Living a multilingual life -- Part 3: Interview with L.

I've talked again to people about their multilingual daily life. This time, L. was telling me among others about her sons' bilingual education and about different ways to teach mathematics.

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Estimated reading time:9minutes

The young photographer L. is thirty years old and comes from a Russian village in Ukraine. She has been living in Germany for 8 years. As a mother of two sons, she told me about educating her children bilingually, about different methods of mathematics, different school systems in Germany and Ukraine and many other interesting topics. Read and see...

Hello, nice to meet you. Please tell our readers a bit more about you.

I’ve been living in Öhringen for seven years and for eight in Germany. I’ve moved to Hamburg from Ukraine to work as an Au Pair. As a child, we only spoke Russian at home. At school, I learned English and Ukrainian. My grandmother used to be a German teacher and she started teaching me when I attended the third grade at school. She wanted me to live in Germany and to work as a translator. However, I studied engineering in Ukraine, a completely different direction. Nevertheless, my grandmother wanted me to go to Germany for a year. She simply wanted me to keep on learning German. She had some students who now live in Germany and work as psychologists or something like that. These are cool girls. My grandmother wanted the same for me. So, I worked in Hamburg for one year as an Au Pair. My sister already studied industrial engineering there. She is a very smart girl. It would be too hard for me. Anyway, I got a job with a German host family. So I spoke a lot of German. Russian, on the other hand, I only spoke with my sister. She in turn had acquaintances from all over the world. After that year, I thought about going back to Ukraine. After all, I had studied for five years and I didn't want to start again in Germany. 

Was your degree recognised in Germany?

No, unfortunately not. There are subjects that are, but this is not the case for engineering. I had also tried to get some of my achievements recognised, but it was clear that I would have to study for another five years. Then I met my husband, who had already been living in Germany for 13 years. For a long time I didn't know that Russian Germans live here. In Hamburg, apart from my sister, I had no contact with other Russian speakers. When I noticed how my husband's family lives, I could imagine living in Germany. His family and also our neighbours live in a very Russian way. It felt like home. Nevertheless, it took me about five years to arrive here. It takes time, because it's not easy to integrate in a foreign country where you speak a different language. Sometimes I also miss expressions. You can't translate everything.

My husband’s family speaks a lot of German. They also mix a lot German and Russian words. Only my husband speaks Russian almost exclusively. That is important to him. He also watches Russian TV, only reads Russian books, and he maintains almost only Russian friendships. Russian is the language of his heart. For him, it would not be natural to speak German to our kids.

Do you both speak Russian consistently at home with the children?

Yes, we speak Russian consistently, but we share a house with my husband’s family and from them, our children also hear a lot of German. Nevertheless, my husband and I only speak Russian. With our kids we only read books in Russian, the same when it comes to watching films. We also sing Russian songs. We were once in a toddler group where German children's songs were sung. At home, of course, I could have sung the German songs as well. I learned the songs too, but then I preferred to sing the Russian ones. This is another part of our concept.

When my first child started kindergarten, we had a purely German-speaking educator who advised us to speak only Russian with the children. This is what we do. I pretend not to understand him when he speaks German. At the same time, the educator assured us that she would speak German with our son. He learned it very quickly. It is now easy for him at school. He does not mix German and Russian.

Our paediatrician also advised us to speak Russian. His words have stayed with me. He said that if my son continues to learn German so quickly, I might not be able to understand him when he speaks German. Therefore, I should consistently speak clean Russian with him so that this remains the language in which we can both communicate.


L. describes here the so-called une personne-une langue principle, which is considered the gold standard for multilingual education.

Do the children take additional Russian lessons to become literate?

Not yet, but my mother is a primary school teacher. She once stayed with us for a month and taught our son to read Russian. He already knew the alphabet, but he learned so quickly. I don't know how my mother did it. It's funny. My grandma taught me German, my children's grandma teaches them Russian. In Russia and Ukraine, children learn to read, write and count before they start school. Around the age of five.

