The high price of multilingualism

The high price of multilingualism

When society doesn’t value something you, as an individual, do, you, the individual, end up paying for society’s lack of valuation.

That’s the case with our personal home language situation and the frustrating lack of valuation of meaningful multilingualism in the United States.

Not a single public school in the state of Colorado, where we live, offers German language immersion, although, eight public schools, most of them in the Denver/Boulder area, offer other language immersion options – Spanish, Chinese, French, and, in one case, Russian.

Language immersion schools .004% of American schools
Nationally, according to the Center for Applied Linguistics Directory of Foreign Language Immersion Programs in U.S. Schools, 448 schools – this includes private schools – offer some form of language immersion education. That’s just .004% of the approximately 99,000 public schools the National Center for Education Statistics says are in the U.S.

For the past two years, we’ve enrolled our two daughters,  now 7 and 5, in the Colorado International School (COIS), a private language immersion school in Denver — and the only school in the state of Colorado that offers German language immersion. We’re going to enroll them for a third year in 2012-13.

By the end of 2013, we will have spent nearly $60,000 in tuition. If we continue to enroll the children at COIS through eighth grade, we will have spent more than $200,000.

That’s a lot of money – and this total doesn’t even include the tens of thousands of dollars we’ve spent on German-speaking au pairs and German-speaking nannies.

High financial duress
I am definitely feeling the financial duress of swimming against the assimilating American English monolingual stream. Despite this very real stress — during the past seven years we’ve spent up to a third of our total income on German for the kids, a total my wife rightly finds rather high — I am extremely reluctant to pull our children from COIS and place them into the American public education system.

Why?

So far, we’ve beaten the odds and our daughters’ dominant language, the one they speak to each other nearly 100 percent of the time, German, is a minority/immigrant language, not the locally, nationally, and globally dominant language of English.

Now, this might not seem like such a big deal. After all, there are plenty of other families around the world whose children speak a non-dominant, non-local language to each other.

Unusual circumstances
However, I doubt many have achieved what we have under the personal and social circumstances we have. Let me explain:

  • I am not a native speaker of German – my German father who emigrated to the U.S. in the 1960s, did not pass German on to his children; I learned German primarily in college;
  • My wife does not speak German;
  • We live in the United States, where, despite the fact that German heritage continues to be the leading historical heritage, the German language has comparatively little presence;

I am 100 percent certain if we placed our daughters in a monolingual English public school – thus saving ourselves $20,000 per year — within no more than six months our daughters would no longer be speaking German to each other. It’s also questionable how much German they would be speaking with me at that point.

American public education = language killer
To me, that feels a lot like language death, with the American public education system the clear language killer. In fact, a part of me will die inside when my daughters give up speaking German to me and to each other, as I have become very emotionally attached to the tiny, German speaking world we’ve created.

Yes, we could maintain our daughters’ German language learning via other means – for instance, via the Internet (which we already do), me speaking only German to them, and via after-school programs.

But it’s clear to me that when our daughters stop using German regularly in their everyday life, as would inevitably occur if they were placed in an English monolingual public school, they will slide backward.  At that point, our struggle to raise meaningful German-English bilinguals will become much more difficult, though we will save a lot of money.

Of course, to me, deep, lifelong multilingual ability — my long-term goal is for our daughters to be able to pass the so-called Grosses Deutsches Sprachdiplom —  is incredibly valuable. Sadly, it’s not viewed that way by most Americans, which is why we’re having to pay so much to ensure that our children are multilingual.

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
  • This is so true, and so sad. I am a Canadian, raising my children to speak French/English/Dutch, with my American husband. One of my great hesitations to leave Europe comes from the difficulty of maintaining meaningful bilingualism in the US. I also work with bilingual families, and it is heartbreaking sometimes to see the near-impossibility of maintaining minority languages (especially African languages) in Europe. There is great linguistic diversity in Europe, but still primarily Western-based.

    • Eowyn,
      I think you are correct that formally codified and celebrated multilingualism in Europe focuses very much on European languages. It’s too bad that all forms and types of multilingualism are not supported, celebrated, etc. In fact, it’s very clear that some multilingualism combinations — German-English, French-German, Spanish-French,and, above all, any multilingualism involving English, French-English, Danish-English, Italian-English, etc. — are valorized in Europe, and elsewhere for that matter, while other manifestations of multilingualism, Turkish-German, Arabic-French, etc. are actively denigrated and even suppressed, often by the very same people that celebrate other specific instances of multilingualism. Sigh…

      • Although non-European languages are definitely lower on status “list” for bilingualism (with the possible exceptions of Japanese and Chinese), there is also a hierarchy for European languages. One of my pet peeves living here is how many people discount exposing their children to Dutch with a derogatory “But Dutch is a useless language…”. In fact, it was my first blog post almost a year ago – I took my pet peeve to an international platform… Happily, I am seeing more monolingual English parents choose Dutch options for their children.

