A life in two languages


Flamingos at Zurich Zoo

Tell it to the birds? I didn’t have anything better to illustrate this post.

I’ve been thinking about language and identity again lately. Mostly, I guess, because I’ve finally managed to re-start German lessons (yay!). Himself and I are having a private tutor come once a week. It’s probably not quite enough for my ideal language-learning scenario. I’m starting to realise that when it comes to German, I want a bit of language S&M: I need to be tied down and whipped into shape with a fairly rigorous routine or my natural laziness / procrastination / fear of failure kicks in and I don’t do the homework. I probably need the “deadline pressure” of a more intensive course, because I’m also a people-pleaser who wants to get her gold star. Anyway… it’s a good start.

I’ve also been trying to get my thoughts straight about English and other languages and raising bilingual (or multilingual) children. I’m on a Facebook group about this and there are some interesting discussions. The ambition of some parents and the abilities of their children is truly astounding.

While there’s plenty of literature around now about the benefits of being bilingual, I was surprised to discover that up until fairly recently, bilingualism was considered detrimental to children … I guess they’re thinking of kids who don’t know the language struggling in schools and stuff? However, recent research all seems to suggest that bilingualism can help people become better problem-solvers and have more empathy, among other things. Here’s a post that debunks some theories about raising bilingual children.  And here’s a blog by Olga Mecking, a Polish woman living in the Netherlands, about some of the negative things people say to parents raising multilingual children. I like the latter because Mecking seems to subscribe to one of my own parenting mantras: Butt out of how other people are raising their kids!

There are still issues, however. I thought this blog post on code-switching by an Aboriginal writer (I’m afraid I don’t know her name!) was very thought-provoking about the power of language skills and how, even if you know a language well, being a less-competent speaker can reinforce negative perceptions, particularly if you’re part of a minority and/or ethnic group that people are already prejudiced against. I’ve also witnessed plenty of online snidery about people whose English spelling and grammar is not up to scratch. And while the ex-subeditor in me mostly agrees, the atrocious speller-of-German-words in me feels some despair at this. Of course, context plays a big part – I guess people aren’t excommunicating their friends who misspell your and you’re on fb status updates (or maybe they are) and it’s reasonable to expect, say, the teacher of your children to have a pretty good grasp of basic grammar and spelling! Anyway, it suffices to say: judgement based on language skills is definitely A Thing.

And this is not just something that happens to the disempowered. I had dinner with a Swiss friend recently who said that, when doing presentations at his work (a multinational consultancy), his “best weapon” is to have his colleague – a Londoner – do most of the talking. The Polish blogger I mentioned above also says in her post that some of the negativity she’s experienced from others in teaching her children her mother-tongue stems from negative perceptions about Poland and/or Polish people in Europe. This worries me a about speaking German too, which my mouth tends to totally mangle. But then again, I don’t feel like people are prejudiced against native English speakers in quite the same way.

Because, in terms of power and privilege, not all languages are equal, are they? In some ways, English is the Bully Language of the world: the one everyone needs, if not wants, to use to access a huge chunk of popular culture (music, movies, cartoons, video games…), get along in business, and use the internet. I was reading recently about how English is also the international language of the aviation industry (ie: those who build and maintain the planes), and who knows what other industries besides?! In this respect, English can feel like an oppressor that seems to exert an unfair dominance on many aspects of modern life. But English is also the language of cool. And protest – I see a lot of graffiti in English — “fuck cops” springs to mind, which I see often in Zuri.

Not that I’m complaining about winning the language lottery. Although, on some levels, being a native and only-English speaker makes me a bit sad. For one, I have try a lot harder to learn another language by the osmosis of popular culture (although being in a non-English-speaking country – sort of! – does help here). And then there’s the fact my “own” language will almost never be a “private” thing to me and my family – because everyone speaks a bit of English!

And yet, and yet… I do wonder.

I am starting to question if the sort of knowledge and understanding of English I have — as a native speaker, word spinner and language-lover —  is actually quite different to what a lot of English as a 2nd or 3rd language people have. Even so much as to almost call it a different beast. “Business English” or “Tourist English” as opposed to Anglophone English or even Australian English. That said, I have friends who are not native-English speakers whose language skills are, almost without exception, impressive to perfect. So English is certainly not an exclusive club only open to native speakers, by any means. In fact, having English as your mother tongue can even be a disadvantage, according to this article, which talks about how native-English speakers can run into trouble when doing business because their overly-deft use of the language alienates others.