My son has now almost finished the first year of school. I was a bit afraid that he would forget Russian there. But now I calmed down. During his first year of school I noticed something interesting: I thought maths was the same everywhere, but the technique of calculating something is very different. So when I practise maths with my son, he first tells me what he is doing in German and then later I translate it into Russian.  I don't want to confuse him with the different methods.

Imagine that your sons later want you to study history or biology with them and you have their exercise books in front of you. Would you translate that directly into Russian? 

That is quite difficult to answer right now. We will see, I guess. We currently have many non-fiction books in Russian. At school, they learn the books' content a little later. My older son can then draw on his Russian experience and put the picture of both languages together. 

My little son doesn't speak that much yet. I don't know what it will be like for him one day. Will he speak more German than Russian? We will see what happens.

Which language does your older son speak to his little brother? Is he speaking Russian?

Yes, he only speaks Russian with his brother. My husband and I want him to do that, too. But when the children both go to school, it is possible that the two brothers will also speak German with each other. I am quite worried about how it will be with the little one. If he continues to speak so little, he will get a lot of input in German at kindergarten. I have also experienced that the children in a family speak different languages. It's the same with my husband. He speaks mainly Russian, his sister German. 

Once, I also read that multilingual children will have a hard time because the vocabulary in both languages will be very limited.

I can put your mind at rest. Multilingualism research as it is conducted today is not that old. In 1978, the first longer study was conducted by Traute Taeschner and Virginia Volterra. Their paper was sharply criticised, but it did advance research in this field. Before that, for a long time, multilingualism was thought to be something bad and there was a fear of "half-language". This was very prejudiced and the criteria for determining "half-language" were not objective. Today, this idea has been abandoned. Multilingualism is no longer seen negatively, but rather positively. So you don't have to worry about that at all. Besides, the majority of the world's population is multilingual. Only a small part of the population is monolingual.

I also see more advantages in multilingualism. I didn't learn languages other than Russian until I was at school and I don't know English very well, for example. When I came to Germany, I also had a hard time with German. I'm so happy that my son knows both languages really well. I also think it's good that with digitalisation and the world growing ever closer together, you have better opportunities nowadays to take lessons with native speakers. I didn't have that opportunity when I was a child.

Yes, I know that. For a long time I was also taught by non-native speakers. When I later changed schools and had French lessons with native speaking teachers, I was also marked up a lot in French because I stuck very closely to the German structure. My non-native teachers didn't see this, but it was noticeable there. If I had been taught by native speakers from the beginning, it would certainly have been different.

Yes, that's why I think it's good that there is this possibility. I like this development... Anyway, I am happy to have passed on Russian to my children.

Do you have many Russian friends?

My older son has German and Russian friends. He has known his best friend since he was one year old and only speaks Russian with her. At kindergarten they always wanted to speak Russian together, but the educator separated them from time to time so that they could both come into contact with German-speaking children and practise their German. They were then also separated at school. But when they play together, they always speak Russian. My son, however, speaks German directly when another child comes along. For his friend, talking German is a bit difficult. At her house, the entire environment is in Russian. It took her a year to learn German in kindergarten. She doesn't have that many contacts with German-speaking children either. In our case, my children have always been exposed to German through their German-speaking grandparents and cousins. 

As far as multilingual education is concerned, one must certainly always pay attention to the individual development of the child. My older son is certainly very gifted in languages, but I don't know about my little one. But I don't want the big one to speak German with the little one. But if the little one has questions at school, he will certainly explain it to him in German.

Perhaps German will later be his language of scholar education. Everyday conversations can still be conducted in Russian.

Yes, that can also be. I don't know yet.

I really enjoyed talking to you. Thank you for your answers.

I also enjoyed it. I want to show this interview to my grandma. She surely will be proud of me. Furthermore, I hope to be better at German in a couple of years.






Photo: Belinda Fewings on Unsplash


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