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'Swedish is now our kids’ dominant language'

The Local · 29 May 2012, 16:02

Published: 29 May 2012 16:02 GMT+02:00

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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:

Story continues below…

“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.

The Local (news@thelocal.se)

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Your comments about this article

18:20 May 29, 2012 by sunnchilde
I am not a parent, but if I was I would be very proud if their "primary" language was the one from my adopted country.
05:49 May 30, 2012 by Da Goat
Two years is a long time most children will do this within months!

it is their play mates (peers) that govern which language they use! teachers and parents don't actually rate
08:49 May 30, 2012 by MercyCookie
There are also many English schools in Sweden, so if the English-speaking parents are worried about their kids not learning English up to native-speaker level, they shouldn't feel shy about sending their children to an English school. They will learn Swedish anyway. The Swedish-speaking minority in Finland, for example, receives all of their education in Swedish, yet they can speak native-level Finnish. (At least the ones living in towns where Finnish is the majority language.)
13:09 May 30, 2012 by Beavis
they will have no problem "catching up" should you move back to the US. In fact their English skills will probably be more advanced than most of the US children, after all the US education system (pre univercity) is known as one of the weakest and easiest systems. Swedish children who only learn English in school and from the TV have no issues jumping right in at the top of the class.
21:14 May 30, 2012 by skogsbo
staggering, the kids speak the language best of the country they are in! Wow, something would be wrong if they weren't after 12mths. What it really means if your friend thinks she is missing something in the language filter, is that her Swedish isn't as good as her kids, her loss perhaps? Perhaps she should buy some appropriate English DVDs of movies, cartoons etc.. to help keep some diversity in the English they hear, not just boring parent talk!!
22:10 May 30, 2012 by dizzymoe33
Let them be and let them learn both languages it will serve them better in the long run. Children that can speak more than one languages do better overall in learning and it will help them excel in a job when they are older. Now is the time to teach them all the different languages you want to because they will just soak up the information. As we get older it becomes harder and harder to retrain our brains to learn a new language. I wish I would have stuck with learning my mother's native language when I was younger.
07:46 May 31, 2012 by rolfkrohna
Nothing new really. One friend has a daughter about 5. Mother is Chinese, and the daughter speaks three languages fluently. She may start speaking to me in English, and mid sentence and without stopping turns to her dad and continues in Swedish, then the same way then turns to her mother and continuous in Chinese, all one sentence, no punctuation or stops, in kids way.

I speak several languages myself, and I not even always aware which language I am using, until I notice the blank faces staring at me. When you have several languages in common with a person, you tend to use the one which is easiest to express something with, sometimes Chinese is better and simpler to use than Swedish, and you tend to mix them sometimes, throwing in a few words in the "wrong" language, just for clarity.

Just modern times.
13:49 May 31, 2012 by carlffm
When it comes to education I'm surprised about the worries. For someone with english speaking parents i find "Then, she went to college in the US, directly into classes with the other native speakers." bewildering. There are hundreds of thousands of people in the world that go to university and take classes in a language that is not their native language. I myself wrote my PhD thesis at a British University without anything but Swedish as a native language, only was thought English in school (and via Swedish TV of course). I do make grammatical errors every day, but so do a lot of native speakers too. I don't have kids yet but I am Swedish, I live in Germany and I speak English with my girlfriend and at work. I'm sure our kids will have an interesting language mix and I'm also sure that they will learn what is needed for their situation in life and that they will be just fine.
17:12 May 31, 2012 by lovaspappa
I've spoken only English to my Swedish born daughter from the moment she popped out. She's 11 now. As a smaller child, she would, more often than not, speak to me in Swedish. And I always answered in English. I would correct her English for her or be sure to give the equivalent of the English word she was looking for. The only thing she is missing, really, is the American slang. But she gets that from movies and tv anyway. Two years? pah.
19:50 May 31, 2012 by johan rebel
As toddlers, my sister and I went to a Polish nursery school and had a Polish nanny. We spoke Polish to each other, and kept this up for three months after moving to the Netherlands, at which point we switched to Dutch. After the next move we ended up at an American international school, and ever since we have spoken English, even though we are fluent in both our paternal and maternal languages.
17:18 June 1, 2012 by Iftikhar_Ahmad
A bilingual muslim child must learn and be well versed in standard English to follow the Natioanl Curriculum and go for higher studies and research to serve humanity. At the same time he/she must learn and be well versed in Arabic to recite and understand the Holy Quran. On top of that he/she must learn Urdu and other community languages to keep in touch with his/her cultural heritage and enjoy the beauty of his/her literature and poetry.

Without Muslim schools, Muslim children are not going to develop their Islamic identity, crucial fo their mental, social, emotional and personality development. We have already lost four generations and fifth one is in the process of losing its cultural, linguistic and spiritual Identities.

