German-English vs. Spanish-English

I have frequently wondered how my experiences speaking German in public with my two daughters, 7, and 5, whom my wife and I are raising as English-German bilinguals in the United States, would be different if we were raising them as English-Spanish bilinguals.

In fact, I’ve reflected on how this experience might be different in a personal language journal I started writing when my oldest daughter was four and which has now reached nearly 200 single-spaced pages in length.

Reading through Ingrid Piller’s book, Bilingual couples talk: The discursive construction of hybridity, today inspired me to write about my thoughts on how various combinations of bilingualism and racial and class identities are received in the U.S.

In the book, Piller notes that some of the English-German bilingual couples whose experiences she discusses and analyzes, explicitly address the comparative privilege they have as whites speaking German to their children in public in the U.S., as opposed to the indirect and, sadly, often direct mistreatment of those who speak Spanish to their children in public.

German is ‘wonderful’
In seven years of speaking German to my daughters, well, five years to the youngest one ;-), I have never had an experience in which someone has admonished me for not speaking English to my kids in public. Indeed, the direct responses I have received have always been positive, a ‘Is that German you’re speaking to your kids? That’s wonderful, great, etc.’.

This positive feedback is often followed by an expression of regret: ‘I wish my parents, grandparents, had spoken German to me’. (In fact, I, myself, was raised monolingual in English, though my father is a first-generation German immigrant).

We do get some surprised looks when I speak German to my daughters in public, typically from children.

I don’t know exactly why this is, but I’m guessing this reaction – similar to the positive reaction I’ve gotten from adults — has quite a bit to do with the fact that I’m a middle class white male and both of my daughters are white.

Young children – in particular white children – appear to expect a white father to speak English to his kids. When they hear him speaking another language, they’re surprised in part because they expect this language scenario mostly, possibly even only, from parents and children who are not white.

German-English vs. Spanish-English bilinguals
Interestingly, many children who take the time to move beyond a surprised look to interrogation then assume I’m speaking Spanish to my daughters. I wonder what difference it would make to them if indeed it was Spanish rather than German — and what difference it would make to the adults who praise our German-English bilingualism.

In fact, I’m pretty certain I know the answer in the case of many of the adults – they wouldn’t be praising us, though I will say that I bet they would be thrown off by seeing a very Anglo-Saxon looking male speaking fluent Spanish to two also very Anglo-Saxon looking daughters. This, because the anti-Spanish sentiment that runs so deep in the U.S. is very clearly wrapped up in racism.

Defying stereotypes
I enjoy these moments in which we defy stereotypes and, through our public practice, show the world that multilingualism has many faces.

Paradoxically, I’m also troubled by these moments as well. This is because I know that at the same time we’re undercutting monolingual ideology via our very public multilingual practice, we’re contributing – via dominant social readings being projected onto us — to deeply embedded and even racist beliefs that hold that certain forms of multilingualism are “better” than others, namely, those in which white, Anglo-Saxon looking parents speak a non-threatening language such as German (or French, or Swedish, or Dutch – take your pick of any Northern European language) to their children, as opposed to those in which non-white parents speak a ‘threatening’ language (Spanish in particular) to their children.

It would be interesting to see what sort of reaction a parent who doesn’t fit the standard Anglo-American racial profile speaking German to his or her children might get from some of the same adults who praise German-English bilingualism vis-à-vis a white family such as ours.

At the very least, I’m betting this would throw a lot of people off. In fact, these moments — in which dominant ideology and stereotype are challenged and unsettled by direct observation and experience — are precisely what the U.S., and the world, needs more of.

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
  • Well, that’s the same problem all over the world: In Switzerland or in Germany, you’re admired being a French-German or an English-German bilingual. As soon as you’re a Turkish-German or a Serbocroate-French bilingual, local people tend to not sit next to you in the bus or in the train…!

  • Lisa Fairbrother

    Important point but let’s also not forget that not all Spanish speakers are non-white.

  • khan

    Interesting post and the comments. Yours is certainly an example of contestation to the dominant Language Ideology of monolingual English-Only found in US and elswhere. What bothers me more is the prepetuation of the idea in a manner that rob people of their right to speak in public especially in structured public forums.

    Thanks for an enlightening blog.


  • I am a Spaniard. When I was in the US six years ago, I was surprised by three facts: people wouldn’t believe I came from Spain (I’m rather pale), people would be more open to me since I was European, a lot of latinos weren’t very fond of speaking our same language to me. A girl told me it was not “a great idea”. I’m still wondering why. Shame?

