As parents of bilingual children, it can be difficult to find perspective in our current struggles. Will my firm actions today really bring about a successful result tomorrow? Will my kids finally appreciate my efforts, though they now seem so defiant and ungrateful at times?
This feature series, “Thank You Letter from a Bilingual Child,” attempts to provide some helpful perspective on these concerns by offering the thoughts of bilingual adults reflecting on their upbringing as bilingual children.
If you’re a bilingual adult and would like to contribute to this series by writing a thank you letter to your parents or another loved one, just contact me to express your interest in guest posting at Bilingual Monkeys.
You were right. You were absolutely right in your decision to raise me with more than one language.
I was three years old when we moved to Germany. I learned to speak German so quickly that people wondered: “Why does that child speak perfect German and her parents have a heavy Slavic accent?”
But who cares about an accent when you can communicate just fine with your son-in-law and your three grandchildren?
Maybe you didn’t know it at the time, but you were using what is now known as the “minority language at home” approach. You spoke Polish with me at home and German when we were out in the community.
When we returned to Poland after two years, we became more of a time-and-place multilingual family. Remember Sundays, when we spoke German at home? This stopped, though, after my brother was born and wasn’t happy that he couldn’t understand what we were talking about!
I’ve had a solid foundation in German ever since. In hindsight, I was lucky, too, that my school offered German as a foreign language, instead of the usual English.
I wish I could tell you that I always loved what you did to ensure my bilingual upbringing. In fact, I remember saying things like: “Why do I have to speak that stupid German?” I fought hard against being different from other children, against speaking a language that I felt wasn’t respected by people in Poland back then. Still, I didn’t really refuse to speak it.
Maybe one reason is because you were so consistent in your efforts. But, even more, I think it’s due to the fact that you always calmly explained why it’s important to speak another language.
You said that when you can speak two languages, learning a third will be much easier. Today I speak five languages and I can say that this is true. While I worked hard at learning English, and later learning French, acquiring Dutch was a lot easier because I already knew German.
You told me that many of your friends who came back to Poland from Germany, at around the same time we did, neglected their children’s German. It was a shame, you said. Now I’m raising multilingual children of my own and I agree, it would be a shame indeed if I didn’t nurture their language ability.
You also said that speaking another language fluently would give me advantages. For example, when I lived in Poland, I never had any difficulty finding a job. My language ability made me a valuable asset to whatever company I applied to. You made it very clear that being multilingual is a privilege, and that many children didn’t have the same chance. I realized this clearly when I learned that friends of mine didn’t have multilingual parents and weren’t multilingual themselves.
Finally, you told me that speaking another language is something to be proud of, something that would make me unique. And it’s true. Sometimes, back then, speaking German made me feel different and weird. But now I know that my language ability is a gift to be celebrated.
As I became older, I discovered further benefits to being multilingual: the chance to live an exciting life abroad; more flexibility in my lifestyle; and the fact that I came to speak all the languages that were important to you.
I now have three trilingual children of my own and I’m deeply grateful for the example of successful multilingualism that you made for me to follow. I’m confident that I’ll be just as successful in ensuring that my children speak their three languages well—and learn new ones, too! After all, I’ve had great multilingual role models: you.
I’m also certain that when my children are grown, and recognize all the benefits of being raised with multiple languages, they will say the same thing to me that I’m now saying to you:
“You were right. And I couldn’t be happier.”
See the first post in this series, too!