Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Bilingual Play & the 3rd Wheel Syndrome

In just a few days, I finally get to host the international blogging carnival, and I'm so excited. Naturally, I've been wracking my brain to come up with a topic that would be best suited to share with whatever readers, new and old, who are interested in multilingual parenting topics. It's been so long since I've written (once again!), and I'm thus, quite tempted to just give a little update about the Kaya-meister, and our lives with and around her. But for those who don't know her, I'm thinking something more general, more all-encompassing, something that might be more easily applied to others' lingual lives, might be better and more interesting. So here we go, let's see what I can create...

Kaya and I just got home from a little jaunt over to our neighbor's house after walking home from camp. This neighbor isn't just "any old neighbor", but rather a woman who has grown near and dear to all of us in our family after the role she played while my mom was dying. Lena, though she has no children of her own, is quite the mother-figure, and is a wonderful fill-in Nana now that Mom is gone. I love watching her with Kaya, in the way she plays, banters, questions, wonders, and just generally enjoys everything Kaya--just like my mom did.

This afternoon was no different. We stopped by to share some hummus and falafel chips (my new favorite!!) in the much-loved, and very rare, Portland sunshine. Lena was eager to visit, especially once she heard that Kaya was quite excited to stop by 'Tante Lena's' and say hi (Lena doesn't speak German, but she loved the idea of being called 'Tante' [aunt], so the name just stuck...). We grabbed a seat in the fenced patio, Kaya initially eager to stay in her jogger as she played her shy card. Within minutes, however, Lena had Kaya out of her shell and giggles were abounding. The beloved game was a hand-washing one: Kaya would 'wash' Lena's hands with 'water' and 'soap' while Lena 'lathered up' waiting for Kaya to 'rinse'. But Kaya didn't want to rinse her...in fact, she quickly figured out that the game was much more fun if she let Lena's hands stay soapy. Lena grew quite disappointed, sad I might even say, that she had to just sit there with soap on her hands. Kaya just giggled, ran away, soon to return with an "OK, I'll wash yoh hends off".

The other game that Kaya loved was hiding the carrots that Tante Lena was so intent to eat.
"You want to keep them from me because I'm such a pig, huh?" Lena questioned of Kaya.
"Yeah," she'd respond, stashing the carrots in the top of the stroller.
"Oh, I'm so hungry," Lena would cry. "Can't I have some carrots?!"
"No," Kaya would respond, giggling even louder.

At one point, I began to get meta about the whole thing, recalling that I was still seeking a topic for the upcoming Carnival. It hit me that the situation I was just observing--with observing being the key word--is pretty typical of many situations I find myself in with Kaya, particularly lately, or so it feels. With Kaya and I speaking only German with each other, and English with most everyone else, it makes for a unique dynamic in play. When I do choose to contribute, vs. just observing from within, it becomes a fine balance between translator and "Mitspieler" [one who plays along with]. Some people are quite proactive about asking me what it was that I just said--with short, simple statements, it's pretty easy to interpret, particularly with voice tone and body language. With those who ask, I'm always more than willing to share what just transpired. In fact, I almost always love to share with others what we're talking about--it just often feels awkward to find that balance, that 'spot' in the conversation to insert the English interpretation. Often, especially with those who aren't as proactive about asking, I tend not to share what we're talking about leaving the other/s in the dark about what is being talked about on the other side of the table. I'm not quite sure what to think of this, at this point...part of me is tempted to ask others how they feel about it when they are in that situation with us. The other part of me, however, almost doesn't want to know because I'm not sure I want to feel the obligation to continuously interpret our conversations, 'littering' our interactions with English. This is the beauty of a blog entry: I write this here in hopes that those of you out there, on both 'sides' of the situation will share your input to inspire the rest of us...

When Kaya was younger, in her pre-language stage, and we spent a lot of time in English-speaking playgroups in the community, I remember feeling very awkward about speaking German in front of others. I did it because I was committed to it, and felt confident that I wanted to stick to OPOL [One Parent, One Language], but I found I would keep my voice down, and even would say less to avoid bringing attention to myself. I felt afraid that others would think I was righteous, thinking our way--the bilingual way--was better. I also felt awkward, as a non-native, speaking German with my daughter. I can't remember how long it took me--I'd have to look back at my posts--but it was a lot longer than I remember thinking it would take for me to truly become at ease with German as our language.

Now that I'm completely comfortable with it, I'm noticing these other pieces. I'm no longer self-conscious about speaking German (at least in front of English speakers), but I do find myself being aware and somewhat sensitive to them not being able to understand us (for the most part). Fortunately, after 3 1/2 yrs of speaking German with Kaya, my husband, Geoff, can understand and thus follow along with 95% of what is said. That's a huge relief; I can't imagine it for me otherwise. But around others--especially family and friends, who are important in our lives--I've been thinking about three interesting concepts lately.

First of all, as I was alluding to above, I tend to observe more than I play, more than I think I otherwise would, were Kaya and I to be communicating in the common language. There definitely seems to be a disconnect, a scattered-ness and lack of flow when I participate with Kaya and our English-speaking people. This disconnect might be due, in part, to Kaya's manner of response, which is the second thing I've been thinking about a lot lately.

