MotherTongues: Wear Words, Celebrate Cultures

about words, languages, cultures, travel

Learning another language after turning 40 July 22, 2013

This blog post was written as part of the Raising Multilingual Children Blogging Carnival for July. The topic for this month’s carnival is “Hidden Opportunities”. I wondered for a long time what is my hidden opportunity of being a multilingual family. And then it hit me: for me, learning a new language after turning 40, would not have happened if we didn’t walk the multilingual family route that we did. Here is the story of how it happened.

Chiapas, Mexico

In Mexico, where we attended a Spanish Language School.

I’ve always been a math + science kind of girl. Chosen profession? Electrical engineer. Since I grew up in South Africa, where it is normal to speak at least two languages, I had to learn English alongside Afrikaans. My lowest grade ever was for English. (You can probably guess that from all my grammatical errors on this blog! Sorry!)

Fast forward 10 years. After giving birth to our two girls, I made a career switch to being an entrepreneur, so that I can work from home and determine my own hours. My chosen business? Printing words from around the world on t-shirts and other apparel. Suddenly, I’m reading papers written by linguists, and researching translations of life-affirming words.

Fast forward another few years: Our youngest daughter starts school right when the public school opens a class for Two Way Bilingual Immersion. We reason that adding a third language, Spanish, to our household can’t be too difficult, and will only have positive possibilities for her in life. And so starts our multilingual family journey.

Since our daughter learns to read and write in Spanish, it only makes sense that the rest of the family learn Spanish too. So we spend 3 glorious summer months in San Cristóbal de las Casas in Chiapas, Mexico, at a wonderful language school where I finally expand my Spanish knowledge beyond the colors of the rainbow and the parts of my body.

Fast forward another couple of years. We move to Nashville, Tennessee, where there is no possibility of Spanish Immersion for our daughter – because of a combination of Tennessee law which states that 51% of education has to be in English, and because the only Spanish (semi) Immersion school in Nashville accepts on the basis of a lottery, which happened many months before we even knew that we would move to Nashville. So now our kids go to school in English, and I continue my Spanish lessons.

In the past year, I’ve discovered that even though I struggle to remember new words, and even though it is hard to remember the difference between cuarto and cuadro and cuatro, I love to learn another language. I can now follow simple conversations. I can even speak a little bit, as long as no irregular verbs in the past tense are involved. And I look forward to traveling to a Spanish speaking country sometime soon, and not having to ask my 9-year-old to translate for me.

 

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?

 

 
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