Raising multilingual children

2009-09-22 00:00

SEVERAL of my friends berate me on a regular basis: “You’re denying your children a wonderful gift.” They think that because I speak German, but have decided not to teach my sons, I’m robbing them of their birthright, cultural heritage and a valuable opportunity for personal growth.

My usual reply is that it’s much more complicated than that. Raising bi- or multilingual children is obviously an overwhelmingly positive thing, but many of us who are trying are faced with considerable obstacles. In my own case, my actual mother tongue — if that’s still an acceptable term — is a German dialect called Schwäbisch (Swabian). Now, although my dad is adamant that it’s the mother of all languages, it seems to me that teaching my eight- and 10-year-old South African children an obscure central European lingo is neither particularly practical nor very useful at this stage of their lives.

We’re an English-speaking household. I speak Schwäbisch to my parents on the phone once every couple of weeks and proper High German to the odd German acquaintance if there is absolutely no way of avoiding it. Not exactly a situation in which my children can immerse themselves in either the language or the culture.

Clearly other people find it easier to cope with such complications. I was quite impressed by a young couple I met in Cape Town years ago. He was Italian, she was Polish and they conversed in English. Each of them spoke to their newborn son in their own home language. They subsequently moved to Norway and I often wonder how they’re doing.

The fabulous Eddie Izzard, who is multilingual himself, has a hilarious stand-up routine in which he mocks the attitude of the notoriously language-tardy English: “Two languages in one head? No one can live at that speed. Good Lord, man, you’re asking the impossible.” Nothing could be further from the truth. From Switzerland and Belgium to India and of course South Africa, the world abounds with people who happily speak more than one language every day. Izzard points to the Dutch, who he says speak four languages while smoking marijuana.

Clearly there are many benefits to raising your children with more than one language and quite evidently I have some personal issues with my former Germanness. My wife Sam has her own take on our particular situation. I just think that there needs to be a certain hierarchy of priorities when it comes to teaching very young children additional languages. As a Capetonian, even one with a very recent European heritage, it is very important to me that my children grow up as South Africans who are firmly rooted in the languages of their home. That’s why their primary language is English and why they are busy learning both Afrikaans and Xhosa at school.

And, quite frankly, I think that’s enough for the moment. If, as they grow older, they want to learn how to speak French or Portuguese, because those are two very important languages in Africa, or German or Schwäbisch, because their dad speaks those, then I’ll be only too happy to help them along as much as I can. Right now, I think trying to cope with three languages is a good enough start. — Parent24.

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