‘It feels right for us’ – experiences of a multilingual family

Post by Susanne Obenaus, SLP & multilingual mother

As a Speech Language Pathologist (SLP), I always felt confident in advising multilingual parents on how to include all their languages into the family’s everyday life. I followed official guidelines, performed standardized tests and handed out leaflets describing multilingual upbringing of children.

And then we had our children – raised trilingual – and my perception changed. There is a lot more to multilingual families and life than we professionals are aware of. For instance, there are cultural differences (imagine a punctual Austrian faced with Chilean time management), values and traditions we ourselves have been brought up with (like who will bring the Christmas presents: Santa or Christkind), religious beliefs and of course different parenting models.

At first we did great, according to the books. When we stuck to OPOL (one-person-one-language) rigorously, we got lots of positive comments from my colleagues on how well we followed this method. Some time later, we moved to the UK and a second child had joined our journey; suddenly our language management went berserk. We started to mix languages, OPOL was not on our radar any more. I found myself being affected by language attrition (a decline in native language proficiency), not having a lot of German speakers around me any more. Whenever I was lost for German words I would fill the gaps with any other language that came into my mind.

When my son told me “Mama, du musst wirklich dein aleman practisen”(“Mommy, you should really practice your German!”  where ‘aleman’ is the Spanish word for German, and ‘practisen’ is from the English word ‘to practice’ but conjugated as you would in German), I felt guilty. Had we messed up, was this what I had always warned multilingual parents about? I struggled with juggling two languages, whereas my husband stuck to Spanish. We had to rethink our language usage as a family. We decided to stick to our native languages at home but would switch to the family language as soon as everybody was in the same room.

This is our way, and it feels right for us. Does it always work out? No! There are times we mix languages, either for fun or for practical purposes. Our language switching also gives my children space and freedom for metalanguage discussions like: Why do Spanish people use a tongue-tip /r/ and why doesn’t it matter how to produce an /r/ in German? Is there an equivalent for the word “Verschlimmbesserung”? (No, there isn’t.) My children became very aware of any foreign languages they hear, learning new words from my husband’s colleagues at the university and even sharing some words of their native languages with other children at nursery. My son’s desire is to learn Mandarin, just for the sake of speaking all 3 of the most-spoken-languages in the world (and to become a famous football player, but that’s not the topic).

I am glad that there is more of a public discussion around the myths surrounding the topic of multilingualism, and multilingual families and professionals connect through these discussions. I am certain that some of the debates generated in this context will help me to improve the treatment of my young patients and avoid missed and mistaken identities in the field of speech language therapy. The more we talk about it, the more people will become aware, including professionals working with multilingual families.

Has my personal experience changed or influenced my work as an SLP? It certainly has made me realize that patient history and a multilingual profile are not getting enough attention. We focus on things like standardized tests and their outcome, the patient’s medical history etc. but the importance of details like language usage in the family, social values of languages and cultural standpoints are often overlooked as significant sources of information for our work with multilingual families.