Kaya is very clear that, when she's speaking to Dada, she's speaking to Dada--and I better not respond in German (or at all!) without expecting an "ehhhhhhhhhhhhh!!!!!" in response. The same goes for her communication with me--Geoff has come to expect the same response with English. Granted, it doesn't mean we don't try it--it's pretty hard to avoid, especially as she gets older and begins to 'mom and pop' (asking me for one thing after she's already asked him...). I also get a similar response when she's playing alone in English (she plays in both languages)--if I respond to her in German, she makes a similar noise, though not quite as adamantly.

This separate-ness definitely has its pros and cons. On the one hand, I love that I get to 'check out', to a certain extent, when Kaya is speaking to Geoff. It's like I can relax, knowing that he is 'responsible' for answering or responding to her question or need. It's a similar feeling to asking Kaya who she wants to take her to the bathroom--me or Dada. Sweet, she wants Dada! On the flip side, however, I'm noticing a bit of sadness on my part, a feeling of being 'left-out', of wishing that we could all just play together, smoothly, easily, and that I could just speak my native language with my daughter with words that have been flowing off of my tongue for 36 some-odd years (as opposed to just 15-ish). Wishing that, when I did communicate with Kaya, others didn't feel left out, didn't feel in the dark or wishing the situation were otherwise.

At this point, now that Kaya's been speaking exclusively German with me for 12 months and some change, I have no doubts about whether I should continue to speak German with her. I've seen enough of the benefits, and even moreso, have complete faith in the research that I've seen, to know that it will be worth it for her life. That's what my head says, anyway. But my heart does worry, at times, grows fearful that my relationship with my daughter will suffer; that we won't be able to ever communicate to the same extent that we would if it were my native language (if you were ever looking for a reason to hone your language skills, here's one!); that, over time, German will become the more challenging language for her to speak, and she'll just choose to communicate with others over Mama. My head is telling my heart to quit the silly-talk. Nothing like a mother's bond, it says. And you don't have to worry about then, it says. Be in the now.

Before we left Lena's place, Lena asked me which language Kaya liked speaking better. I wasn't sure, and told her to ask her.
"Kaya, which language do you like speaking better, English or German?" Lena asked her.
After a short pause, Kaya responded with a tone of confidence, "Both."

I know there are many of you out there, native and non-native alike, who continue to deal with similar thoughts, feelings, and situations regarding the OPOL and non-community language dynamic in play and social situations. What do you do? How do you feel about it? Have you gotten feedback from others about what they think or feel? I wrote about this topic because I'm so curious about your thoughts, your experiences, and anything else you're willing to share around this topic. I hope you'll take a minute to share, and/or pass this post along to someone else who might.

Thanks for being part of our journey!


  1. Really great post - very thought-provoking! We often worry about the same thing, if we are excluding others when we talk to our son in a language they don't understand. So far most people don't seem to think it is rude, although we feel uncomfortable. Instead, most others seem to find it fascinating and often ask how much our son understands of each language and so on. Depending on the situation, they often do ask what we are talking about, and we are happy to translate. And sometimes we bend the rules and talk in the common language. But I think it would be really hard if my partner did not understand what I was saying, so that's great that your husband now understands German. Thanks for sharing! I look forward to seeing what others have to say!

    1. Thanks, 'Monkey', for both reading our post AND for taking the time to add a thoughtful response. I really appreciate it, and love hearing the feedback. I have tended to avoid the whole 'rude' concept--I think that rude is just a construct of going beyond societal norms. I don't really know what the norm is in our situation, so I don't think that there is a norm that I'm going beyond. Even moreso, I've just decided that Kaya will benefit so much from this whole bilingual thing that I can't worry about offending people--leaving them out, yes. Them being offended by our choice, no. And like you said, I don't think most people (if any) are (maybe strangers). As you said, most people are quite curious...thanks again!

  2. Hi Tamara, I just found your blog but I haven't had much time to look a little further than this post. Very interesting what you bring up - I face the same challenges when I speak Thai and German with our son in public, whether it's at the grocery store, picking him up at the babysitter's house, friends and family around, etc. It is hard, more so when family and friends are around as they are more likely to be involved in a conversation. I was very self conscious at first, however nowadays I don't hesitate speaking the foreign language with our son when we are out and about, because most of the time, others (cashiers, waiters, etc) aren't really involved in our conversation. Sometimes I get looks, but most of the time people might glance quickly and go about their own day. Just like you, I eventually had to tell myself that I can't worry about offending others as the benefits for our child outweighs all the rudeness people may perceive :)
    When it comes to my husband, I am actually very comfortable only speaking Thai or German with our son at home. I only switch to English when I address my husband. My husband is very supportive of it though, has never said one word about feeling left out which makes it so much easier. As our son got older and started finally talking more, I do have to remind myself not to respond in English back, sometimes I just forget and fall into the common language with him! I'm excited to read more about your background and experience.

