kid's play: on becoming bilingual


The first time I heard my daughter speak in Swiss-German I had to bite my tongue to stop myself laughing out loud. Four-year olds have an uncanny ability to pick up on how you're feeling, and I didn't want her thinking she was doing anything out of the ordinary. But out of the ordinary it was, for a little girl who heard her first word of German less than a year before. I watched her drag her new friend from up the road into her bedroom, eagerly telling her what they were going to play with next. At least, I think that's what she was saying.

For the local kids, speaking more than one language will be the norm. Switzerland has a grand total of four national and it's a fair bet that children growing up now will be able to speak at least two of them, if not more. And that's not counting the dialects, complicated variations on the official languages that change from town to town, rendering even the locals confused. Multilingualism is nothing special for the Swiss.

For us, a small and decidedly monolingual family from Australia, it's another story. The prospect of learning another language struck terror into the hearts of my husband and myself. For me, five years of Japanese from long ago left me only able to say hello, goodbye and thank you. My husband spoke some Spanish and quite liked French but, unfortunately for him, we moved to Zurich.

Weekly lessons of desperately conjugating verbs, rote learning genders, juggling articles and guessing tenses left us exhausted, still studying for each phone call or trip to the dentist. How, we wondered, would our daughter fare?

At age three her choices were English-speaking but – for us at least - prohibitively expensive international school, bilingual school or the local nursery. With the international school firmly out of the question we moved on to the bilingual option, but were disconcerted by the regime in one school of German in the morning, English in the afternoon. Would she, we wondered, start speaking like that at home, too, starting off in German for breakfast and moving on to English after lunch?

Then a spontaneous trip to a local nursery with its huge ramshackle garden, art covered walls and happy, grubby looking kids won us over, and we booked our daughter in for two days each week. Here we were, straining to understand simple questions and agonising over word order, blithely throwing our daughter in at the deep end. It was total immersion; making her do something we were too scared to do ourselves.

But our daughter simply talked in English to her teachers, waiting for them to show her what to do or use their small supply of English words to explain, and with her playmates it didn't seem to matter at all. "It's fun, mummy" she told me, and after a while I started to believe her.

Gradually the words started to sink in. She'd still answer in English but understand the question. And then came the day when she answered back - simply but confidently - in German. Or at least that's what we were told. She flatly refused to speak German with us, and who can blame her? "No German!" she'd yell, "Speak English!" as we attempted a conversation over dinner.

Colin Baker, author of "Foundations of Bilingual Education and Bilingualism" says that in the beginning this is common. Children often prefer not to use their new language out of context. But, keen to hear our daughter speak, we'd loiter at the nursery, hoping to hear…something. For the first ten months all we'd hear was her giving her usual orders in English. One of the carers told us some of the other kids were starting to yell "Stop that" and "Give it to me!" in English, too. We were proud but still hankered after that first "Nein", "Helfen mir!" or "Ich habe Hunger." And then, finally, came that day outside her bedroom.

There are many potential benefits of bilingualism. For Ellen Bialystok, author of "Language Processing in Bilingual Children" these include higher levels of cognitive ability such as problem solving and easier handling of multitasking, through to simply being more open to new situations and having an enhanced appreciation of other cultures and points of view. It's become an attractive proposition in some circles, with parents teaching their preschoolers a foreign language purely for the perceived benefits, just like learning the violin, piano or how to play tennis.

For us, the prospect of our daughter becoming bilingual was certainly attractive - at least there was hope for one of us! - but not only because of the words. True bilingualism is about much more. Douglas Brown, Professor Emeritus of San Francisco University and author of "Principles of language learning and teaching" says that 'becoming bilingual is a way of life'. He stresses that it's as much about embracing a new culture as learning how to say something.

And I see evidence of this everywhere in our new home. Knowing the words and knowing when to use them, as we discovered, are two very different things. When is it acceptable to start using the informal ''du" version of you instead of the formal "Sie"? How do people know to start kissing someone on the cheek three times instead of shaking their hand? How do children learn the self-reliance that is evident everywhere in the playground and on the streets, very different to the playgrounds back home?

Start learning a language and you take everything at face value. Nuances in tone, word choice and context float over your head leaving you hanging on a few words to get by. But we want our daughter to be fluent in how to do things, what to say, when to say it and why. I want her to laugh at jokes and not question her place in this foreign country in which we've chosen to live. We joke about getting her to make phone calls for her parents and to read the electricity bill, but that can come later.

We're still a long way from becoming a bilingual family, but I can see a time in the not so distant future when my daughter, now in kindergarten, will be fluent in the spoken and unspoken language. For now, sometimes she anglicises her German and puts German endings on her English verbs. Sitting next to me on the tram she'll ask me in a loud voice how to say 'skip' or 'rhinoceros' or 'elbow' in German, and sometimes I can answer. She makes up songs in Swiss-German and English, and I hear her counting things, first in English, then in German.

I'm proud and jealous of her emerging ease in this new language. And yet part of me is also sad for the day when her English starts to fade, just a little, something that, if we decide to stay long term, will inevitably happen. For now, though, I try to follow her lead and embrace these new words with humour and good grace, especially when I get it wrong.

Baker, Colin 2006, Foundations of Bilingual Education and Bilingualism, Channel View Publications, Clevedon, Great Britain.

Bialystok, Ellen 1991,
Language Processing in Bilingual Children, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, Great Britain.

Brown, H. Douglas 2006,
Principles of Language Learning and Teaching, Pearson Education, New Jersey, USA.

Jud, Markus. G (editor) 2005,
Switzerland's Four National Languages, All About Switzerland, retrieved 16 May 2009,