My four sons speak the languages English, French, and German, and they all got to that tri-lingual state in approximately the same way. That way involved luck and good fortune, and only modest challenges. Take Alex, my oldest stepson. He was born in Boulder, Colorado and was then whisked off to Konstanz, Germany with his German father, my husband, and his French mother. From the age of three (and until 18), he was raised in France. For the most part, his parents spoke to him in their native tongues. When Alex was 12 years old and had become my stepson, we spent a sabbatical year in the United States, after which he and I spoke to each other in English. There have been booster shots in the form of classes and travel. But mostly Alex got the gift of tri-lingual gab from the hard work and complicated lives of his four parents.
Our younger sons, Sebastian (12) and Benjamin (9), grew up until the ages of almost-8 and 10 in France, going to French school at first and later a French school that was associated with an international school conducted in English. Since we moved to the US, their father keeps up his 70% German (30% laziness involving responding in whatever language was just addressed to him), and they get boosters every week in the form of a French teacher and German child sitter, in addition to travel.
Easy-peasy for them compared to the experiences of most people.
Markus and I also speak English, French, and German fluently (Markus being more perfect in his other languages than I), but we reached our second and third languages through much harder work and no luck in particular. Some people think that Markus must have a natural talent for languages, but he denies this. His grades in English in gymnasium, he points out, were very low. No, Markus works hard when he takes on a language. We have stacks and stacks of flash cards (about 500 cards each) of Spanish, French, Italian, and Hebrew (he worked on an ulpan – a language school located on a kibbutz – in Israel for six months) words in the attic. Markus put in years (in number of hours) of effort to learn the languages he speaks. Each language was a choice and entailed Herculean effort. Did I mention we have a lot of flash cards?
I started learning French when I was 36 years old and I learned to speak it fluently, although it took at least four years, because much of the reading and writing of my professional work continued to be conducted in English. Plus, I never had a French boyfriend. So, total immersion does not describe my life in France (as I discuss in my post “Lost in Translation”). I experienced total immersion when, at the age of 20, I traveled to Germany for a month-long course on language and film. Of course, I arrived having already taken 12 years of German in school and on the university, so the pain and investment had preceded the trip. In contrast, my friend Jennie moved to total immersion in Brazil for a year without speaking Portuguese. She said that after four months she could speak pretty well, but that the four months involved nights of sobbing alone in her room out of exhaustion and total despair. I get that.
All of this wailing and gnashing of teeth flies in the face of a cliché, no a myth, really, according to which a new language can be learned just by being around other people who speak that language. FYI, a country of people doesn’t teach you a language. If you are Anglophone, there are so many ways to get by without ever learning the language of a different country, even if you desperately want to. There are the problems that many of your new friends end up being speakers of your language, that English is easily available everywhere, that the populations of most northern European countries (for example) are required to learn English in school and thus might not let you bumble through even half a sentence before switching to your native tongue, and that ones family or work life may continue to be conducted in English. These problems can be most severe for adults, but they also affect the language learning of children.
There are also habits that are hard to break. When I met my husband, he didn’t know that I could speak German and I was too afraid to tell him auf Deutsch. I only know this declaratively, I can’t imagine now being afraid to speak German to him; I was a dolt. So I have the habit of speaking to my husband in English. I can only break the habit when actually in Germany, where I do speak to him in German. Similarly, my kids speak to me in English. If I speak to Alex now in French he just looks at me like I am an irritating noise and switches to English (unless we are conversing with other French people, but even then he looks at me ironically). He thinks speaking with me in French is like performing on stage and he can’t abide it. Habits also go beyond the identity of the listener. When playing a card game or board game learned in a particular country, Benjamin switches to that language automatically. If he is playing, in the US, a game learned in France, he whines “Mais arrettttte” (“Cut it out!”) when annoyed by his brother, for instance. The game is sufficient to create a cognitive context for the language habit.
This all sounds like lots of fun, but isn’t. The reality of parental modeling of language, given all of these habits and barricades, speaks to another dearly held cliché – which I might at first pass seem to be perpetuating – whereby kids become bi- or tri-lingual just because their parents have different native tongues. I have implied that it is easy or lucky for the kids, but for the parents it is not so easy; in fact it can be hell. The less support you have for your native tongue, the harder it is. Markus labors to speak German in a francophone context. In our informal surveys we have found that a few people plough ahead and manage to model their native language; many more people just throw up their hands and give in to the majority language. You also swim upstream against biases and attitudes that the context holds about your native tongue. I got plenty of very negative feedback when speaking English to my children in my French hometown. Sometimes the reaction was that it was too loud, sometimes just jarring in its foreignness, sometimes people assumed that this meant that my children were not learning French. Markus calling out to the boys in German in a park was not met with smiles at all. (But here is a happy contrast: the state of Wisconsin has so many people of German descent that when he speaks German here, the ambiance in a public space becomes positively cabaret-like; either people speak the language too or they just love to hear it).
The fact of the matter is that language is so psychological and so dynamic that its use can’t be seen as a skill acquired either by luck or hard work, but more a potential, the possibility for a particular cognitive capacity in context.
Still, people like Markus demonstrate that you can learn a language if that is what you want to do.
Recently a Portuguese friend taught me (on Skype) to sing the first verse of the Brazilian jazz number “The Girl from Ipanema” in Portuguese. It took a long time just to be able to sing the lines of just one verse. But I was highly motivated and once I got a little, I sensed I could be motivated to learn a lot more.
But not right now.