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Claudia - 3 Children with 4 Languages in Spain

About a year ago I took my oldest son to the German Embassy in Barcelona and when we entered the full waiting room, he heard that everybody was speaking in German. He  said very loud in German: "Look Mum, we are in Germany now" and then pointed to an elderly couple "because even Grandma and Grandpa (Oma and Opa) here are speaking German!"

  • 4 Languages in Catalunya

    What languages is your child exposed to?

    My three children are exposed to the following languages day by day:
    At home: German (with me, their mother) and english (with their father). My husband doesn't speak German.
    In school and with friends: Catalan and Spanish

    Was your child exposed to more than one language from birth? If not, how was the adaptation process?

    From birth they were exposed to German and english. From 1 year on they went to the Catalan guarderia in the mornings only. From 3 years they started learning Catalan in school. They think they know Spanish, but yet they cannot separate it from Catalan - at least speaking. They understand everything though.

    What is your children’s “attitude” towards their languages? Which language do they prefer and why do you think that is?

    They adapt themselves to the surrounding. My eldest son is 5 and speaks well. With me he speaks German, with his father english, in school Catalan and he has a 1 hour Spanish class a week in school. When we are all together, he speaks English, with the German au pair German, with grandparents from my side German and with the aunties and cousins from my husbands side he speaks English. He adapts himself to the other person. He wants that they understand him, so he changes with their abilities. We have no problems switching languages; the moment my husband enters the room, we change to English. If his friend s over, he speaks Catalan to him, I speak Spanish to his friend. Recently my son has started teaching me Catalan - but only if I ask him. In school he is proud in front of the others, when we speak. The others are often older than him and very impressed -because they don't understand. 


    What is your “strategy” in terms of bilingual education? (OPOL, Minority language at home… ?)

    For us it is very important that our children are able to speak to their families outside of Spain. Besides the actual Au Pair, I am the only person at home who is able to speak German. It is such a difficult language, that I use every opportunity to speak in German. With the result, that their German is better than english, as their father is working a lot. English is easy and they will learn with time. Sometimes when we realize that their english is getting worse, we switch the tv language from German to english. But they hardly watch tv anyways. We were told to use the OPOL method, but we are not really doing it. As a family we speak English. It doesnt make any sense if someone at the table doesn't understand the language. Next year my son will be in Primaria and I have been told that he needs to improve his Catalan in writing and reading. I am thinking of getting now a Catalan au pair, or we will send him to supporting classes. 


    Did your child start speaking later as a result of being spoken to in more than one language? This is much discussed - do you think this is a myth?

    I personally think it is a question of character and physical abilities. My eldest son did speak right in time, no delays and he started with German and English at the same time. When he started school it took him 2 months to speak Catalan. My second son is 3 and 1/2 years and in my opinion he doesn't speak. I think it is a question of physics. He has some problems with his muscles (too much collagen), so he started walking very late. He physically cannot pronounce well the words and if he speaks, he only uses the last 2-3 letters.. a vocal and a consonant mix. I don't understand him at all, with the consequence that he is now too shy to speak -besides the bad words he learns at school; he pronounces these words very well - in Catalan. On the other hand, he understands everything in any language and the doctors are not worried.  My third child - a girl is now 1 1/2years and I am so surprised how advanced she is already. Quicker than the first son. She mixes for example water, wasser, agua  and makes "wawa" out of it. She know yes, ja and si and no/ no/ nein. She understands everything in all of the languages and her pronounciation of anything she says is cristal clear and perfect. 


    Do you think your child/ren suffer from a vocabulary shortfall? Does he/she mix languages?

    My eldest son is speaking a clear German, but in his english he places German grammar. In German the simple past almost always starts with a "ge".  to make = machen  / made = gemacht. My son starts the english past always with the "ge". "Look what I have gemaked." We have told him million times.. but when he doesnt remember the correct form of the past, he just replaces it with the "ge". So yes there is clearly a vocabulary shortfall, and to no surprise. Where else would he learn the language. Every single word he knows in english is from his father. Catalan he speaks only in school, and his teachers are surprised that he doesn't know "simple" words like "ceiling" in Catalan. It will all come with time. Speaking more languages -even at a lower level than other kids- is always better than speaking 1 language. The world understands these children and they understand the world. Even foreign politicians don't speak a perfect english, but everybody understands them.

    Could you tell us a funny anecdote related to your children’s bilingualism?

    About a year ago I took my oldest son to the German Embassy in Barcelona and when we entered the full waiting room, he heard that everybody was speaking in German. He  said very loud in German: "Look Mum, we are in Germany now" and then pointed to an elderly couple "because even grandma and grandpa (Oma and Opa) here are speaking German!"

    What was or still is difficult? 

    I guess for my children nothing is difficult, but for me it is incredibly difficult, that we live in a region with 2 languages. In order to help my children with homework I have to learn how to speak and write Catalan. But I always rather improve my Spanish, instead of learning Catalan. With the Primaria coming up, I have to make a plan. Clearly, with all the school communication in Catalan I can read and understand everything, but speaking is on another level.  


    Do your children get the differences between the languages and cultures?  What do you do to keep them interested in both cultures? 

    For my children the language is one thing and the foreign culture doesn't exist. Maybe they are too small. In Germany we have Nikolaus coming the night before the 6.12 and he always puts sweets, nuts and mandarins in the kids shoes in front of their doors. My eldest son was happy, but told me that there is no Nikolaus, because I placed the goodies into the shoes. I couldnt change his mind. The same day we went to the Fira Santa Lucia and we finally got his so desired "Caga Tio". For one week he didnt stop hitting him and singing, wondering non stop why he hadn't done the deed yet. Then he took him to school, maybe the teachers could influence him. He brought another one back from school and this one just before christmas finally did it. They were the same sweets as for Nikolaus, but my son really believed that "Caga Tio" finally had to poo. I was very disappointed, but my husband thinks it is the way everybody talks about it. Everybody believes in Caga Tio, so it must be real. Nobody knows Nikolaus except Mama, so he is not real. I basically have given up. My cultural believes come from my own childhood and my then environment. I don't need to force this onto my children. They have their own environment and it will be a different one to my own past. If they can explain the meaning of Caga Tio one day to a German in German, I will be happy enough. The language is more important than the tradition. 


    Can you think of any resources that helped you or recommend any support groups, websites or social media groups that you have found useful??

    The only group I have is the Maresme Connect Group. I met several foreign mothers through it and some with German roots. It is great for me as a mother, because we have no family here, so I can meet people in a similar situation during weekends, with the side effect that the children communicate in english or German.

    How do you perceive the key benefits of bringing up a child bilingually/multilingually?

    I only can hope that their language level will be good enough to choose where they wanna study and live. More languages open the world to everyone, you learn from other cultures and understand their reasoning. Even the cultures of Europe are so different - it is good to understand how people think and feel. 


    Are there any disadvantages? Are their challenging aspects with schoolwork for example?

    For sure my children will have problems at school and maybe they will not perform as good. For sure they will need language support  throughout their school life, but with the effect of finishing school with 4 fluent languages. They will end school at a language level, where others only can dream to be. My children's problems, will not be their language abilities, but their parents. We are different to the Catalans, so they will be different. I cannot and do not want to change the way I have been formed in Germany, but this is incompatible with half of the people from here. My sons simply don't get invited to some play dates, but this also could happen in Germany. 

    What advice would you give parents about to embark on bringing up a child bilingually?

    Do it. There is no harm. But it needs to come naturally. 


    February 2015