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Expat family on home language maintenance

In this video our multilingual expat family discusses language use, home language maintenance and explicit language policies in the family.
My name is Alexandra. I’m from the United States and I have only lived in the United States and in the Netherlands. And I speak English, German, Catalan, Spanish, and a bit of Dutch. My name is Jaana. I’m from the United States. I’ve lived eight years in the United States and two and a half years in the Netherlands. And I speak German, Catalan, English, Dutch and a little Spanish.
It’s normal for me. Because? Because I grew up speaking lots of languages. And you? It’s normal. I have no idea what it’s like to speak one language.
I just speak English with my sister, and Catalan with my mother, German with my father, and Dutch I just speak with my friends and at school. Eva and I speak English with each other because when we met, we didn’t speak each other’s languages. We learned them on the go. And then I speak German to the children, Eva speaks Catalan with them. And then there is more and more “Nederlands” being spoken but it’s relatively little. To what extent do we have a family language– I think we obviously have several family languages because we make very clear in what context we speak with one language or the other.
But at the same time, it’s almost like we have a family language also because sometimes we just mix all the languages, or there are words, for example, that remain the same no matter what language you’re speaking. So for example, the word for porridge since the very beginning has been “brei”, which technically is the German word for porridge. But porridge was never porridge or any other. it was always “brei” and it remains as such. Or things like blueberry or lunchbox– those things are in their original version no matter what language is the discourse constructed.
I can read in English, German, Catalan, and Dutch. And I can write in English and in Dutch, but it’s kind of hard for me to write German and Catalan still a bit. Yes. I have another book in Dutch.
I have this book in German. I recently read it and I like it a lot.
Are there specific situations in which you only use one language? At school I use Dutch. Only Dutch? Yes. And you? At school I use Dutch. But there’s another girl in my class. She also speaks English and then maybe sometimes I speak English, but I hardly speak to her. And at home, are there situations, for instance, during dinner or during playing games that you only use one language, or is it just a mix of languages? Just a mix of languages. I don’t think we’re a very code-switching users. We have actually maintained quite a bit of a separation of our languages, and that is our conversational style.
So sometimes it happens that our children use one of the languages, but using an accent of the other language. So they might actually make fun of Tilman if they speak Catalan with a German accent, or make fun of me they speak German with a Catalan accent or something like that.
They would just speak English with each other, and they will even answer to us in English. It I think it was the first time that they actually answered to us in English even though we were speaking to them in our languages. And then we decided to change our family strategy because we were the only ones introducing English in the household because of talking to each other in English. We decided that Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays we would speak German to each other, and still I would speak Catalan to the children. And then Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays, we would speak Catalan to each other in front of the children. And Tilman would still speak to them in German.
And Sundays were up for grabs and everybody could speak whatever they wanted. But that worked. That worked and then we could actually give a push or an extra help to the different languages. So I think flexibility in your decisions and in your family strategy is key. So we both speak French independently, though our versions of French that we speak are rather different– Eva being from the southern border of France, me being from the northern border. So it’s already difficult for us to understand each other when we speak French. And then we decided at some point to use it as a secret language so that the children do not understand what we’re saying.
You know when you want to discuss whether they can have a second piece of cake or not before you actually give them an answer. So that we’re on the same page. And then we discovered that the children actually picked up on the French very quickly. So we have to use it very, very sparsely and very, very economically if we want to keep it as our secret language. Again, we’ve run out of languages. Yes. They’ve surpassed us. Yes. For me the question of status was not so important. It was more about what I wanted to have every day in my life, what intimate language I wanted to have with my children.
And I happened to choose the one that is a smaller number of speakers, what we call a minority– a minoritised language. But it was more about what I wanted to have in my life, present every day.
Schools have been a particular challenge I would say. Here in the Netherlands, also in the United States– because monolingual speakers oftentimes just don’t understand the needs of children from a multilingual family– oftentimes for ideological reasons, don’t understand that these needs are different for multilingual children. And of course if you tell a child, or if you give a child the feeling in school, as a teacher, that she is somehow deficient because of being multilingual, that’s not exactly what we want. So all these languages, we are aware of the different status that they have, but in the family, all these languages are regarded equally.
It helped for our marriage, because we would choose which topics to deal with each day so that we would be dominant in that day– the discussion in that day.

In this video our multilingual expat family discusses language use, home language maintenance and explicit language policies in the family.

This family is managing several languages at the same time. Throughout the years they have developed and implemented several explicit family language polices in order to transmit and foster their languages? They have changed language use among themselves or they go through great lengths to buy books in different languages. Can you think of other family language polices that would help multilingual competences to develop?

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