    1. Hi! I'm so glad you found my blog, thank you so much for leaving a comment. I'm so curious about your languages...Thai and German and English. How did that come about? I'll have to check out your blog!
      I agree with your point about it being harder around family--that's for sure. I am no longer concerned with what the general public thinks of our language...it seems pretty commonplace these days, particularly with Spanish and Vietnamese. The more I think about your situation, the more curious I get...thanks so much for posting, I'm excited to be able to learn more about your and your situation through your blog!

  3. "But my heart does worry, at times, grows fearful that my relationship with my daughter will suffer; that we won't be able to ever communicate to the same extent that we would if it were my native language."

    You took the words right out of my mouth. Using my non-native French with Griffin (and now Gwyneth) has been a fun challenge for me--and it has made me a better parent because being so deliberate with my words means that I have to pay very close attention to how the kids are understanding and responding.

    But so far, our exchanges have mostly been about everyday things and the children's books we read together. Now that Griffin is 4.5, we're getting into harder-to-talk-about-but-important issues like bullies on the playground, why people die, why some families don't have places to live, and why his sister doesn't have a penis.

    I sense that what started out as this "fun challenge" is going to get enormously difficult as my children get older and need to have both parents talk to them about the important stuff.

    Not to mention that once Griffin starts school, he'll (probably) see that no one else there speaks French!


    Oh, by the way: I LOVE Kaya's definitive answer of "both"!

    Thanks for sharing this beautiful, thought-provoking post.

  4. Sarah, what a g
    enerous comment, thank you so much for taking the time to read and respond. You put it very well--a fun challenge. It's quite curious to consider--though I can hear myself living from the fear--about whether we are shootin' ourselves in the foot. Sometimes I think, or fear rather, that not only may it become challenging for us to communicate in German, but it will be uncomfortable in English, too, after so many years of speaking a different language. My best solace is reminding myself that living in that world of fear does nothing for anyone--and worrying too much, at all really, about the future is silly--since all we have is now. It also helps me to think that--just as my German has gotten immensely better over the past 3.5 years, it will continue to do so...ESP if I start making more efforts to read and watch movies and listen to audio books and (yikes), meet up with native speakers and talk about things that really matter to me...that's what I really need to do. Thanks, Sarah, for getting my mind to go there...I'll get on that!

  5. I'm so glad you wrote about this topic, Tamara! It's one I struggle with as well. My parents visit a lot in the summer, and I have such a hard time staying in German. It's even harder at monolingual playdates. Of course, I also have the pitfall of not using OPOL, so it's not strange to Aleksander when I do speak English. I think it makes me a little lazy about German sometimes - it's just easier to switch to the majority language. I have noticed that if the conversation is just between me and A. it isn't too hard. I don't mind or feel embarrassed speaking German in front of others. But if, for example, my dad is playing with Aleksander, I don't know how to engage in the play in German. I either switch to English or like you, stay out of it. I'd like to try more of what you do, though: speak German and then translate if/as necessary. We'll see how it goes tomorrow....
    Your other point - which Sarah has also spoken to - about not speaking your native language is a big part of the reason I chose not to use OPOL. I felt like I'd be giving up some of my own identity if I never spoke English with my children. And as Sarah pointed out, it's going to become more challenging to discuss things with our kids as they mature and their thoughts and language mature, too. I already have trouble staying in German if I want to talk to A. about his behavior or some more complex situation. I suppose the good thing is that these circumstances will not arise all at once. Hopefully there will be time to adjust to their developing vocabulary, so we have time to learn the words we need, too!
    I hope this wasn't too long-winded! I'm a bit tired for writing at the moment, but I wanted to make sure I replied while my thoughts were somewhat fresh :)
    Thanks for a wonderful Carnival!!

    1. Hi Kate, as always, your support and interest here is awesome, thank you! I love that you replied while your thoughts were fresh...I find that's when I do my best writing, too. I def. have a hard time with the family, thing, ESP. as Kaya gets older and our conversations are getting longer. I know that all of my family supports this process, yet, there's still that awkward silence on their end as we're talking. I guess I just need to keep the communication lines open, and simultaneously accept that this is simply the way it is right now.
      So, how did it go after you wrote this comment? Did you notice any change in your actions in play? in interpreting?
      As for opol, I appreciate you sharing your thoughts here. I recognize that this OPOL thing might not be a forever thing...and at the same time, maybe it will be. AND, something that I'm just thinking about right now...it IS possible, despite what my fears tell me, for two people to switch languages AND still be comfortable with the change. My neighbors are a good example, as they met in German, in high school, and proceeded to have a romantic relationship in that language. Then, they came to the US and switched the language of their relationship. Now, they go back and forth, super smoothly. As I think about it in more detail, noticing the fear but not letting it grip me, I can easily imagine how I might communicating with Kaya about most things in German, as she's older, but like you, maybe there will be certain topics that I'll just choose to address in English...or maybe I'll just code switch more later when i'm less concerned about not 'teaching' her to do that.
      Thanks so much for allowing me another opportunity to think about this in a different light...I really appreciate it! Look forward to keeping in touch!


I LOVE reading your comments, they make such a difference! Thanks for sharing!