A man is a product of his culture, language anf faith. State funded Muslim schools with bilingual Muslim teachers would help bilingual Muslim children to develop their cultural, linguistic and spiritual identies before they are exposed to oher cultures and faiths. A bilingual muslim child must learn and be well versed in standard English to follow the Natioanl Curriculum and go for higher studies and research to serve humanity. At the same time he/she must learn and be well versed in Arabic to recite and understand the Holy Quran. On top of that he/she must learn Urdu and other community languages to keep in touch with his/her cultural heritage and enjoy the beauty of his/her literature and poetry. Without Muslim schools, Muslim children are not going to develop their Islamic identity, crucial fo their mental, social, emotional and personality development. We have already lost four generations and fifth one is in the process of losing its cultural, linguistic and spiritual Identities.


19:05 June 1, 2012 by CharlieStockholm
This is definitely nothing to worry about. They're better off in any case.

#11, why are you bringing up this issue on this article? If you want a state funded Muslin school then you'll have to go to a country that has religion in schools. Iran possibly, but then you'll have Farsi. That's a beautiful language!
20:27 June 1, 2012 by Chris2012
Having just moved here from Australia (2 months) I understand exactly what you express as concerns in your article... Will they loose their Aussie accent? Will they have an English education that, if they return will be as good as Australia?

I have 2 girls 9 and 14 years old. What I have observed with my 9 year old she (who is confident) is enjoying the multiculturalism of the International school while my 14 year old,naturally is comeing to terms with the change in her environment.

My wife is Swedish and for now my/our attitude is let them enjoy the nuances of this new culture and we are all trying to learn Swedish. Learning another language can only be positive and when one chooses to come to another country I find it offensive not to learn the culture, language and ways of the people of that country. So encourage your children to learn Swedish and enjoy this beautiful culture and country.
21:11 June 1, 2012 by RebeccaAhlfeldt
I've enjoyed reading the personal anecdotes about multilingualism, and so far it seems like most people feel like the quirks of learning multiple languages work themselves out with time. That's good to hear.
14:28 June 2, 2012 by Serge75
Which is the big deal? I grew up in an environment spanish - italian, unfortunately do not speak italian so well as I can understand it. Then I learned snglish.

My wife grew up in a spanish environment at home and swedish in school / society.

Now we have a daughter, she will speak swedish in her social environment, a mix spanish italian with his paternal grandmother, spanish for his maternal and paternal side, and often she listen to me speaking in english with swedish persons .... I'll worry if my child mixes languages?

She isn't stupid and will know distinguish between the different languages and will learn or improve when she use it... you can encourage her, but it' s a normal process in the human that will adapted and learn.
17:25 June 2, 2012 by johan rebel
Off topic, but there is no such thing as a "muslim child". A child can have muslim parents, it can live in a country where the predominant or only religion is islam, etc, but no child has the intellectual or emotional maturity to choose which god, if any, it wants to believe in. Being told by adults that it is muslim, still doesn't make it a muslim.

The same goes for all other religions, although a Jewish child will be Jewish for other reasons.
04:19 June 3, 2012 by Corvinus
Someone needs to give that woman a burger. She looks anorexic.
07:40 June 5, 2012 by grandduc
I grew up with three languages at school and english was added in the 9th class. It is the best to learn different languages, first it is a really good job qualification and second it makes it easier to learn and understand new languages.

@ 17

thanks. I thought the same. Girl you look sick. If you are not already doing it, you should consult a doctor.
09:09 June 7, 2012 by scandiland
My children grew up in a Swedish home in Britain. We spoke Swedish to them all the time, but they answered in English, and I thought they would never learn Swedish. But, when we went to Sweden in the summer, on holiday, they suddenly started speaking Swedish to their relatives, without prompting. Now they speak Swedish in Sweden and English in England. Apparently the mind is like a sponge when you're little and will soak up whatever language you're exposed to.
15:38 June 7, 2012 by Liefje
I think the author should be happ she has smart kids. I am born myself in Lithuania, from german father and spanish-french-polish-lithuanian mother. grew up practicing 3 languages myself daily, now speaking 7 and learning 2 more. Moved with my son to the Netherlands when he was 7, he moved to Dutch language in 6 months and even tried to excercise it while talking to me.

I have kept replying in Lithuanian. He is in the British school in the Netherlands and taking Spanish as extra. My hope is 4 languages will be a better start for life than my 3.
07:54 June 8, 2012 by cmbsweden
My daughter speaks Swedish first, English 2nd. I'm okay with that.
14:43 June 9, 2012 by rise
By the look of her she is obviously a horse and as a result of it presumably is learning the kids to neigh. Now, the kids are more likely to succeed in an easier way in Sweden if learning Swedish instead of a horse's whinny.
20:14 June 10, 2012 by girlllllllly
@ 22

What the hell is wrong with you????
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