Your kids speak three languages! That´s great! – Oh, really?

I have already written for the Newly Swiss on-line magazine on how children learn a foreign language while living abroad. Of course, it has its benefits if children grow up in linguistically different environments. We, adults, can only envy them their ability to absorb foreign language. Our children (I mean the older two, the youngest still refuse to speak while we know she understands very well) speak three languages – Czech, German and the local dialect, Bärndütsch. However, there are also situations when we don´t find their multilingualism as such a great thing. 

Because often, it happens that children:

They switch from one language to another in one sentence

When your childs retuns from Kindergarten and want to share his experience: “Mom, in Kindergarten, I was KOPFLI of that SCHLANGE, as we walked out of the garden to GARDEROBE…(I was the snake’s head as we walked out of the garden into the dressing room).

MAMA, he called me DUMMKOPF! (Mom, he called me an idiot!)

They talk behind your back, thinking that you don´t understand them

You know it when the children get together, especially if there have been (according to their point of view) some kind of injustice from your side. Then they have a grievance against you and communicate their feelings – how else than in a language they know you don´t manage as well as they do.

They will understand something only if you explain them in German

As it happened recently at breakfast, when the younger son, looking at the Czech compatriot magazine, asked:
“Mom, what does it mean Sokola?”
Me: “Well, correctly it´s Sokol, and that’s a bird (falcon). It´s similar to ADLER, but it´s called FALKE. And in the Czech Republic, it is a name for a kind of sports association, something like TURNVEREIN.”

They consider you dumb (at least about language skills)

Children’s sincerity knows no limits. We have already experienced sentences such as: “But you do not understand!”. Alternatively: “Why you still can´t speak German well ?!”

Perhaps you recently registered my post on Facebook about this situation: I was sitting at my computer and translating another article into German. Our younger son came to me. He stood by my side for a moment, looking at what I was doing, thinking, then said, “Mom, why do you write in German? You don´t know German well!” (Er, I know without you telling me that, young man!)

They are reluctant to learn the grammar of your mother tongue

After all, German is easier, isn´t it? And how to explain to an eight-year-old-nearly-teenager that the knowledge of his mother tongue is simply a crucial thing in the eyes of his parents?

I admit, sometimes the situations are funny, but sometimes I’m not laughing at all. On the one hand, I am proud of my children to have been able to learn two foreign languages in such a short time. But on the other hand, I want to cry out when I “fight” with an older son is reluctant to make grammar exercises in Czech. I don´t want to totally disgust the Czech language, so I’m glad he reads at least the books in Czech without protests.

Their learning process is also a great motivation for me to learn the languace. I don´t want my pubertal kids to be ashamed of me in a few years (for how I’m speaking, pronouncing etc.). A year ago, I wrote here a post summarizing 5 ways to learn the language. Maybe I’d add five more:

  • Read (newspapers, magazines, flyers, just whatever comes to your hand)
  • Listen (to the radio while driving, as salespeople talk to customers, etc.)
  • Read with your children and to children,
  • Speak (do not let yourself be overwhelmed by timidity and speak even with mistakes);
  • Learn language by doing what you enjoy (watching TV sports broadcasts, or start writing a blog in German: D)

I will be happy if you share your experiences with children growing up in other linguistic environments, or in bilingual families.




Categories: Language, Switzerland
Skiing with kids: Wiriehorn (Diemtigtal)
Skiing with kids: SnowPark Eriz


Hana Hurábová

14 Comments. Leave new

  • I understand your points but I still think that the advantages of speaking more languages override the disadvantages. In our family there are three languages spoken weekly: Italian is the family language and they are only allowed Italian with us, French is their social language and English which they learned while we lived in the UK, is spoken with the nanny. They are not allowed to mix languages and if they do we correct them and we tell them the word in all three languages. It is true that my husband and I both speak Italian together so that makes life easier, so that we can have one language at home. When I was 8 we moved from French speaking to Italian speaking and my parents didn’t encourage this compartmentation of languages, so we mixed it. But I feel that because of that my brain often takes the short cut and finds the first language that comes to mind without thinking about the word in the actual language the sentence is spoken in. We will see how it will turn out for our kids, but no matter what Inrather have them speak three languages rather than just one.

  • I remember when I was ashame of speaking Thai infront of my friends back in Sweden. My mum did continue to speak Thai with me but she never really insisted that I spoke Thai back to her. Now at 37 I regret badly that I don’t very well Thai and can’t write nor read Thai. Swedish school system is really good back then, we had once a week our mother langue lesson and even with that I was not paying much attention.

    • Well, I must say that if our children speak to me in Bärndütsch in front of their friends, I let them (in case I understand correctly). But at home we insist on using their mother tongue.

  • It’s funny… children go through a phase when their home language is different to the language of the country they live in where they are “ashamed” of being different. Just like Dawan mentioned in her reply. How do we overcome this? Maybe spending prolonged holidays in the country where the home language is spoken? I was lucky, and moved from Italy to the UK at that awkward age, and then back again, but wondering what it will be like for my daughter when she hits the 6-8 year mark and starts to ignore one of her languages…

    • Hopefully our children won´t start ignoring their mother tongue, since we speak it at home and really insist on it 😉

  • I witnessed this with schoolmates of mine, mostly Italian “Secondos”.
    Today they tell me they can’t properly speak either language, and the fact that they were able to switch and mix and still being understood prevented them from being forced to learn both languages, (Swiss) German and Italian in depth. I was never aware of that. They spoke so fluently. So what if they went “e poi la mia sorella a detto Du bisch so blöd!”

    • 😀 If everyone understand what they want to say it´s good for them 😉

      • Well, that’s just the thing, Hanka, now that she’s an adult she realises she can’t really have a business negotiation in Italian. She’s getting married in Italy, and talking to the people who rent out the place, who are in charge of flowers and stuff, not to mention the authorities she needs to see for her documents – they don’t understand the bits and pieces in Swiss German 😉

  • I wonder how my two will cope when we move from UK to Zurich. I’m sure they’ll overtake my language ability in no time!

  • Many have asked why I don’t speak mandarin (my mother-tongue altho in Singapore our first language is English) to my 2 kids. Like you mention, a lot of time is exposure and the best and most fun way to pick up a language is through pop culture via books, tv and radio. My older one is currently in P3 and is already struggling with German n Swiss German, and in P5 he‘ll start French! Personally I just want him to focus on getting good and grammatically correct in German n English. In Singapore because we are exposed to so many diff languages and Chinese dialects, a lot of people actually don’t speak properly in every specific language. We now have a term ‚singlish‘ which is Singaporeans‘ mush-mash of diff lanaguages and colloquial terms!

    • I´ve heard that in many Asian countries there are “mixes” of local languages and English. I´m also curious how my son will manage French next year! :O

  • This is all so true. My daughter says that German is so much easier than English! My girls have been raised bilingual, speaking Afrikaans (my husband) and English (me). They speak half German and half Afrikaans to my husband. To me they speak only English. It sure is amazing how quickly they pick up languages.

    • It´s really interesting to hear that your daughters find German easier than English! :O


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