Living a multilingual life -- Part 4: The story of a German-Kenyan family

Today, a German-Kenyan family tells us about their multilingual everyday life, how their baby is growing up in a trilingual environment, and what a jigsaw puzzle has to do with language.

Read this article in: Deutsch, English, Français

Estimated reading time:6minutes

Here at alugha, several people have already told us about their multilingualism in everyday life. A. came to Germany from Moscow at the age of eight and is now a polyglot; L. from Ukraine met her Russian-German husband in Germany and talks about the challenge of bringing up her children speaking Russian in Germany, and Gabriella was born to southern Italian parents. This time, a German-Kenyan couple talks about their multilingualism in everyday life and how their baby is growing up in a multilingual environment. 

A multilingual youth

The Kenyan husband (the couple wishes to remain anonymous and without pseudonyms) grew up in Kenya and claims to have four mother tongues; the German wife's mother tongue is German. She only came into contact with other languages at school. At school, she learned English from the 5th grade onwards, and later also French and Spanish. During family holidays in Sweden she also learned Swedish, then Arabic during her studies. When she finally met her husband, she also started learning Swahili. He already came into contact with Swahili and English in kindergarten, and in high school he also learned Spanish and French. During his au pair year in Germany in 2011, he also learned German. He received most of his education in English, his wife in German. 

The young native Kenyan also says: "My everyday language is mainly German, because I live with my German wife in Germany and communicate with her mainly in German, only when praying we both speak English. However, I speak Swahili, English and German with our son, which means Swahili and English are also among my everyday relationship languages. With my Kenyan relatives I only speak Swahili and English and with my German relatives only German." His wife describes a similar situation: "My main everyday language is mainly German, because I only speak German with my husband most of the time. However, I speak English with my Kenyan relatives, German with my German relatives and English and German with my son."

Raising a baby in a trilingual environment

I want to know more about the multilingual upbringing of their child and ask again whether there are situations in which only one particular language is spoken. The father answers me first: "I speak German, Swahili or English with our child, depending on the language that comes to my lips in the given situation. That means I don't have any regularity in the way I communicate with my son, the languages come according to the situation or also according to my mood, for example, when the little one is annoying, I scold him mostly in English. But when he and I are in a good mood, I tend to talk to him in German and Swahili. But even that can vary sometimes." The mother also describes her approach: "I speak German and English alternately with my child. That means I repeat in English everything I said before in German. However, when German relatives come to visit, I only speak German with him; with Kenyan relatives at home or when they visit us, I only speak English or sometimes (but only very rarely, as I am still learning the language myself) Swahili with him."

I notice that the German-Kenyan parents are thinking a lot about their child's multilingual environment. I am interested in whether they want something specific for their child in terms of his multilingualism. The German mother says: "In the end, he should be able to speak all three languages English, German and Swahili well and, above all, be able to distinguish between them, i.e. not get confused or speak the languages mixed up." For the Kenyan father, on the other hand, it is most important that his child speaks the language with which he feels most comfortable in a certain situation. I want to know what advantages the couple sees in multilingual education and also if they think there are any disadvantages. Both agree and answer me: " The children tend to mix the languages or they are overwhelmed with one of the languages and simply don't speak it. Or they choose the language(s) they are most comfortable with and speak only that. Sometimes other mother tongues, which are considered minority languages in the country where the children live, are forgotten because the national language prevails as the everyday and surrounding language." 

The argument of overwhelming children does not really stand up to the current state of research. It is now considered that multilingual children have several language systems and not just one. The term "language mixing" is not very concrete, because interference and transfer, i.e. the influence that languages can have on each other, does not happen arbitrarily. The fact that minority languages are being forgotten is much more complex and multi-dimensional. 

Listen to your heart

Finally, I ask the couple what I have also asked the others, namely whether they would like to see something on the part of society or politics regarding the promotion of multilingualism. Again they both agree: "There should be more multilingual kindergartens, schools and universities in Germany. Especially in schools, I miss international projects that are on the daily schedule in English-speaking high schools: e.g. the performance of multilingual musicals, theatre performances, dance shows, etc. or international school projects such as school exchange programmes with various partner countries outside Europe, e.g. Africa, America. We would also like missionary projects or fundraising campaigns for poor countries. Furthermore, more multilingual teachers or educators should be employed in all educational institutions from kindergarten to university. In this way, the cultures of multilingual children can be better lived and experienced. This would also be nice for monolingual children."

The German-Kenyan couple has found a way for their child to grow up multilingual and intercultural. So I ask her what she would like to give (expectant) parents who want to raise their child bilingually or multilingually. Their answer is simple: "listen to your heart about how you want to raise your children multilingually. Speak the languages with your children that come easily from your lips and that you know well, otherwise the language education will be cramped". 

Language as a jigsaw piece

Finally, I ask them the question that I like to ask very much, which is how they imagine language, whether they have an image in mind to illustrate it. "Languages are the characteristics of a country or a culture and also an identity of a speaker in his or her respective country. If the culture or the country were a jigsaw puzzle, the languages would thus be the individual pieces of the puzzle, quasi parts of a large whole. Therefore, for the preservation of identity and culture, but also for the well-being of the person in his entire life, the languages should not be forgotten, but should be promoted and constantly spoken."

For me, it is time to thank and to wish the family well.






Photo: Hans-Peter Gauster via Unsplash


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