Sunday, March 20, 2011

profile: Swiss-German and more with Jennifer's magpie family

Meet Jennifer, an American poet who writes Magpie Days, who with her Swiss husband R is raising their children bilingually (even multilingually, if you count their understanding of High German and incipient French studies at school). Please read on to learn about their fascinating mix of languages in Switzerland and their choice to switch from OPOL to English-only at home! Jennifer, thank you so much for sharing your experiences with us.

Our older son, Small Boy, age six, is currently crazy about soccer, but in the cold weather he transitions to his winter passion of hockey. Basically if he can run around outside blowing off energy, he likes it. The Boychen is three years old and mostly loves what his big brother loves. He got on proper ice skates for the first time this year and will be tagging along to hockey practice before we know it. We live in the Canton of Bern, Switzerland (a canton is pretty much like a state). Ours sons also spend a lot of time with R's parents Grossmutti (grandma) and Grossvati (grandpa), who are Swiss. R and I met in the US but as a family with children we have always lived in Switzerland.

What languages are spoken by the adults in your household and at what level of proficiency?

R speaks Swiss-German (native), “high German” (as native as a Swiss can get, and I’ll explain a bit about Swiss German v. “high German” in a minute), English (near-native), and French (very good). I am a native English speaker and speak “high German” at a high intermediate level and understand it at a near-native level. I understand Swiss-German fairly well.

Swiss-German is a dialect of German. There are actually dozens of Swiss-German dialects in Switzerland: if you grow up in Zurich you’ll have a slightly different vocabulary and accent than if you grow up in Basel than if you grow up in Bern than if you grow up in Chur, and so on. Strictly speaking R speaks Bernese, the dialect of the region around Bern. “High German” is the German you would learn if you studied German in school, the German spoken in Germany (not that there aren’t dialects in Germany, too), the German a newspaper or novel would be published in. Swiss-German can be very different from “high German;” many Germans would tell you they can’t understand half of what Swiss people say when they speak in dialect.

A native Swiss-German child’s first language, then, is Swiss. They do not start learning “high German” (also called “written German”) until the first grade when they begin to learn to read and write in school. So in a sense “high German” is, for many Swiss, a first foreign language, which is why I say my husband’s “high German” is as native as it gets for a Swiss.

What languages are you exposing your children to, and how?

We’re raising our boys bilingually in English and Swiss. They are exposed to a lot of “high German,” though, because that is the language I speak with Swiss people (I have reached the point where I understand Swiss but I don’t speak it) and because a lot of children’s TV programming comes to us from Germany; also, when we read to them in German, the books are in “high German.” (There are story-and song-books available in Swiss, but I leave that for my mother-in-law.)

In the German-speaking part of Switzerland the kids are required to learn French in school (and in the French-speaking part they have to learn German). My boys aren’t there yet, though, but I am all for them learning French.

Why do you want your children to know more than one language?

Well, we live in Switzerland and the boys will go to public school here, so not speaking Swiss isn’t an option. And my in-laws don’t speak English, so for the boys to have a relationship with their grandparents, uncle, and cousins, it has to happen in Swiss.

As for English, it never occurred to me not to speak to the boys in my native language. Plus I’m a poet; I operate in English. I speak German well enough that I could live my daily life in German if I had to (it would be exhausting, but I could do it), but English is the language of my heart. I love rhymes and poems and stories and have a long list of the books from my childhood I can’t wait to share with the boys. I can’t imagine not being able to share that with them. And on a purely practical level, being monolingual Swiss doesn’t get you very far in today’s world. On the practical side, having English as a native language is a huge advantage.

How well do your children understand and speak the different languages? How do they feel about them? Do they have a preference for what they speak in which contexts? How has their language use evolved as they grow?

Both boys understand Swiss and English at a native level appropriate to their ages (6 and 3) and probably understand less German than a similarly-aged kid growing up in Berlin, but I’d say they understand German just fine.

