Thursday 6 May 2010

A Day at the German Embassy

About ten days ago, we went down to the German Embassy in London, to renew BK1's passport. The whole family had to go, because to renew a child's passport, the child and both parents need to be present. Sigh.

Anyway, 190 miles, one night, 110 gbp in hotel fee later and a lovely breakfast, here we are sat in the busy waiting hall of the German Embassy. Available is a good selection of children's books, mostly in German. The Babel Father is busy reading to BK1, while BK2 and I sit down a bit further away, to play.

We are sat next to another family: mum, dad, a 3-year old or a bit less girl and a small baby. The mum starts speaking to her daughter, in English, in a noticeable German accent. I think to myself, the dad must be British, poor mum, her efforts to teach her daughter German are probably not enough to counteract the influence of the father and the whole society.

Then the father asks his daughter:"Would you like Daddy to read you a book?" in an even heavier German accent. Hum. Now, this was not the odd English sentence. The parents would converse between themselves in German, then invariably and consistently switch to English whenever they spoke to their little girl. At one point, I heard the mother tell her daughter:"Your English is so much better than mine", in a somewhat proud tone. After about 40 minutes, hopelessly waiting for one of the parents to speak German to their little girl, I got so annoyed that I stood up and left to look for a free seat further away.

Now why was I so annoyed? I still can't put my finger on it. Maybe because I am a southern girl, and am genuinely interested and curious about people. I ask myself, can a parent be truly him/herself when speaking to their child in a language that is not their own?

In trying to answer this, I realized this is exactly what my own parents did. They spoke Arabic to my sister and I, while their own language was Berber. They did it with the best intention, so that their children would not feel ostracised, so that we would feel at ease and blend in. I suppose the parents in the German Embassy have the same reasoning, to allow their children to fit in. After all, we all want to fit in. The question is, how much different can we be before this hinders us, or worse, stops us from fitting in?


  1. I don't know....while it does seem odd that German parents in the German Embassy choose not to speak German to their child, especially when their English pronunciation is heavily accented, we don't know what their situation truly is and why they were speaking English there! Maybe they do a version of ML (English) with her in the outside world and ml (German) at home. Maybe one parent really wants to work on his/her English but the other one doesn't, and that's why they converse with each other in German. It's hard so say.

  2. Of course Sarah, you are right, it is hard to know somebody's life and circumstances just by listening to them for half an hour. I hope my blog entry did not come across as judgmental or smug. Sorry if it did. That was not the goal.

  3. If you are annoyed you should say something. Moving seat to be a little further away really does nothing for you and it does not answer the questions that were swimming around in your mind. It would be good to see you being a little stronger next time, and very politely engaging converstion.

  4. I can understand why you would feel uneasy with this situation Souad, and why you might not want to approach the family with questions. It can sometimes be difficult to question people's motivation without seeming confrontational: I often do this, just clam up instead of working out a way to engage gently, because I am worried about offending people and don't trust myself to know the right thing to say. Martha is right that it takes a lot of strength to do this, and I think, practise!

  5. Thanks Martha for your comment, and thanks Sarah for expressing what I feel :)

  6. I find it unusual.
    Is it in Great Britain the pressure so strong, that it is not "tolerated" that two German speaking parents speak in German with their children?
    Or maybe they think that for their daughter will be easier, when they speak her in English...

    I am Italian and my husband is Hungarian, we live in Austria. Our children have to learn three languages, and I confess I was a bit worried at the beginning... what if we do something wrong?
    Our pediatrician told us to speak to our children each in his/her motherlanguage, but also to "teach" them some words in German, in order to make things easier for them...
    Our oldest child is almost four years old, she speaks italian (very well), hungarian (reasonably well, but not as fluently as italian), and german (I don't know how she speaks, they say me that, at the kindergarten, she understands all and now she says somethig too. Her German comes totally from kindergarten, we didn't really teach her a lot. Only the very basics, like "ja, nein, danke, wasser, brot, milch"... ).
    Now I know that we didn't make any seriour mistake, but it was not so easy to reach this reassuring risult.

    Now I'm reassured that my daughter can manage three languages.
    But seriously, I'm still having doubts: should be better, in the future, to start to speak her in German or in Hungarian when we are in a German or Hungarian speaking context? Even if my German or Hungarian is very far from perfection. But I can say in the two languages a lot of things and, above all, other people would feel better in the interation with us. It's not a matter of being left out while other people think that we are "worse" as we don't speak their language, it's rather a question of trying to fit ourselves in a situation in a way that everyone else can take part in our conversation, so WE don't exclude the others.

    Maybe this is not the case of the german parents with their three years old child, but maybe they are trying to speak her in German at home, and in English outside. The German Embassy, maybe, was no exception, even if it seems so unusual to me too!

    (I beg your pardon for my english, it is definitely not my motherlanguage...)

    PS: It's the first time I read here... I arrived from the post of mommydothat. I got interested because of the "German" in the title...
    Moreover, I've seen your family language diagram: wow!

  7. Wow Makdaralo, what a configuration! I am sure we all question our approaches from time to time. We all do our best. I find it easier to think that we have no choice, we can't get ourselves to do anything else but speak in our mother tongues to our children. Only time can tell how much or how little these early language experiences will affect their personalities.
    In all cases, thank you for commenting, glad you found your way to our blog :)

  8. Perhaps the parents were just trying to encourage/develop their child's English? The situation reminds me of several years ago when I was teaching a class of 6yr olds. A girl who spoke only Afrikaans came to my class, having just moved with her family from South Africa. Her father was English and had moved to South Africa as a teenager and was keen for his daughter to speak English fluently. I heard him explain to his daughter at the end of the school day one day when she was trying to tell him something that had happened; "English is for when we are outside the house, we can speak our own language at home." I thought that was an excellent compromise and within a few months her English was as good as, if not better than, the rest of the children in the class. Perhaps that's what your German family had in mind?


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