  • Peter Ives

    Christof, thanks so much for this. I find it fascinating for a number of reasons. One is partially anecdotal, although language issues often seem purely idiosyncratic, but there are underlying structures at work, as you know. Having grown up in Boulder, I became comfortable if not fluent in Scheize-deutsche having spent a year in Switzerland when I was 8. So I took German in jr. high, high school and university, never achieving fluency, but competency. But as an adult interested in language politics, I reflect back on the silly-ness of having spent so much energy learning German and not Spanish (in my schooling there was a definite class/prestige bias there too; taking French or German was coded as being more ‘serious’ and ‘academic’ than Spanish). While my experience with German probably helped in a narrowly linguistic sense when I was learning Icelandic and living in Iceland, I now really wish I had learned Spanish as a child (even if not immersion which is your focus). Now, both my children are in French immersion schools here in Canada (Winnipeg), but I feel a little as your wife must, having never learned French. Although my kids would never think of speaking French to each other (even as code against me). The obvious difference in our experiences esp. in Colorado is your father’s ‘native language’ — by parents are both English (and my mum always maintained Coloradans often mis-understood her). Best of luck and thanks for your post!

    • Peter,
      Thank you for your comments and reflections. I’ve often wondered what it’s like to have children in a language immersion program that’s in a language that is not spoken, or even understood much, by either parent. It would be really interesting to read a parent’s — and a child’s — account of this type of situation.

  • Thanks for this post, Christof! Without wishing to minimize the high price you are paying for your family’s bilingualism in any way, it would seem to me that you are maybe a bit too pessimistic when you say: “I am 100 percent certain if we placed our daughters in a monolingual English public school – thus saving ourselves $20,000 per year — within no more than six months our daughters would no longer be speaking German to each other. It’s also questionable how much German they would be speaking with me at that point.”
    Apart from the fact that 100% certainty for a hypothetical future is impossible, I think you are overlooking linguistic inertia. By ‘linguistic inertia’ I mean that it’s actually difficult to change languages once a particular choice has become entrenched in a relationship … Unless something traumatic happens, I think your girls are pretty likely to keep speaking German with you irrespective of what kind of school they attend.
    All that said, of course, their (academic) German proficiency will only continue to grow if they actually receive formal instruction in the language …

    • Ingrid,
      You may be right about linguistic choice and inertia — although I noticed that you only wrote about this in reference to German speaking between me and my daughters, not them speaking German to each other, which, given the circumstances, is highly unusual. There are other very unique components to our our situation. While my oldest daughter is one grade ahead of my youngest, they are in the same classroom at Colorado International School. In a U.S. public school, they would be separated all day long, and, of course, be spending 100 percent of their school time in English rather than the 75-25 German-English mix they are now in. As may be clear by this entry and others I’ve done, I am not a detached, social scientific observer and analyst type (I actually don’t believe there is such a thing), but am quite politically and emotionally involved in the question of multilingualism and multilingual practice. That may have some disadvantages and I know many people with academe do not think mixing study with activism is appropriate — I think they’re wrong on too many fronts and counts to list here, but one of the advantages is that I’m motivated to work hard at what I’m doing, namely creating a world that is at least a little less lodged in monolingualism and monolingual ideology and a little bit more rooted in multilingualism, multilingual ideology, and, most importantly, actually lived multilingual practice, including by the dominant fundamental language groups.

      • Christof, I have actually seen happening in practice what you are concerned about in your family. I work with mostly expat/immigrant families, who are trying to maintain a home language other than Dutch or English, while having their children schooled in Dutch or English. It is quite a common pattern that siblings speak the home language together until they are both at school in the “other” language, and then within a year of being schooled in the dominant language they experience a language-use shift, even at home, within sibling groups. I advise parents on many means and methods to work against the tide of a dominant language, but it is a constant battle and very often a constant source of stress for the parents. And once the children start to peer-identify in middle-late elementary, use of the home language often becomes restricted to use with the parent/s, but reluctant, and refusal to use it with siblings. I think it is very normal for kids to want to play/interact with other children in the language that is most often used to do so, which is, with certain exceptions, the school language.
        I think that it is not an easy road you have chosen for your family, but as a strong proponent of child bilingualism myself, I believe it is ultimately a worthwhile one.