I think my older son Small Boy’s spoken Swiss is stronger than his spoken English; when he was first starting to talk I’d say he used Swiss 75% of the time even though I always only spoke to him in English. He would often address me in Swiss (he still does). I always responded to him in English, but I never pretended I didn’t understand the Swiss or refused to reply until he spoke English. That never made sense to me although I know there are families that are that serious about one-parent-one-language (OPOL) and maybe if I had done that Small Boy would be more linguistically balanced.

Probably it just would have really annoyed him, though – since I speak German in front of him all the time out in the world, he knows perfectly well I understand it. My husband once asked Small Boy – he was maybe four at the time - why he always spoke Swiss, and Small Boy said “Otherwise they don’t understand you at the grocery store.” Which is a pretty brilliant answer, actually: he figured out early that he has the best chance of getting what he wants/needs by speaking Swiss.

Swiss schools don’t introduce reading and writing until the first grade, so Small Boy doesn’t read or write German. I’m teaching him to read in English, and he’s reading at the level of the Bob Books – simple pure phonetic words.

The Boychen, age three, seems quite balanced linguistically. He switches between the two depending on context quite well – Swiss with the grandparents, for example – and the languages seem quite distinct in his mind whereas with the Small Boy I sometimes get the feeling that when he slips into Swiss when talking to me he doesn’t quite realize it at first.

What’s fascinating to me is when I listen in on the boys playing together, sometimes the game is in English and sometimes in Swiss and I haven’t figured out how the decision is made to play in which language. It seems very fluid when it’s just the two of them.

How have you been able to expose your children to the cultures where the different languages are spoken?

Swiss is covered since we live here and are surrounded by Swiss family and Small Boy goes to public Kindergarten. For the US side it’s harder. We take long vacations there when possible, and tell stories, and I buy the boys lots of books in English but it’s all very on the surface compared to the way they’re tapped in to the local culture. To take a small example, the Small Boy is a huge fan of the Swiss cyclist Fabian Cancellara but I’m not sure he knows who Lance Armstrong is.

What challenges have you faced as you raise your children with more than one language?

Because I always speak English with the boys, every time I open my mouth I out myself as a foreigner. Sometimes I’d just like to be an anonymous mom at the playground.

Do you have any advice for us?

I personally think that for a bilingual kid language preference is a part of their identity. It’s more than just language, it’s really a part of how they see themselves and their place in the world. Small Boy has always leaned towards Swiss over English. I don’t know if this is because he wants to fit in, because it was easier for him to start learning the language he heard out in the world around him, because it’s what his beloved Grossmutti speaks or what, but it’s clearly his native tongue. I try to let him have that preference – to choose that identity for himself – as much as I can without damaging his chances to learn native English. I think we need to tread carefully so that encouraging use of a language doesn’t become forcing or that it not be seen as a rejection of the child’s preferred language. So although we recently changed over to being an English-only household, I also try to be relaxed about when they slip into Swiss.

You switched to English-only at home?

From the time Small Boy was born until just a little after his fifth birthday we stuck with the one-parent-one-language approach (OPOL) and were very consistent with this. R spoke Swiss to the boys, period, and I spoke English. But after the Small Boy started Kindergarten his Swiss became increasingly dominant (and he already had a strong preference for the Swiss); he would come home from Kindergarten and it would take forever for him to switch back over to English. I’d ask and ask if he could say that in English, please.

Because at that time the Boychen was deep in his learning to talk stage it seemed that his Swiss was starting to dominate because he heard so much of it from his older brother. So R and I made the decision to switch over to English only in our family after five years of one-parent-one-language. It has definitely made a difference, especially with the Boychen – he is very balanced linguistically and switches between the two languages depending on context much more consistently than the Small Boy who still slips into full-on Swiss a lot.

Answer your own question now--what did I not ask about that you would like to comment on?

It’ll all be fine. You’ve got to trust your instincts. Like with our switching over to English-only – a lot of advocates of strict OPOL would say that was a no-no. There are a lot of books and resources and theories out there about how to do, but as with all things parenting: you know your kids best and only you know your own priorities.


  1. Enyoyed reading this - thanks. Great to hear about a good common sense approach to bilingualism!

  2. Great principle you have here. Our girls are trilingual, French, English and Thai. We've been sticking to the same rule, one parent one language..