However, for me, losing that deftness of language – skills I’ve spent my whole life honing and polishing – is a genuine concern. Because I do wonder if, by learning German and using German more and more, my English will suffer. Even if just a tiny bit, and that thought makes me feel unhappy. And I worry about this for my kids — I would hate to think of them ending up in a sort of Jack-of-all-trades,-master-of-none situation with several languages in their heads but no deep, wide and abiding knowledge of one in particular. (OK, probably unlikely to be an issue and certainly not at this stage!)

Back to the Bully Language thing: I hope I don’t sound like one of those Men’s Rights or White Rights assholes by complaining about this from my position of privilege. And hey, maybe I’m being a bit too precious about “my” language here. OK so it is one of my few marketable skills, but perhaps I should just chill the fuck out about it all. Is it true that you hold on tightest to something just as you’re about to let it go?

A disclaimer: I’ve been sitting on this post for more than a week now and I’m still not sure it perfectly expresses what I want to say, but it will have to do. I’ll no doubt revisit this topic again in future. In the meantime, I would be interested in your thoughts in the comments below, so… Publish and be damned!


  1. Interesting thoughts! I come from the other side – a non-native English speaker having lived in Englad for years and tried to continuously improve my English language skills. After having almost exclusively spoken English for years, my German has certainly suffered (you do lose words in the less active language even if it’s your mother tongue). But for me this was never a problem as I always saw the gain from speaking another language to be greater than losing a bit of the other language. As for English being the bully language, it does bother me that so many German words are being converted to English ones in German language. I love languages, but not as one mix – I love them in their purest form. But this has happened with all other dominant languages before – French, Latin,… – so I guess in the end it is how languages are alive and change and adapt. Concerning my kids who are growing up bilingually, I’m not concerned to the least about their language skills. I see it as an awesome gift to be able to grow up speaking two languages. Once they’re adults it’s their choice which language to perfection, and I’m confident that they will achieve this and have such a gain for their lives of being bilingual, with all it’s aspects.

  2. Great post! Living in a different-language culture, in my case France, makes you realise how intrinsically language and culture are linked. And, yes, you do lose the ability to access all reaches of your native vocabulary as that in your second language expands. Well, that’s my experience anyway! Bon courage!

    1. Doesn’t that bother you, as a writer? Or do you think the benefits of learning a new language outweigh any small loss of English vocab? I guess lost is not necessarily lost forever either, perhaps just temporarily misplaced. ..

  3. The type of bilingualism your kids will have will be nothing but a benefit. The way language is learnt as a child /adult is quite different -theory us you’ll be mapping German onto English whilst kids can actually have both. The tricky part is when a parent doesn’t read much in either language or discourages home language as “less than”. I’ll send you iver sone research articles on bilingualism in preschool children xx fwiw I’m jealous and impressed that you’ve made tge effort to delve into another language/another culture. I have no doubt it will only expand your mind and skills/perspective and cannot ever imagine you losing the perfect word 😊

  4. Yeah I know I don’t really need to worry about my kids and *only* two languages. Although it will be weird one day when they can read and maybe even speak better in German! … I guess I do wonder about the kids whose parents are teaching them 4 or 5 languages from birth but then I did say to butt out of other people’s parenting choices so hey ho… I try not to judge… in print anyway 😉

  5. Your English will suffer…get dumbed down. Is that bad? I don’t know. I mainly now speak English with non-native-speakers, so it’s even still different than speaking to people ‘back home.’ I’ve been informed I now sound different. I learned Dutch 7 years ago and now speak it on a daily basis…

    I have to say that I am very impressed with the language skills of my expat friends. Their spelling better than lots of native speakers’.

    Interesting post! I found your blog from the around the world FB group.

  6. Strange because I do feel like my English is starting to suffer, even though I have barely begun learning German! Seeing it and reading everything in German around town, and then speaking with people who are learning English and therefore want to speak English to me, all seem to affect me! I find I am speaking slower and using less words than I used to, even when speaking with other native English speakers as a result, which can make for some awkward conversations!

  7. It’s been a while since this was posted, but seeing as I have an interesting background (raised bilingually, German and Australian English, and moved back and forth a few times), I feel I can participate well in this conversation. The language does suffer a bit, but will immediately begin restoring itself the more you are surrounded by it (e.g. holiday in Aus). Personally, I also love language and writing, and will often lament the fact that neither my English nor my German will ever be 100%. However, the two languages in my mind complement each other, because I have a broader range of reference – the words just become the vehicle for what I want to say. The expanded cultural experience also assists with this. I feel blessed to have been raised this way.

    1. Cheers! It’s always interesting to hear this kind of perspective. I wonder if that’s what my kids will have… thanks for reading 🙂

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