Raising Bilingual Kids Is A Pain In The Arse

They’ll be grateful when they’re older” I get told pretty often. Of course, it’s very important for my children to understand their heritage BUT – at the same time – I have to deal with a lot of staring, judging, misunderstanding and exhaustion in order to offer this wonderful gift of a second language. Currently, I’m pretty sick of it.

Staring? Judging?

We live in a small town in the former east of Germany. Foreign people are harder to find than in larger cities and we don’t actually stick out as “foreign” at first glance. The stereotypical blond hair and blue eyes is something that, ironically, I have given to my girls, not their dark hair, dark-eyed German father. We look German. We act pretty German too, until I open my mouth to speak to the kids. This makes the staring understandable and I have been asked on numerous occasions why I choose to speak English to my kids? A lot of people assume I’m German but being a bit of an idiot and speaking English to my young kids to show off and give them an educational advantage. I appreciate their wild overestimation of my ambition but the truth is quite simple: I speak English to my kids because I’m English.

Feeling Like A Failure

We were in an uber in London last week during our half-term trip to visit my sister. My daughter was chatting happily to the driver when he mocked a mistake she made in one of her sentences. He turned to me and asked “who taught her English?”. It hurt me and I felt ashamed to admit that it was me. Her little face fell when she felt like she’d made a mistake. I’ve since had many imaginary conversations with him in my head where I have made it very clear that she is bilingual and wonderful and he is an insensitive idiot.

I Was A Wonderful Parent – Until I Had My Own Kids

I knew the answer to every question and had a wonderful picture in my head of our little German/British kiddies running around speaking with Oxford English accents to me (how exactly that would happen I have no idea, I’m from Merseyside) and perfect German to the rest of the world. I believed it and even (cringe) judged some of my friends who were also foreign, but whose kids had a pretty low level of mother tongue and much better German. In hindsight, I realise that my picture of bilingualism was pretty ridiculous and very far removed from any reality that I know. You’ll be happy to know that karma does exist and gets its own back when you have your own children.

Reality Hits Hard

The reality is we now have two kids with very good German levels thanks to kindergarten, friends, family and the fact that 80% of our life happens with Germans in Germany. Their English? Sigh, it’s pretty weak. Shame on me, an English teacher and all. My little mother-heart swelled with pride last week when my daughter explained that she’d had “a quarrel with a friend”. Quarrel; what a wonderful vocabulary choice (she is 7). I gave my husband a little look of pride and asked her to explain why she chose to say “quarrel”? “I learnt it from Peppa Pig” was her honest and crushing reply. Peppa Pig. How can you come second to Peppa Pig? Our 2 year-old started well with her English, but has mostly gone for a weird mixture of the two languages now. This might be because you get more attention as people try hard to even understand what you want. Kindergarten must love this approach.

What To Do?

Give up? Not an option. My family in the U.K don’t speak a lot of German and my children obviously want to play with their cousins. Language is also important to understand culture. I want my children to feel at home in the UK, and, to feel at home, you have to have a good understanding of language. I speak English with them and expect them to answer me in English unless the situation makes it difficult. I notice with my oldest daughter that she is capable of complex reasoning in German but struggles to find the words in English because she gets most of her language from me (and la pig of course). Rather than front-loading her with deep and meaningful language in monologues about my life at the dinner table, we read children’s books and listen to story CDs in the car. TV is also a good source, and a big motivator. The best motivator however, is to actually go to the UK as often as possible and give them no choice but to use English. Children seem to use language much more freely than adults, because they’re not worried about making mistakes and simply use the language to get what they want.

Accept What You Can’t Change – Change What You Can

I often have to remind myself that most children only speak one language and I should give myself and my kids a bit of a break. I also can’t change the fact that we live in Germany and spend most of our time with Germans. This is our life and I’m happy with it. For lent, my husband has decided to speak English with me, rather than German. When we met, he spoke minimal English and I am fluent in German so we have always spoken German to each other. Speaking English will be an interesting challenge. We’ve also booked our next two-week holiday to the UK. All in all, I think I’m doing what I can, but yes, sometimes it is a pain in the arse. Just as well Peppa Pig is there to help.

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Image credit- Peter Rossing
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Rachel Millington is a mum of two. In her spare time, she works in PR, hanging out with people who are all a good 10 years younger and a lot more glamorous than her, which is terribly good for the self-esteem. She also volunteers for Mind & MumsAid, because she very definitely believes that maternal mental health matters. She can be found tweeting (/ranting about politics) @rachmillington and is also charting her absolute hatred and despair of the weaning process on instagram @mummyledweaning (whoever said it was easier second time around LIED).