English only on this American playground please

English only on this American playground pleaseI’ve written before that I’ve never had an experience in which someone responded negatively to me when I speak German to my daughters in public here in the United States.

Yesterday, on an elementary school yard, that changed.
My daughters, 7 and 5 years old, were rushing around the playground speaking, and yelling, German to one another — as they do pretty much 100 percent of the time — and I was shouting something to them in German as well when a young boy, about eight years old, on a swing nearby said:
“What did you say?! Why are you speaking Spanish to your kids!?”

Confusing Spanish with German
This isn’t the first time that a child had asked me why I, or my daughters, are speaking Spanish, when, of course, we’re speaking German, though, amazingly, I’ve never had an adult ask me this.

I politely explained we were speaking German, not Spanish.

Pretty soon, the little boy and my two girls were playing with each other. The three of them were, of course, speaking English to one another, as my daughters are bilingual in English and German. And they were definitely having fun together. However, each time my daughters shouted something to me in German and I shouted back to them in German – on a playground you often have to shout just to be heard  😉 – the little boy asked, “What did you say?” I, or one of my daughters, translated for him every time he asked, and he responded each time with an, “Oh, okay.”

‘No one can understand you’
After about 20 minutes of the three of them playing together, the boy, who’d returned to the swing where we first encountered him, asked me, “Why are you speaking German to your kids when no one can understand it?” I admit that I could feel my blood pressure rise just a bit. This question was a bit confrontational, though I understood that an eight-year-old wouldn’t have intended it this way.

I took a deep breath, and said: “Because we’re raising our daughters to be bilingual. I believe it’s better to be able to speak two languages than just one. I think it’s always better to be able to do more things than fewer things.”

The boy didn’t respond, just kept swinging on his swing.

English only in our house
About a minute passed. Then, the young boy, who was Caucasian and who was now sitting motionless on his swing, said, “My mom told me if I learn Spanish or German at school I’m not going to live with her anymore. She said, ‘We speak English in our house!’ ”

In fact, the boy’s mother wasn’t there – he was being watched by some after-school teachers. And, given what the boy had just told me, I was glad his mother wasn’t there.

A lot of thoughts were coursing through my head at this point. I thought about Bourdieu’s notion of distinction and the ways in which it captures some, though not all, of the social interplay that was going on here – I’ll admit to working hard to separate myself and my daughters from monolingual Americans and monolingual ideology.

I also thought about how all of us, even self-identified anti-elitists who would accuse me of thinking I’m better than others because I’m multilingual are inevitably caught up in a hierarchical notion of ‘better’. After all, the self-identified anti-elitists themselves believe it’s better to be part of the (monolingual) mainstream.

German only, 100 percent of time
I thought, too, about the social questions and tensions raised by me speaking German only to my daughters 100 percent of the time – I really do speak only German to them all of the time, no matter what the situation, though I, and they, will often translate for friends, family, or, in this case, even strangers.

Finally, I thought about how grateful I was that my daughters are enrolled in a language immersion school where they don’t have to face the anti-multilingual criticism this boy, clearly influenced by his parents, and other kids would surely be directing at them every single day.

In fact, I’m 100 percent sure my daughters would not be speaking German to each other still if they were enrolled in a traditional, public monolingual English school, which I view as the most crucial social entity in the annihilation of lived, everyday multilingualism of the sort that we’ve managed to practice for the past seven years.

But the role of monolingual public education in the elimination of linguistic diversity in the United States is grist for a future blog entry 😉

Author Christof Demont-Heinrich

A lifelong interest in language and writing motivated in large part by a desire to learn my father's mother tongue, German, has played a large role in my professional and educational trajectory. I spent my junior year of college studying in Freiburg, Germany. After graduating from Allegheny College with a B.A. in German, I worked as a print journalist for eight years in the Boston area. I moved to Colorado in August of 1996 so that I could attend Colorado State University where I earned an M.A. in English (1998). After a couple years of working as an adjunct faculty member at CSU and the University of Northern Colorado, I began a Ph.D. program at the University of Colorado, Boulder School of Journalism and Mass Communication in the fall of 2000. I completed my dissertation in December of 2005. I started a tenure-track position at the University of Denver in the fall of 2005 where I am now an Associate Professor in the Department of Media, Film & Journalism Studies. My general research interests are in linguistic and cultural dimensions of globalization, transnational and national identity, and the relation between media discourse and hegemony.

