Bilingual Kids

When I was a kid, Berlin was a German-speaking city in my experience. Sure, tens of thousands of Turks were living in the city already, but residential segregation meant that we rarely came into contact with them.

But there was one family, the As, who were living a multilingual life that has been a model for many who know them.

Their kids grew up in the 1980s. Their mom spoke French with them, their Dad English, and they were surrounded by German. They attended American and French schools in Berlin. They were exotic when we rode the subway together (me as a teen, they as kids) and we would switch back and forth between German and (my passable, their native) English.

Now, you hear all kinds of languages in Berlin on the train. There is so much English being spoken, including the many kids that attend various forms of bilingual (sometimes trilingual) education. When I speak German to the girls and they answer me in English, that circumstance rarely merits even a passing glance from other passengers, which is just fine with me.

But, just recently, as the girls’ German has become more and more fluent, with more and more youth culture and local inflections, they have begun speaking like I remember the A kids speaking in the 1980s. Largely in English, but with many German words sprinkled in liberally. Sometimes these are “technical terms” that refer to aspects of school life, sometimes the German word just comes to mind more quickly. It’s not that the German word fits the context better or that they can’t remember the English word, sometimes a German word is just better.

It is very cool to observe and also brings back very fond memories of time spent with the As whose kids are now growing up with various languages themselves.

At the same time, my nephew and nieces are also a small linguistic wonder. Their German i most fluent and colloquial, but they can certainly hold their own in Japanese (and stare at me in bewilderment when I answer them) and in English. I’m pretty sure that the As’ example also gave my brother a lot of confidence in setting up a multi-lingual family life, especially since my sister-in-law had grown up that way herself.

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