MotherTongues: Wear Words, Celebrate Cultures

about words, languages, cultures, travel

Reflections on being a bilingual household April 15, 2013


In our house, you can hear a mixture of languages. We speak Afrikaans to each other. We live in the USA so English and Spanish surround us. And sometimes we mix all 3 together. Our girls (ages 9 and 10) seem to be taking this in their strides.

It has not always been an easy journey to stay a bilingual family, or more recently, to try to become a trilingual family. When the girls started preschool, they didn’t understand a lot of English because we only spoke Afrikaans to them at home. It would have been easy to give up. When family commented that sending our youngest to a Spanish Immersion school will just make her confused, it would have been easy to give up. When we moved and there wasn’t a Spanish Immersion school in the area, it would have been easy to give up.

But I know that the earlier in life we work on our language skills, the easier it will become for us later on to expand our language capabilities. When I started learning Spanish at age 40, I could definitely see the difference between learning a language earlier or later in life! The girls picked it up much faster than me, probably because they were not afraid of making mistakes when speaking Spanish.

I remind myself constantly that it is all a process, with no road map for us to follow. Sometimes we work more on one language than the others. Sometimes we only read in one language (usually English) for weeks, because we don’t always make the effort to read books in other languages too.

But, I love the advantages of trying to raise our girls trilingual. I love that our girls can talk to their extended family in South Africa in Afrikaans. I love that they can speak Spanish whenever they find out that a person is Spanish speaking. And I love that we understand a little bit of multiple languages when traveling.

My advice: don’t listen to others who may tell you that you should only speak one language to your kids. Don’t give up. Give your family the gift of languages, and in doing so, give them the gift of opening up the world to them.


22 Inspirational Language Quotes April 26, 2012

I love languages. I love listening to the different sounds. I love reading to my kids in different languages. I love it that we are a bilingual family, and that we are becoming a trilingual family.

But sometimes it is hard to make myself understood. We’ve had comments about our accents being different, and being difficult to understand. I have the hardest time speaking to customer service people over the phone. So it is good to read some quotes about the diversity of languages, and the benefits of multilingualism. Here are some of my favorites (from the MotherTongues website):

If you talk to [someone] in a language [he or she] understands, that goes to [the person’s] head. If you talk to [somebody] in [his or her] language, that goes to [the] heart.
– Nelson Mandela

Speak a new language so that the world will be a new world.
– Rumi

Being exposed to the existence of other languages increases the perception that the world is populated by people who not only speak differently from oneself but whose cultures and philosophies are other than one’s own. Perhaps travel cannot prevent bigotry but by demonstrating that all people cry, laugh, eat, worry and die, it can introduce the idea that if we try to understand each other, we may even become friends.
– Maya Angelou, Wouldn’t Take Nothing for My Journey Now

How many languages are there in the world? How about 5 billion! Each of us talks, listens, and thinks in his/her own special language that has been shaped by our culture, experiences, profession, personality, mores and attitudes. The chances of us meeting someone else who talks the exact same language is pretty remote.
– Anonymous

A special kind of beauty exists which is born in language, of language, and for language.
– Gaston Bachelard

For me, words are a form of action, capable of influencing change.
– Ingrid Bengis

Among my most prized possessions are words that I have never spoken.
– Orson Rega Card

To have another language is to possess a second soul.
– Charlemagne

Language is the road map of a culture. It tells you where its people come from and where they are going.
– Rita Mae Brown

Language is a city to the building of which every human being brought a stone.
– Ralph Waldo Emerson

Those who know nothing of foreign languages, knows nothing of their own.
– Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe

Language is the blood of the soul into which thoughts run and out of which they grow.
– Oliver Wendell Holmes

I am always sorry when any language is lost, because languages are the pedigrees of nations.
– Samuel Johnson

Americans who travel abroad for the first time are often shocked to discover that, despite all the progress that has been made in the last 30 years, many foreign people still speak in foreign languages.
– Dave Barry

I have been a believer in the magic of language since, at a very early age, I discovered that some words got me into trouble and others got me out.
– Katherine Dunn

Language is wine upon the lips.
– Virginia Woolf

There are hundreds of languages in the world, but a smile speaks them all.
– Anonymous

The limits of my language mean the limits of my world.
– Ludwig Wittgenstein

We die. That may be the meaning of life. But we do language. That may be the measure of our lives.
– Toni Morrison

Language shapes the way we think, and determines what we can think about.
– Benjamin Lee Whorf

If we spoke a different language, we would perceive a somewhat different world.
– Ludwig Wittgenstein

We may have different religions, different languages, different colored skin, but we all belong to one human race.
– Kofi Annan


Get support in learning a (new) language March 10, 2012

Language Challenge 180

Are you trying to learn a new language, helping your kids to learn a new language, or brushing up on some forgotten language skills? It can be daunting to know where to start, where to find resources, and what online programs to try. But don’t despair, help is here!

