An off-hand comment has spawned a parenting crisis in my household.
We had just returned home from German class and Alpha showed me this Christmas card he had made there and gleefully pointed out how he had written over “Frohe Weihnachten” in his secret code. He likes to do this: not pay attention during German class and write things like “lol stupid” or “death” or whatever in his secret code instead. I looked at the paper as disappointment washed over me again and told him, “Alpha, sometimes I think it would make just as much sense to put you in a closet for an hour as to send you to German class.”
This triggered my husband, who is already suffering from language anxiety. Finnish has fallen on the wayside, largely due to his inability to schedule a set time where he sits down with the kids and does Finnish with them. Their understanding of Finnish has plummeted. They very, very rarely use any Finnish at all. Beta says “olkapäällä”when she wants to ride on DH’s shoulders, Gamma says “hattu” (hat) and a few other words, but for the most part they speak English with German coming as a distant second. Consequently, my husband has decided that if they can’t understand him in Finnish, he’s going to speak to him in German. Problem is: his German sucks. I mean, fine, it’s better than my Finnish, but it’s like my Spanish: he had it for many years in school, can understand it pretty well, but anytime he can’t find a word he goes into his next best language (in his case, Swedish) to find it– oh, and his grammar is lacking. It’s completely pointless.
“Why do you do that?” I asked him. “It’s not going to improve their Finnish and it’s definitely not going to help their German.”
“I refuse to speak to them in English!” he insisted. “I’m not going to do it!” But he does. We both do. It’s inevitable when you’re homeschooling or when you live in an English-speaking country and the kids talk about most things in English.
But what followed was an angst-ridden evening on his part where he threw out suggestions ranging from the ridiculous to the implausible to improve their German and Finnish. “We’ll take their tablets away for the whole weekend unless they actually speak in German in their German classes and Finnish in their Finnish classes!” Alpha’s eyes immediately teared up. “We’ll just move to Germany and stay there for as many years as we need to until their fluent in German!” Sigh. He knows the kids the are against moving to Germany and phrasing it that way makes it seem like a punishment: you’re going to stay in prison until you’re sorry for what you did! I told my husband that this was not the time nor the place to discuss this, especially if any of the suggestions were going to be as ridiculous as those were. But still, he spent a lot of time telling me how upset it was making him that we were failing in our attempts to teach the kids Finnish and German and how they didn’t appreciate how we were trying to give them a leg up in life. “Languages open so many doors! They could go to university in Finland or Germany and save a ton of money, but they need to know the languages!” (Germany actually has a lot of English language university programs, but he didn’t know that) His despair was palpable. And, honestly, even I’ve been feeling that way a lot more when it comes to our languages.
The next day we finally had a chance to talk about things and, through the course of our discussion, came up with three plausible solutions to improve our kids’ language abilities:
1) increase the home study and make sure the kids do Finnish three times a week and German twice.
2) Move, either closer to Boston or abroad to Germany or Finland, either temporarily or permanently.
3) Drop Finnish. Concentrate on German. Or drop both of those and let the kids pick a language to learn.
Option 1 is fairly straight forward. I already sit down twice a week with the kids and do German, using the German at home course “Einsterns Schwester.” The kids aren’t fans of it (given the choice between doing it and not doing it, they would rather not do it), but they do it and I’m pretty impressed at how much German Alpha understands and recalls. Beta…well, it feels like she’s learning German more as a second language now as far as recall is concerned. So German is covered.
Finnish is a whole other story. For the longest time (two years maybe?) my husband has had “Finnish” penciled into his calendar for every Friday. Guess how many times he actually sat down and did Finnish with the kids.
In August after another period of language angst, we had decided that twice a week DH would do Finnish with the kids while I drove Gamma to preschool and the other day of the week, I would do German with the kids while he drove Gamma to preschool. Guess how many times this actually happened? Yep, zero. I drive Gamma to school every time. Though twice now after smaller bouts of language-concern, my husband has sat down and done Finnish with them, though one of those was this morning, so I’m not sure it counts.
My husband has lots of reasons why he doesn’t have time to do Finnish with the kids. He has a lot of work to do. True, this is a constant factor, it’s not going to change. He either needs to work around it or give up. We don’t have a good resource for Finnish like the ones I have for German. Also true: the Finnish schools won’t even hand any over to my mother-in-law when she asks. It’s like they keep their curriculum under lock and key and, true to low Finnish self-esteem, don’t actually think there might be children who want to learn Finnish at home. He can’t find the materials we do have. This isn’t even a proper reason; it’s just his lack of ability to find anything and then not asking me where they are (though I would probably tell him “On the bookshelf,” instead of giving him the exact longitudinal and latitudinal coordinates he’s probably looking for).
I’ve tried doing Finnish with the kids at home, but my Finnish isn’t good enough to understand a lot of the Finnish-language stuff we have, so I have to ask my husband for help translating if it’s not in my Finnish-English dictionary. My pronunciation is pretty bad, too. “You should really have dad do this,” was my kids’ advice after the first time I tried. I agreed with them.
The basic problem, I think, is one of habit. DH is not in the habit of teaching the kids. I am, so throwing German into the pile on top of everything else a couple of times a week isn’t a big deal. But for him… it’s a wild deviation from the norm. He also isn’t a natural teacher. I don’t think I am either, but I’ve learned a few things over the past 4-5 years of homeschooling. DH is good at explaining things to adults, but it doesn’t translate well to kids.
We ran through some suggestions, including the possibility of getting the kids Rosetta Stone for Finnish. That fell flat when I looked online and discovered that in the 11 years since i last looked for a Finnish Rosetta Stone program, they still don’t offer one. So screw Rosetta I’m-going-to-offer-courses-in-Irish-Dari-Pashtu-and-Swedish-but-not-Finnish Stone.
So I started throwing out suggestions that he would have known had he read the book on Growing up Trilingual I asked him to read 5 years ago but he never did. Make language learning fun! Play games with the kids, like memory or Uno or this Finnish Moomin game I can’t understand and so have never played it with the kids. He’s followed this advice, but a new complaint from the kids has arisen: “You always win when we play games with you,” Alpha groused.
My husband looked sheepish. “I’m not trying to win! It was just luck!”
There are other things he could do, like bribe the kids. Here’s a list of Finnish vocabulary words. Every time you learn one you get a dime.
But just starting with sitting down with them three times a week…would be a great start in the short-term. The other two options I’ll discuss in later posts and are more long-term in as far as planning and consequences are concerned.