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Family Language: Are We Still Simple?

Although some variations appear along the way, our consistency in using One-Parent-One-Language method (OPOL) simplifies many things. It (1) helps our kids to identify, develop and separate the languages,  (2) prevents us the parents from mixing languages when speaking, (3) aids us to improve our own native languages.

When we were still living in the US, kids learn English from the environment. Now that we've been living in Germany since a year ago, our kids acquire German from the environment. They keep up with their English by listening to conversations between their parents.  

For the sake of clarity, pointers of our everyday language formula:

a. I speak only Indonesian to our kids
b. Husband (Nicolas) speaks French only to kids
c. Husband and I speak English with each other,
d. School speaks French and German to Joseph
e. Day care speaks German to Louise
f.  Environment speaks German to all of us.
g. Indonesian community speaks Indonesian to our kids.
h. Sometimes kids watch movies, read books or listen to music in English

and our family's language exchange shown by the diagram below:

The two-way arrows show the languages used consistently among each of us, the dash one-way arrows show the code switch addressed by our kids.

The diagram looks more complicated compare to our diagram from 2 years ago   as there are now 4 languages and two verbally active kids (when we were still living in the US Louise was not talking yet and only 3 languages were involved).

Some additional explanations which might help (or not) to understand the diagram :

1. Louise (2 years and 1 month old)
She speaks two-three word sentences. Sometimes she speaks one language in a sentence, but mostly she still mixes Indonesian, French and German. For example, she says to me in Indonesian 'Aku mau makan' (I want to eat), or in mixed Indonesian-French 'Aku mau du lait (I want milk)', or Indonesian-German 'Ini Maus' (It's a mouse), or French-Indonesian  'Je veu le kue' (I want cookie).  For those who wonder, it's part of the learning process for a young multilingual to code-switch between languages. Whatever she says something, I always repeat the whole sentence in Indonesian to show her how to construct the correct one.

I notice she mixes two languages at a time, not more.

With 4 languages around, it's a pleasant surprise that Louise already speaks this much.

Her lisp when pronouncing 's' sounds very cute and new to us (as Joseph's  lisp was the Indonesian version for 'r').

2. Joseph (5 years and 8 months old)
Joseph goes to a French school where teaching is conducted bilingually French-German. From his latest mid-term report, obviously his German is catching up and he got good enough grades for the French assignments. His teacher says he still inserts some English words whenever he forgets the French or German. Teacher also says, although he speaks it fluently,  there are always some influences from foreign languages in his French sentences. It's very normal as he never grows up with one language only.

Interestingly enough, he never inserts any Indonesian word at school.

Joseph always speaks in Indonesian with me, and French with his dad. When he hears adults speak Indonesian to me, he will also reply in Indonesian. But if an Indonesian (kid or adult) speaks another language he knows (German or French or English), he will reply with the language that person addresses him.

He doesn't code-mix like his sister anymore, but whenever he forgets a word in a language, he will simply borrow it from another. Example:
J: Mama, di Star Wars kenapa Obi Wan Kanobi pake sabre? (Why does Obi Wan Kanobi in Star Wars use sword?)
M: Pedang itu alat bela diri mereka, untuk ngelawan orang jahat. (The sword is to protect themselves, to fight the bad guys)
J: Yang jahat itu yang pedangnya warna rouge ya? (The bad guys use red swords?)
M: Iya mereka pedangnya warna merah (Yes, their swords are red)
J: Kalau yang baik warna bleau? (The good people use the blue ones?)
M: Iya Obi Wan kan baek, dia pedangnay warna biru (Yes, Obi Wan is the good guy, he uses the blue)
J: Kenapa Flugzeug-nya bentuknya seperti itu? (Why do their airplanes have that kind of shape?)
M: Karena mungkin Star Wars jamannya beda, jadi pesawatnya juga beda (Maybe because Star Wars happened in a different era)
J: Pesawat Obi Wan warnanya biru kayak pedangnya? (Obi Wan's airplane is blue like his sword?)
M: Mmm mungkin (maybe)
J: Pesawat orang jahat warnanya merah? (the bad guys' airplane is read?)
M: Ngga tau.. mama ngga inget (Don't know, I don't remember).

3. Joseph and Louise's language when together
When they are playing together, their choices of language depend very much on the surroundings. When I'm around, they will play mostly in Indonesian, with some German, English and French here an there depending on the topic of the game. For example: when playing Star Wars Joseph will mostly speak in English as he got it from watching English DVD.  For now Joseph is the one leading the language choice, although sometimes I could hear when his sister screams, "Nein!", he would switch from whatever language they use into German.

4. The language of me and my husband.
We always speak English with each other although Lately we also add Dutch when we need to exchange some secrets in front of the kids. I don't know how long Dutch stays exclusive as German is very similar to Dutch and our soon-to-be fluent German speaker kids will easily crack the Dutch language codes.

You see, I sometimes take our family language formula for granted. We've been living with many languages since forever and this diagram shows our daily exchanges, 24/7, 365 days a year. I only realize how crazy our family language might seem when drawing this diagram. It took me sometime to finish it and when it was in front of my eyes, suddenly I understood why strangers stare or give comments and some friends think we are insane. LOL. Still, with the help of research from multilingual families before us, we've been doing well and the four of us are having so much fun living with many languages.


Jun. 6th, 2009 05:54 am (UTC)
Three languages and three music instruments in such a young age??? What a gifted person you are!! Some research show there are connections between musical ability and languages and I guess you are the living proof!!

I had a bit of piano teaching experience and have been teaching piano to my own son since 1.5 years ago (he's now 5.5 years old). I have another blog http://pianomama.livejournal.com where I write down the progress of my kid's lesson.

Yes, learning is a life long experience!! Glad to know a courageous and talented person like you!!
Jun. 6th, 2009 05:35 pm (UTC)
Thank you! You're quite a talented mother yourself too ^^

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