Alpha usually watches Sandmännchen before going to bed and decided to play it instead, reasoning that Alpha got enough German during the day anyway. The next night, as I was putting Beta to sleep, I heard the following argument on the stairs:

DH: (in Finnish) time to watch Palomies Sami!

Alpha: Ja! Feuerwehrmann Sam gucken!

DH: (in Finnish) No, it’s Palomies Sami.

Alpha: Feuerwehrmann Sam!

DH: Palomies Sami.

Alpha: Feuerwehrmann Sam!

Afterwards, DH commented how insistent Alpha was that it was Feuerwehrmann Sam and not Palomies Sami.

“It is really strange,” I agreed, “especially since I never called it Feuerwehrmann Sam. He did that all on his own.”

“Really? I thought you must have translated it.”

“No, I never did.”

The good thing is that he’s getting it. Unfortunately, German has such a hold on Alpha’s brain that Finnish isn’t getting the time of day…even things that we’ve only introduced in Finnish. But it’s so amazing how he’s figured this out, all on his own. I never would have thought it.

He also has these cookies he really likes to eat, that he first had at Finnish school. In Finnish they’re called “Lussika leipä” (spelling may not be correct). I think they’re called ladyfingers in English, but the brand is Milano and I have no idea what they’re called in German, but the Finnish name means “Spoon bread.” He came in from Finnish school after having them the first time repeating “lussika leipä” over and over again, but I couldn’t figure out what he was talking about until DH explained it to me. “Ooooh,” I said to Alpha, “hast du einen leckeren Keks gegessen?” (Oh, did you eat a yummy cookie?) letting him know that it was a cookie in German. Since I’m not sure what the accurate name is in German, I just call them lussika Keks to distinguish them from all the other cookies in the world.

We were at BJs the other day and passed by his favorite cookies. I pointed at them and asked him what they were and he said “lussika Brot–” then stopped quickly and corrected himself. “Lussika Keks!”

It’s really amazing. He’s getting it. His brain is figuring out. The wheels are definitely turning.