This article continues a series of guest posts at Bilingual Monkeys called “Bilingual Travelers.” What sort of impact does travel to a location where the minority language is spoken widely have on a child’s bilingual development and bicultural upbringing? In this series we join other families as they make trips to destinations around the world and report back on their experiences.
If you’d like to contribute an article to the “Bilingual Travelers” series—or the series Thank You Letter From a Bilingual Child—please contact me to express your interest in guest posting at Bilingual Monkeys.
Mayken has a four-year-old daughter who is being raised in German and French. She is trilingual in German, French, and English and juggles a full-time office job, writing children’s books, and competitive swimming while serving as generally the sole source of the minority language. She is very grateful for the existence of grandparents and the invention of Skype.
My family’s bilingual situation is comparatively “easy”: We live in Paris, only a few hours by car or train from Germany, and there is even a direct flight to my hometown where most of my family still live. (I won’t tell you about the size of the plane, though.) As a result, so far we’ve managed to organise several trips to the minority country each year.
Every Christmas we make the 12-hour car trip to stay for a week at my mother’s (Oma). Our daughter celebrates Christmas with a real tree with real candles and delights in the treasures of our local Christmas market.
Once or twice in the last two years, I’ve taken my girl on a mother-daughter trip to see Oma for a few days, by train or by plane. We usually come back loaded with German books and CDs and other goodies.
Ice cream magic
The last two summers, however, we spent our entire summer holidays (that is to say, two to three weeks) in Germany, essentially for the benefit of our daughter, now aged four. As the minority language parent and only source of the minority language on a regular basis, I’m very much focused on her language exposure. Fortunately, my husband is very cooperative and was willing to give the reputedly cold German sea coast a try. (He didn’t regret it: Both the air and the water temperatures were in a more than acceptable range for a summer vacation.)
Last year, we stayed for ten days in a hotel geared specifically to families, offering not only organised children’s activities for our daughter’s age group but also an ice cream after each main meal. Our daughter wasn’t speaking in full sentences in German at the time (she had just turned three), but it took her barely two days to figure out the magic phrase “Ich will ein Eis” would get her an ice cream from the hotel restaurant’s waiters.
This past summer, we spent a few days in my hometown before the holiday proper, to catch up with family and friends. By a lucky coincidence, we even got to spend time with the family of my best friend from kindergarten, herself a bilingual parent of two based in Sweden!
Being in the town where I grew up also meant I could go down memory lane and take my daughter rowing in the park, as my dad took my brother and me many years ago.
For our vacation, we had chosen a cottage at a family resort on the Baltic Sea for our first week and last year’s family hotel near the North Sea for the second week. For both, my number one criteria had been the offer of organised children’s activities.
In that regard, the family resort offered a supervised indoor playground and daily changing activity themes by age group—princesses, Indians, pirates…
Reserving the afternoons for beach time or family outings, we signed our daughter up for a few hours each morning. When I came to pick her up, she’d usually be climbing around in the three-dimensional labyrinth with “meine Freundin”. (She is quick to make friends but hardly ever bothers with names.)
On several evenings, the resort held “bedtime stories” told on the beach, including songs and finger games with active participation and storytelling, where our daughter was part of the captive audience.
Disco at the beach
One of her favourite activities was the “children’s disco” on a stage at the beach. While she enthusiastically joined the other little girls and group leaders in the dance, the always-concerned minority language parent (that’s me) worried that she took her cues for the dance moves not from the songs instructions (“Put your hands up in the air!” and the like) but from her fellow dancers.
“Why doesn’t she understand the song? The instructions are really easy!” were the thoughts going through my mind, when I should have been delighted at my daughter simply having fun in German.
The only thing I could have wished for would have been for these activities to be regular enough that she would memorise the songs or games, as she does with similar French ones from school or day-care back in France.
Growth in language, culture
My mother, who saw our daughter for several days before the vacation and again for a few days afterwards confirmed a change over those two weeks. She said our daughter was more self-confident and definitely talked more. If I needed more proof of that, I only had to compare our recent Skype call with Opa (Grandpa) to previous ones. Before, she’d only say “ja” and “nein” in those conversations. Now, she talks to him the same way as when they are face to face.
On the cultural level, I am thrilled that our daughter is now familiar with such typical (and indispensable) German beach items as the Strandkorb [a kind of beach chair] and the Bollerwagen [a small wagon]. In fact, on the way home, we bought our very own Bollerwagen—for next year!
Read more posts in this series…