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Apr 302015
 

Question

Hi!

We are a Swedish-Austrian family living in Sweden. Our children are 4.5 and 3 years old and are both born in Austria. We moved to Sweden 2 years ago. We chose the OPOL strategy since we were living in Austria at the beginning and my husband did not speak much Swedish at the time. And I did not know there were other strategies! After living in Austria for 11 years, I’m fluent in German and me and my husband only speak German to each another. Even now when we live in Sweden this is our only spoken communication language.

Our youngest son has never spoken German, but he it seems that he understands most of it, and he also chooses to watch German movies on the ipad when he is allowed the choose himself. Our eldest does speak German pretty well, but tends to answer his father 80% in Swedish. Since we moved to Sweden I as well started to read German books to the children and also to talk about the book in German. This is well accepted by the children and my eldest then answers me in German, and we can have really nice German conversations. In other situations, he says he feels uncomfortable with me speaking German to him, which I have respected. During our reading-sessions this is however never a problem. The accepted rule is German book – German language!

I would like the change our bilingual strategy at home and make German our true family language to expose and encourage our children even more. In reality, we have already changed strategy since we are not truly OPOL anymore, but I would like to change it even more and truly have a family language. They do not speak German to anyone else than their father, and sometimes with me. We live in a small countryside town and there are no other German-speaking people here. The father is also extremely polite and tends to speak Swedish when non-German speaking persons are around.

I do feel very comfortable in German and sometimes I speak German to my children without knowing. For example at the dinner table when I’m in the middle of a conversation with their father in German and I give them directions.

Is it possible for us to change our family language strategy at this point? We are going on a two week vacations soon to Austria and I have been thinking about making German our vacation-language. Also because of courtesy to the German-speaking relatives that we will meet, but also to really give the children as much exposure to German as possible during these two weeks. If it works fine, perhaps we can just go on speaking German afterwards. If the children feel comfortable with it of course.

What is your opinion about this? Do you have any suggestions to us?
Thanks a lot!

Kind regards
Maria

Answer

Hello Maria,

Thank you for your question and query. If I understand you correctly, you are wondering how to keep a proper balance between Swedish and German. Can I ask you how much Swedish did your children speak when you were living in Austria? OPOL is not the only method – each family is different and situations are also different. Are your children going to school in Swedish?

Let me start from the beginning of your question: when living in Austria, you spoke German with your husband, he spoke German with the children and you spoke Swedish with them. That was fine. There is no reason why this should change when living in Sweden. If your child does not wish you to speak German with him, stick to Swedish – even when there are people around and then translate into German, so people who might be offended will not be. I do however not feel there is a problem in you using of the German language, as your children do know that you can speak it. You can have a kind of a game with them, telling them that if you speak German to them, you have a forfeit. Languages have to be fun.

I would suggest that you decide all together as a family, the four of you, which is the best approach. Would it really be okay for you to stop speaking Swedish to them? In my opinion, a good strategy would be to keep speaking Swedish to them and make them feel proud to speak your mother language and know the Swedish culture. As you started with OPOL, and as your children are still young, why change? Everybody will at times mix up languages or use the “wrong” language at any stage, this does not mean that what has been started has to be modified.

I hope I answered your question – please feel free to come back to me if not.

Kind regards
Isabelle

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  2 Responses to “Q&A: Changing the family language strategy”

  1. While I agree with Isabelle that it is not necessary to change your family language from OPOL (one parent/person, one language) to mL@H (minority language at home), I actually think it could be a good idea in your case. I presume the plan is for your family is to stay in Sweden, so your sons will go to a Swedish-speaking school and spend more time with their Swedish-speaking friends? This way their lives will soon be more and more dominated by the Swedish language.

    By making German your home language, you would statistically increase the probability of them becoming active bilinguals (see the above link to mL@H for more information on this), This does however not mean that they won’t start speaking German should you continue with the OPOL approach.

    As you are comfortable with the idea of only speaking German with your sons I can see no reason why you shouldn’t. However, you are right to respect your son’s wish if he does not want you to speak German all the time, so the task is to make German an acceptable language between you. This is a situation I experienced myself and I know it is not a straightforward thing to change the common language you have with a child. I answered a very similar question not long ago, so you might want to take a look at that answer for ideas how to make the transition from Swedish to German. You are off to a good start already as your son accepts that reading books can happen in German! Maybe you could extend this by including characters from German books into play time, making them sing songs or part of drawings. Perhaps you could find a toy that is featured in a German book (or purchase a German book and a toy especially for this purpose), to make the step out of the books into other activities. Wishing you all the best!

  2. Hi!

    Thank you for your replies, I really appreciate it! It made me comfortable that we are on the right track.

    To answer your questions:

    As we lived in Austria, my eldest (Jacob) only spoke german. After 4 month in swedish pre-school he had switched completely to swedish. The youngest (Joel) did not speak as all when we lived in Austria.
    The both attend pre-school in sweden. They have no german speaking friends or other german interactions. We live on the countryside. They do have a foreignlangauge teacher that Comes one hour a week to their daycare.

    My Problem is not at all that they are mixing up languages. I would be happy if they did. But Joel does not speak german at all. And I so wish for him to have german as an active language so that he can speak to his grandparents. Jacob does speak german but I think too little. I think it is important to speak a language to keep it alive. Only because Jacob speaks german now, it does not have to stay that way forever. I would so wish for him that he would speak german to his father.

    After I posted the question I talked about the Idee again with Jacob how he would feel about me speaking german to him. He was mostly concerned that he would not find all words in German . I made it clear to him that he could choose language himself and then he felt more comfortable with the Idee.
    We are actually on vacation right now in Austria and I’m happy to see how well he coops with the german language. We followed my plan to Switch completely to the german language as we crossed the border and I was so happy to see that Jacob almost immediatelly switched and at the Moment he speaks 80-20 german – swedish. I don’t have the feeling at all that he mixes up the languages, he switches very naturally, only speaking swedish with his younger brother at the moment. And sometimes to me. I’m very delighted and impressed!

    I think I will continue speaking german to both of them as much as I can. It does not feel weired at all, ecpecially not now when we are in Austria and I’m completely in German-mode, even thinking in german,

    I’m happy to have discovered that there are more than one strict strategy to biligual education and since I first wrote the questions i have read a lot about it online. I always thought there was only one way to do this and I even got critized by a another mother, who also have more than one language in her family, as I told here I someties read german books. Her opinion was that I jepordized everything by doing that. Now I’m confident, that is not the case.

    Thanks again!

    Kind regards
    Maria

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