Multilingual Living, one of my favorite websites, is hosting Language Challenge 180! It is a free, (yes free!) 180 day challenge, to help you turn your language learning around 180 degrees. More than 600 families have signed up already. We’re getting step-by-step guides to get on track with our language(s), tips and articles to help us along, and best of all for me so far: a place where others, trying to learn the same language(s) as you, post what resources they already found helpful. I find this camaraderie so supportive and helpful.

Just knowing that other families are struggling with the same problems as us, is already helping me along. I struggle with finding time and fun ways to engage our kids in language learning after a full day at school. Language Challenge 180 breaks it into small steps – 15 minutes a day! – and makes it feel much more achievable.

If you have more than one language in your house, and you are trying to grow your language skills, sign up today! I’ll see you over on the forum pages!


Being a bilingual / multilingual family February 16, 2012

I was wondering about what to name this blog post. Are we being a multilingual family, or are we becoming a multilingual family? Maybe we are always becoming?

Reading time at home means books in a mix of three languages

It is said that at least half of the world’s population is bilingual. And many of those are multilingual. The broad definition of a multilingual is someone who can communicate in more than one language. This can be through speaking, writing or signing, or through listening and reading. There is an interesting new book by Michael Erard, Babel No More, about polyglots: people who can communicate in multiple languages. Poly (Greek: πολύς) means “many”, and glot (Greek: γλώττα) means “language”.

In our family, my husband and I grew up in South Africa, speaking Afrikaans, and learning English (the Queen’s version), starting in elementary school at about age 10. Our first language, or mother tongue, will always be Afrikaans, but we are pretty competent in English, with Jaco having written 3 books so far.

Our girls were born in the USA, but have heard both Afrikaans and English since birth. I guess this makes them simultaneous bilinguals. When our youngest started Kindergarten, we opted for her to go to the same public school as her sister, but to be in a Two Way Bilingual Immersion Spanish class. In this class, balanced numbers of native English speakers and native Spanish speakers are taught together, so that both groups of students serve as language learners at different times. It has been a wonderful experience: it is amazing to see the kids grow in language ability, but also to see friendships develop over the 3 years between all of the kids.

As our youngest is becoming a competent reader, writer and speaker in Spanish, we realized that we needed to learn Spanish too, since it helps to understand when we listen to her practice reading, and when we help her practice spelling words! Our family spent 3 months during 2010 in Chiapas, Mexico. All four of us attended a Spanish Language school in San Cristóbal de las Casas. Even though it wasn’t always easy to be immersed in a language you cannot speak, it is the quickest way to learn and we made a lot of progress.

Back in our regular life now for over a year, it has been difficult to keep up our Spanish vocabulary. We’re trying to find creative ways to hear, speak and read Spanish so that all our hours of Language School will not be in vain. Our oldest daughter is taking piano lessons in Spanish, and I recently started attending adult Spanish classes again. We also listen to a lot of Spanish music at home.

We have realized that we need to spend more time in South Africa if we want our kids to be able to read and write in Afrikaans, and not just speak it. So we’re planning to spend two months close to family in South Africa this year, immerse the kids in language and culture, and work on their reading skills. Hold your thumbs (the South African/British version of crossing your fingers) for us!

I think what I’ve realized most in our multilingual journey, is that it is a process. There is no goal post that we have to reach. There is no path we need to follow, since this is our own journey. What works for one of us, may not work for the other ones in the family. We’re figuring it out along the way, making mistakes and learning all the time. And that is OK.

What do you do to encourage multilingualism in your family?


What language(s) do you dream in? January 19, 2012

Photo by Lize van Dyk

Our family is bilingual (English and Afrikaans) and we’re trying to add Spanish to our language mix too.  I’ve enjoyed reading François Grosjean’s book, Bilingual, to put names to all the things we experience and wonder about. Do you have to be equally fluent in two languages to be bilingual? Why do my kids keep switching languages, or translate words directly? Can you learn a new language later in life?

One of the most interesting chapters for me was to read about how bilinguals dream. After 17 years in the USA, I still dream in only Afrikaans. Our girls tell me they are dreaming in English, Afrikaans and Spanish. My sister has had fluent conversations in Spanish while dreaming after only a few Spanish classes.

Prof. Grosjean says this is all part of the spectrum of experiences. He did a survey and found 64% of bilinguals and trilinguals say that they dream in one or the other language, depending on the dream. The place that the dream takes place in, or the people in your dream, may influence what language you dream in. Some people even dream in no language at all! Steven Pinker calls this the “language of thought”.

I’m still hoping to dream in another language one day. Let me know what languages you dream in!

ps. Christopher Moore writes in “In Other Words”:
“What are we to make of the fact that languages such as Spanish and Italian have the same noun for ‘sleep’ as for ‘dream’, while others, like French and English, differentiate between the two? Do some nations sleep differently than others?”


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