My two daughters – whom my wife and I are raising as English-German bilinguals in the USA – have been going to German camp for a good portion of the 2012 summer vacation.
Only trouble is, they’re not speaking much, if any, German with anyone other than: a) each other (which they do at home anyway); b) the German camp summer instructors.
That’s because 95 percent of the other children, who range in age from 5 to 10 years old, enrolled in the camp spend nearly 100 percent of their time speaking English with one another. This despite the best efforts of the camp director, whom I admire very much and who has herself successfully raised two young adult English-German bilinguals in the USA, to keep the camp goers focused on German.
Why so much English in a German language camp?
There are a lot of reasons:
- Children at different German levels. A few, such as my children, are highly fluent in German while others are complete German language beginners.
- Different hopes, goals, approaches, and German abilities among the parents. So, for instance, in my own, and a few other cases, there’s strong commitment to the so-called one parent, one language approach (I speak only German to my daughters, my wife speaks only English to them). In other cases, parents, including many German-speaking parents, spend most of their time speaking English to their kids with a little bit of German interspersed.
- School. My kids are the only ones in the camp — which has fluctuated between 10 and 20 participants over the past four weeks — enrolled in a German language immersion program during the year. The rest are in monolingual English-speaking schools – which leads me to the next, perhaps biggest, reason, there’s so little German, and so much English, spoken by children enrolled in a German language camp here in Colorado, USA…
- Socialization. Social norms, expectations, rules, and practices are, for the most part, exclusively monolingual in the USA. This is especially true in the public school system, where the emphasis is actually on erasing home languages children bring to school rather than on growing, and fostering, actually lived and regularly practiced multilingualism.
- Monolingual ideology and practice. With the exception of immigrant enclaves located mostly in urban America, actually lived, everyday life in most places in the USA, is, for most people, monolingual. The expectation is that virtually everywhere you go you will speak English – and no other languages. So, who can blame the kids if, after being thoroughly socialized into this expectation by larger American society, they would do anything other than speak English to each other in German camp?
It’s cliché, but nevertheless true that if you don’t use a language, you lose it. And there are simply not enough places and spaces in largely monolingual contemporary America for most of the people truly dedicated to actually lived multilingualism to practice that “other” language on a regular and everyday basis.
Yes, there are some outside-of-the-dominant-English-norm spaces and places created by motivated individuals and/or groups, for instance, the German camp both my kids are attending. But these don’t exist in a social vacuum. They – and those who participate in them – are heavily influenced by the wider social landscape. That landscape is not especially conducive to fostering the sort of deep, regularly practiced multilingualism I want my daughters to experience.
Indeed, among the American white collar elite with English as a mother tongue — arguably the group of American English mother tongue speakers most likely to favor multilingualism — there’s far more rhetoric about the importance of multilingualism than real commitment to, much less actually lived and practiced, multilingualism.
That’s too bad. And it’s definitely not good for the comparatively few, though seemingly also growing, number of American parents, many of them highly educated first-generation immigrants, who don’t want their kids to end up in the place I’m in after my German dad chose monolingual assimilation for his children: Fighting for the rest of one’s life to acquire a high level fluency in a language other than English while, for a variety of reasons, most beyond one’s own control, never actually ever quite being able to achieve that elusive goal.