More posts by Christof Demont-Heinrich
  • Arshad Baig (Karachi, Pakistan)

    Thanks, Christof for interesting post!
    I agree with your experiences and ideas. Children’s cultural identity is an important element in their self-esteem. The language they speak and that is spoken in the home is a vital part of the formation of an identity. Bilingual education programs by their very nature require segregation of students into homogeneous native-language groups. Furthermore, it offers great opportunities to both language-majority and language-minority populations.

  • Catherine

    I live in Italy and speak to my children in English. I think a big reason why I am “spared” the negative comments is that a) English is a high status language – everyone wants their kids to learn English. In fact, they often ask my son to speak in English to them (which he refuses to do).

    b) Everyone has studied at least some English here so what I am saying is not totally incomprehensible. People don’t like hearing others talking in languages they don’t understand at all (especially languages belonging to immigrants who are seen as a threat such as Romanian, Arabic…..)

    It is also amazing that some people really believe that being bilingual is not possible without losing some linguistic competence. My son got top marks in his Italian language tests – something which is apparently seen as some sort of miracle considering he *only* gets talked to in Italian by his dad, all his friends, his teachers……

  • Johana

    Thanks for thiss post! Sadly this poor child is a reflexion of the xenophobic sentiment that is growing in the U.S. In which books and music is banned bc is in another language. We as concern part of society should speak about it and don’t let our future generations degenerate into think that learning many languages will take away from their identity.

  • Fiona MacLeod-Green

    Keep up the good work, Christof! Your children will thank you one day for your gift of language and identity. I sometimes get odd responses from other children at my daughter’s childcare for speaking Japanese to my child, but I remind the children that our family arrangements work for us, and that everyone’s families work differently. “Just because I can talk to you, doesn’t mean I have to talk like you all the time. And when I’m talking to you or about you, I promise you’ll know exactly what I’m saying.” Even a child can understand that logic. I’m prepared to be patient with children, but I will remind them that they need to watch their own conversations, not other people’s. Viel Glück!

  • Alia Amir

    I live in Sweden and speak to my children in Urdu/English ( some medium shifting between a continuum of Urdu and English). Swedish has also come up in my children’s language repertoire and they do speak Swedish but our main language of communication is Urdu/ English. Although, I have never experienced a direct confrontation by anyone (between me and my children) where we have been told to switch to Swedish, when ever we switch to English or use a bilingual medium (Urdu + English), we have been asked (especially by native English speakers) but what is the language in your home country? Why do you speak English? In a way, I have experienced an anti-English tide, specially for those people who do not come from native English-speaking coutries.

  • Wonderful article! I admire that you really push through and speak German to your children all the time. You can also be thankful that you have an appropriate school like that in your area. I grew up in the US with a German parent and stopped speaking German at a young age because of… pressure from other children. I speak German now, but I’m not a native speaker as I could’ve been. My partner and I will be raising our children bilingually in Germany, and I’m sure that will be easier here then it would be in the US.

  • Thank you everyone for your comments and sharing your experiences. As those of us working to raise children as bilinguals know, it’s not always easy and there are a lot of social forces that often work against us. However, as Sabrina points out, in the end the extra effort, facing down social pressures, and working with children being raised as bilinguals to help them do the same and feel good about being bilingual is worth it.

  • May Relano

    This is a very interesting story about how the use of languages other than English in public distorts the linguistic tranquility of monolingual minds in the United States. I am wondering if this happened to you in California. It is very unfortunate to hear children saying this about other languages as the result of their language socialization to monolingual ideologies in the home environment. I have a collection of stories about language experiences in Southern California told by Mexican women, who struggle hard to instill pride and linguistic security in their children’s upbringing. Thank you for sharing this and having let that boy wondering about what it means to speak two languages in the U.S.