    I live in Italy, am married to an Italian and we are raising two bilingual kids (Spanish-Italian). I have found the same duality in Italy: Spanish spoken by Spaniards is “cool” (a lot of Italians study and learn Spanish, it’s a language they love), Spanish spoken by latinos is not that “cool”. I am currently conducting a research on this topic at the PhD I am pursuing in sociolinguistics and bilingualism.

  • “People wouldn’t believe I came from Spain (I am rather pale)”:

    I forgot to tell that someone even asked me where in Mexico Spain was!

  • @Carolina — Thank you for your very interesting comments. I’m not sure if I can be of any help with your research project, but please let me know if I can 🙂 It sounds like a very interesting project.

  • Lisa Fairbrother

    The relationship between “race” (if such a thing actually exists) and language attitudes is definitely a fascinating subject but the deeper you go into it the more complicated it becomes. Part of my research, conducted in Japan, has shown that use of a high status foreign language can actually override perceived racial differences in some cases. For example, an Indian male, a Mexican male and a Korean-American male all reported that they were treated with more respect when they used English (high status) rather than Japanese with Japanese people. Thus language choice can both dilute or reinforce “racial” boundaries.

  • Thank you! I am working mostly on the language transmission of latinos (and Spaniards) living in Italy. In the US you have Spanglish, in Italy we have Itañol or Itagnolo. Spanish and Italian, as you all know, are two neo-Latin languages — code-mixing and code-switching are very frequent and at one’s elbow, mostly because of the apparent easiness to learn them for a native speaker of a Romance language.

    Spaniards tend to be prouder of their language heritage and they don’t feel the need to renounce. Spain is part of the UE, so it’s a union language — high status language. Latinos, on the other hand, relate their mothertongue to their past in their countries, to poverty and maladjustment (also in Italy) — low status language. Italians themselves show different feelings and perceptions regarding the same language spoken by different persons. Spanish is a level A language in Italy, very present at school and college, very important for business. But it’s also a language of immigration

  • And so you find these Italians that study Spanish since a very young age (5-6 yo) and go on at college, and use it at work, and love to go to Spain on holidays. And on the other hand you find these latinos (not all of them, of course) that have problems passing on their mothertongue to their children.

  • Agree about Spanish being a very popular language in the EU. Many Central/Northern Europeans I think feel quite romantic about Spanish 🙂 – motivations to learn Spanish would make a great case study of ‘language desire’ – similar to this study of Japanese young single women’s desire for English. The German magazine Der Spiegel reported a few years ago that Spanish had overtaken German as the 2nd most popular language in the UK because British teenagers associated the language with the pop star Shakira (see ‘Hasta la vista, Deutschunterricht‘).

  • Thanks, Lisa. Sounds like a fascinating piece of research. Has it been published? Do you have a reference?

  • Lisa Fairbrother

    Ingrid, actually the three examples I gave are from three different sets of interview data that I’ve been working with. The Korean-American example comes from a paper forthcoming in a special edition of the IJSL edited by Jiri Nekvapil (who I hear you know well) and Tamah Sherman. The Mexican example is from a work-in-progress on the Japanese plurilingual workplace, part of which I’ll be presenting at the LASC Roundtable at Monash this February, while the Indian example is from another paper I’m working on that looks at the connection between perceptions of visual “foreignness”(Neustupny 1985, Fan 1994) and language use. Interestingly the Indian example comes from reports of encounters with the Japanese police. If he speaks in Japanese he’ll be taken to the police station but if he speaks in English he’ll be left alone. In this case the use of English appears to remove him from the lower level immigrant category.

  • Analia

    What a interesting interchange of messages!

    I am an Argentinean. And married with a Japanese and having a boy speaking with different kind of degree Japanese and English (his best) and Spanish as his third language.

    In my case, when people does not know me, they supposed that I am speaking English with my son and they associated that I am from the US or and European country because I have more “whited” features (?).

    Although sharing the same native language, Spaniard and Latinos are differently socially evaluated in public spaces, work-related areas, etc.

    Also, I found in my research what it has been said below, when the partner has the same native language, Spanish, that meant that they did not perceived a significant reaction from the Japanese people, while married with a Japanese received a more positive reaction. Being in a couple with a national and native of Japanese, means more social acceptation? As Lisa wrote the relationship between “race” or “ethnicity” and language

  • Analia

    While being a foreign couple-family –mostly for economic reasons from Latin America– meant less social value of their languages, felt with their children at school, in their workplaces, etc. As in the US, Spanish is associated with poverty and less educated people.

    And on the other hand, Latinos having a family with Japanese also means, more probability on using Japanese in all the social domains because… That’s another question to examine.

    Carolina — your study sound really interesting, would you like to share more?