Why I'm scared of raising a bilingual child
My baby just toddled over, poked me in the eye, and said, “Auge!” That’s German for “eye.”
“Ouch!” I said. “Wait, did she just say Auge?”
“It begins!” my husband chortled. “Auge” was her first word in German, and my husband was stoked. We live in Germany, and like many expat parents, we always intended to encourage our baby to learn both English and German. She goes to German preschool, and plenty of her baby books are in foreign languages. She has been told not to let the pigeon drive the bus in English, German and Mandarin. Her father and I absolutely hoped that she would learn to speak German at school, but now that it appears to be happening, my husband is thrilled and I am terrified, because the baby might be multilingual, but I am not.
Speaking multiple languages is a gift. I want that for my daughter, and my concern is not so much that I am worried about the baby being multilingual as it is that I am worried about being the only monolingual person in the house. My husband speaks many languages, and if the baby grows up to be a polyglot, I might be in for a future of my husband and daughter speaking over my head at the dinner table in languages I don’t understand.
If that happens, I’m going to be convinced they’re making fun of me for the next 40 years.
My husband’s facility with languages is the closest thing to a superpower I’ve ever seen in real life. He’s the sort of person who picks up instruments and plays them by ear while insisting he does not know how to play them. I’ve seen him carry on whole conversations in Spanish based on having taken three months of Italian in college.
“Well, I could hear how it was different, so I changed it,” he said.
He once accidentally got hired as a French teacher by walking into the wrong room in college. He intended to apply to teach Chinese, and when he went into what he thought was the interview room for aspiring Mandarin instructors, for some reason did not think it was weird when the testers handed him a pile of language lessons in French, a language he had never studied at all. He figured it was a test, led the fake lesson and impressed everyone. At the end, the interviewers said he’d be great and asked if he had any questions.
“Don’t you want to hear me speak Chinese?” he asked.
“Why on Earth would we want to hear you speak Chinese?” asked the university’s French faculty. (My husband is great at languages, but not very observant.)
That’s what I’m dealing with, here. When people ask if the baby got her father’s ears, they’re not asking if I think they stick out a little bit. They want to know if she can do what he does, and I think she might be able to. While I want that for her, it also terrifies me.
I speak only English fluently. I’ve been in Germany for three years and speak enough German to “get by” (for values of “get by” that include flailing helplessly and miming “coffee” and finally just saying, “I’d like a cappuccino, please,” because everybody here speaks English).
I used to think I was great at languages, though. Throughout high school I was full of myself in the way teenagers can be, and I was convinced my sophomore-level French was impeccable. I would sit at the dinner table and call my mother creatively insulting nicknames in French, because I was a stuck-up jerk who thought she was smarter than everybody and wanted to prove it.
I used to insult my mother in French, and when told not to do that, I would insist that my parents could not possibly punish me for saying mean things if they could not say exactly what it was that I had said. I defied them to argue, standing smugly before the line of saying “You aren’t smart enough to punish me” without actually crossing it. I was a jerk, and it would serve me right if my own daughter did the same to me someday.
So when my baby practices her German — from “Auge” she went on to add “Nase” for “nose” and “Das” for “that,” and a bunch of other sounds that for all I know could be German words or just baby babbling — I get anxious about the future.
I suppose I’m not really worried about her being multilingual like her father, I’m worried about her being an asshole like me. If she gets my husband’s ears, it will be a blessing. If she gets my jerkitude, I am screwed. (I assume my mother would laugh at that, because it would only be fair for me to get a taste of my own medicine, but my mother is far too nice to gloat like that and would probably just say, “Oh, my poor baby! She shouldn’t be making fun of you!”)
Of course, my baby is currently an adorable and sweet-natured 1-year-old, and there’s no reason besides my own guilt for thinking that I might one day face my teenage self across the dinner table. It would be poetic justice. And even if that’s the price of it, I hope my daughter does get her father’s linguistic and musical talents, if she wants them. I want her to have every advantage and be able to travel the world and learn all kinds of fascinating things and read lots of things and talk to lots of people. If that means that she thinks I’m not as smart as she is, I will just have to deal with that. I hope she is smarter than I am!
And if she does go through a mean teenage phase like I did, it won’t be more than I deserve for acting like that myself 20 years ago. I might not know what kind of mean names I’m being called, but at least I know someone will have my back. I’ll just have to trust my husband to keep up his language skills, because in 14 or 15 years I might need someone around to say, “Don’t call your mother a monolingual plebeian buffoon!” in any language she breaks out.