Education and Language

Bilingual Relationships: One Love – Many Languages

What factors influence bilingual couples when deciding what linguistic course their relationship is going to take? | © Private

What factors influence bilingual couples when deciding what linguistic course their relationship is going to take? What are the advantages and disadvantages when personal issues are discussed in a foreign language? And how do they decide in which language their children are going to be brought up? Four couples from Berlin tell their story.

“Our child is going to learn both languages!” – Lena from Germany and Denis from Nicaragua

Lena from Germany and Denis from Nicaragua | © Private

Lena und Denis met each other in Nicaragua and now live together in Berlin. In Nicaragua and at the beginning in Berlin they spoke mostly Spanish for his knowledge of German was simply not good enough to have meaningful conversations. Even today the two of them still discuss more complex subjects, like the plans they have for their future together, in Spanish. Denis, however, learns fast and German is becoming more and more important in their relationship. Lena is now really enjoying the fact that she can express her feelings in her mother tongue and can now be understood by Denis. Whenever they visit Lena’s parents or go out with German friends, they speak only German for reasons of courtesy. When they are in the underground or in a public place, however, they sometimes like to speak about personal things in Spanish - so that they will not be understood by everyone around them.

The two of them, however, went through some rather unpleasant situations when dealing with people in public offices - Lena would often speak for him, because she thought it would make a better impression in important situations. They were both annoyed by the fact that the people only spoke to her, although he was sitting right next to her. In general Lena and Denis enjoy their bilingualism. Denis likes Lena’s accent in Spanish and as a trainee language teacher he likes to explain the grammar and pronunciation to her. They have just started to do a little research on the pros and cons of raising children in more than one language - Lena is pregnant and they want to make sure right from the start that as many doors as possible are open for their child.

“At all costs avoid dialects in your partner’s language” – Francesca from Germany/Italy and Rodolfo from Italy

Francesca from Germany/Italy and Rodolfo from Italy | © Private

As the child of a German mother and an Italian father Francesca first lived in Italy and then later in Germany. She met her Italian husband on holiday. For decades the two of them have been living together in Berlin and speak almost only Italian when they are together. It really is quite rare for Francesca to use a German word when she is talking to Rodolfo, only if it springs to mind more quickly than its Italian counterpart. When they are with Germans, however, they of course speak German to be polite. For Francesca it was absolutely clear that her children would grow up bilingually, just as she did, that is why Rodolfo speaks Italian to them and Francesca German. Francesca is proud today that her children come home from school not only with very good marks in Italian, but also in other foreign languages.

They both enjoy the fact that all the members of their family can watch films, tell jokes and understand plays on words in both German and Italian. Only very rarely are there any problems due to the languages - some Germans have complained that Francesca speaks very loudly and fast and that she sometimes clips her syllables, which she puts down to her Italian background. Once a year the family travels to southern Italy to visit Rodolfo’s family. When they are there, Rodolfo speaks with his family in their local dialect. The children deal with this better than Francesca – in the beginning she thought they were all angry with her, because they were all speaking so loudly and she could not understand the dialect. In the meantime, however, she has learned a little of the dialect and the relatives also make a special effort to speak standard Italian with her. Rodolfo understands her problem with the dialect, because he also has his own problems with the Bavarian and Saxon dialects in Germany.

“We have a lot of laughs with tongue-twisters and when we mix up the languages.” – Ursula from Germany and Daniel from Ghana

Ursula from Germany and Daniel from Ghana | © Private

Daniel speaks English most of the time, in the meantime, however, he understands German so well that Ursula often speaks to him in her mother tongue. When they talk about important or intimate topics, Ursula then speaks English, too – probably because that was the language they used when they first met. In Berlin Daniel practises his German haggling at flea markets or on the stage – he sings, drums and tells children’s stories that he has translated into German and the African language, Ewe, with Ursula’s help. He is very active in the Ewe Union, an association in Berlin for speakers of Ewe. Ursula sometimes goes with him to the association in order to try and improve her knowledge of his language. Furthermore sometimes at the weekend they both try to find the time to be together so that Daniel can teach Ursula a little Ewe. They both think this is important, above all, for their visits to Ghana - although Ursula can make herself understood in English, she very often still feels left out of everyday conversations that are being held in Ewe, Twi or Ga – the languages of the region.

Sometimes she would like him to translate funny or emotional things immediately, but she understands that this would interrupt the flow of communication. Cultural differences can also cause problems – Daniel places particular emphasis on underlining certain remarks with a gesture, for example, when thanking someone, Ursula sometimes forgets to do this. When Daniel is alone in Ghana, he very often speaks German on the phone to Ursula, so that the people around him cannot understand what they are saying. Ursula, on the other hand, likes to then send him a text message with a few words in Ewe, because she is missing him and because his native language adds an emotional nuance to the message. Once in Berlin Ursula had to call the ambulance service, because Daniel had taken very ill. The female doctor who came wanted to speak only to Daniel and to speak to him only in German, but he had problems understanding her. Ursula and Daniel remember this situation as being particularly unpleasant. Most of the time, however, the two of them enjoy their bilingualism and they often have a lot of laughs over tongue-twisters and linguistic mix-ups.

“Our multilingualism is a real asset for us.” – Johan from the Netherlands and Euna from Brazil

Johan from the Netherlands and Euna from Brazil | © Private

They met on a bus trip in Brazil and fortunately Euna could speak a little English and Johan a bit of Portuguese. Without these common languages they would never have been able to communicate with each other. Soon afterwards Euna travelled to the Hague a few times with her daughter, Erica, to visit Johan. Unfortunately the two Brazilians did not get a permanent residence permit for the Netherlands, so the little family then decided to move to Berlin and set up a home there. Johan and Euna no longer communicate in English for Johan has a gift for languages and in the meantime has a good knowledge of Portuguese. Sometimes he speaks to his wife in German, but she does not understand everything he says. Erica speaks Portuguese with Euna and German with Johan.

Johan of course still speaks to his relatives in the Netherlands in Dutch, but Euna and Erica associate Dutch above all with the country in which they were not welcome. This is not a problem for Johan as he enjoys the fact that he can speak to Euna and Erica in different languages. Euna, too, has now started to enjoy her multilingual life in Berlin – as a member of the German-Spanish community and by taking part in integration courses and doing the odd job here and there she has made contact not only with Spaniards and Latin-Americans, but also with Italians and Portuguese, whose languages she can understand quite well in the meantime. Nevertheless she still speaks Portuguese most of the time and is sometimes a little sad that she is still having such a hard time learning the German language. That is why she finds it all the more fantastic that all children in Germany have the chance to start learning foreign languages at school.

Janna Degener
works as free-lance journalist in Königs Wusterhausen near Berlin.

Translation: Paul McCarthy
Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Internet-Redaktion
April 2014

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