The other day, I noticed a new dynamic in our family. Actually, if I look back, the change has been gradual, but I never really thought too much about it until last week when the kids came home from school.
After two years here in Sweden, Swedish is now our kids’ dominant language. This is how I found out.
Erik and Gabrielle were in the backyard, taking advantage of the year’s first streak of warm weather to jump themselves silly on our trampoline. And since it’s just the three of us, we’re all speaking English.
Then, Gabrielle says she’s thirsty, so I go inside and get a pitcher and some glasses. As I return to the back door, I pause and listen. They are speaking Swedish.
I walk back out with the water and call them over. They switch back to English.
I’m curious, so I decide to test it: will they switch if I leave again? I walk inside again but stay by the door listening to the conversation.
I wish I could report that they meandered off into deep thoughts or were showering each other with compliments. Actually, they started arguing.
“I want the tupp glas
,” whined Gabrielle. She couldn’t come up with the English word rooster immediately, so she switched over to Swedish; tupp glas
,” instead of rooster glass
”. And Erik followed her.
I tested my theory a few times over the week, and the conversations followed the same pattern. And it never happened the opposite way; not once during a Swedish conversation did they spontaneously switch over to English.
I don’t mind this change at all. I want our kids to feel at home here in Sweden, and that feeling of connection is related, in part, to strong Swedish skills.
But this new development in our kids’ language raised a question that I hadn’t considered in a long time: what are my goals for our kids’ language growth?
As an idealist new parent, my goal was lofty and vague: they should be bilingual. I should have known better. Personal experience as well as education research suggests that bilingualism exists on a continuum.
It’s a practice that must constantly be maintained, and it can vary greatly among individuals. Bilingualism was a good starting point, but as an achievable goal, it ranked somewhere near my (broken) New Year’s resolutions like “eat healthier” and “write a novel”: good intentions, mediocre results… at best.
When we moved to Sweden, my goal was to keep the kids on par with grade-level Americans in speech, reading and writing… in case we decide to move back at some point.
Actually, I didn’t articulate this goal so clearly to myself, but now I can see this was my underlying expectation. But now I wasn’t sure if this was realistic.
Everything I had read in and out of education classes emphasized that successful bilingualism should be a conscious process, constantly reevaluated and fine-tuned.
Taking a page out of the guidelines for successful New Year’s resolutions, I set out to create some goals that were process-based (as opposed to result-based) and measurable.
But where to start?
While pondering, I realized there’s also some outside pressure related to this goal: home language classes.
Recently, I was told that, starting in 6th grade, my son’s home language teacher was going to give him his English grade, and it would be based on native, grade-level assessment. Now, my son has a very nice home language teacher, but how is this man expected to teach him the nuances of grade level English during one 45-minute class per week?
And as the primary English influence in their lives, the task of getting Erik and Gabrielle on par with their American counterparts would mostly be mine.
Was I up to this daily task? Just the thought of getting Erik’s hilariously phonetical spelling, governed by Swedish letter sounds, up to speed was enough to steer me in another direction. “Hapj brfdaj”? Where do I even start with that?
I had already done my reading, so I decided to do some research of a different kind: I asked my friends, two of which are managing three languages at home.
And despite the fact that I only have five native English-speaking friends here, their answers reached all ends of the spectrum.
Three had goals for their kids; two did not. A different two were satisfied with their kids’ progress in English—interestingly, friends’ satisfaction levels were not correlated to their kids’ skill levels.
Despite the range, I could identify with them all. Here are a few, insightful observations:
“It’s the little details that get fuzzy,” said one friend, “like saying ‘I’ll hop over it’ instead of ‘I’ll skip it.’ My kids don’t hear it’s wrong, and after a while, I don’t either.”
As my friend says this, I wonder if it is even possible for me to give my kids the native ear for the language. Surrounded by Swedish-influenced English mistakes, this seemed to be an uphill battle.
After being here for a few years, another friend had relaxed her expectations.
“I don’t want language to be a source of anxiety for the kids,” she said.
“Now, my goal is to help them develop a base so that, given a transition period, they could adapt to their next English situation.”
One friend found her kids’ difficulties with English was a source of frustration.
“It’s like the communication between me and my kids comes through a filter. When I hear other kids their age back home speaking English, I feel like I’m missing something of my own kids' true personalities.”
But my goal-free friend who keeps up three languages in her home was much more sanguine:
“They’ll be fine,” she says.
And she should know: she grew up in a Spanish-speaking country, but spoke English around the house with her American mom. Then, she went to college in the US, directly into classes with the other native speakers.
“I won’t lie—my first semester was really difficult. All I did was study, but by the next semester, I was fine.”
Now, she supports both Spanish and English here in Sweden.
“For a long time, my son answered me in Swedish. But a few weeks ago, we spent some time with a Spanish exchange student. Now, he’s switched back to Spanish with me.”
In other words, relax. Don’t worry too much about the future. Det löser sig
Interestingly, my two friends that were the most satisfied with their kids’ development were those who grew up with more than one language in their lives themselves.
With the benefit of perspective that I lack on this issue, they seem able to embrace their kids’ language as a skilled yet imperfect work in progress.
With all this in mind, I made some process-oriented, measurable goals—things that we’ll do every day to work on English. Because, regardless of any larger goals I decide on, the reality is that I have little control over the end result; that’s up to the kids. It’s the process that’s in my hands.
Research and personal experience suggest that there is no one correct approach; in the end, we are all experimenting, and we have a lot to learn from each other.
Rebecca Ahlfeldt is an American ex-pat writer, translator and editor currently based in Stockholm.