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.