Language and Family

Don't let language barriers become family barriers.

Language and Family

I've been considering what I'm an expert on. I guess I'm an expert in family, and a failure to understand them. You see, I come from a bilingual family. Well, my mum's bilingual. She's German. My father's English. My brother was once fluent, but he actually lived in Germany as a toddler. He just forgot when we went to England.

I, however, was raised in England. My mother tried to teach me German, but I wasn't having it. There was one moment that she pointed at the TV.

"Fernseher," she said, but I shook my head. "TV," I replied. I didn't understand the intricacies of languages as a child. As a toddler, I did have some various phrases that were sprinkled into my vocabulary.

It was cacao instead of hot chocolate. It was Oma instead of Grandma. It was Opa instead of Grandpa. Hell, there was one time I had to make Christmas cards for relatives when I was 7-years-old. I wrote "to auntie Tante" and just thought that my grandparents were really boring when it came to naming their other two daughters.

I didn't actually become aware that these weren't their names until I was in Year 7 - at the age of 12. It all clicked into place when they discussed basic German, and yup: there it was. Tante meant aunt.

But this isn't about my inability to comprehend German. This is about a difficulty in connecting to my mother's family because of these impossible obstacles.

My mother had a gift for languages. She could have gone to a specialised language school if her family had the money. She had no problems with learning English and German, and she even knew basic Thai. Honestly, I could believe her to be an expert in most languages. At one point she just kept listing Chinese foods in different orders, and because she was speaking so quickly, she fooled me into thinking she was speaking Chinese. She has never been to China. I'm an idiot.

Then there's Dad. Dad kind of knew the basics in languages. That was what I gathered. He was in the army, you see. He met Mum whilst they were at the pub and so they were looking for someone who could speak English. I guess my lack of language skills must have come from Dad. But even he could hold a conversation with my grandparents.

Then there's my older brother. I remember going to Germany after my mother remarried. My brother was able to talk to my grandparents, whilst I was there: I awkwardly sat in their kitchen, playing on my DS. I'd been to Germany before, as a toddler. I had miscellaneous German books, mostly Pokemon, as I could vaguely understand what they were saying. Then there was my Dragon Ball Z movies that were only spoken in German and Japanese. The point is: I could only understand things that I knew already.

I definitely couldn't understand my grandparents. At least my brother had a chance, he had some faint memories of his time in Germany prior to the age of 4. He also got to bond with them more when we were children. In total, I have been to Germany for maybe 12 weeks or so throughout my 21 years of life. He also was more advanced in his German lessons, whilst I was simply 12 years old at the time of that visit.

This language barrier was a huge part of my difficulty in understanding my grandparents. Just last year, almost exactly, my Opa passed away. I took time out of university to go to the funeral. Whilst there, I couldn't understand the elegy that was written for my late grandfather. I couldn't understand all of those memories that everyone reminisced about whilst I sat there, eating my lunch.

It's here that I have to give you all one bit of advice. If you have a child, and you come from different heritages: let them learn their language. Although I know about my family, I don't have that bond with my grandparents that other kids I know had. They could go and visit their Nans and Grandads whenever they wanted. I couldn't. I would talk to Oma on the phone as a child, but not like my Mum and Dad. I couldn't talk about my interests or find out what Oma was doing. My mum was always there, a middle-man.

So this I have to say: don't let language barriers become family barriers.

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Rebecca Prouse

I'm a writer from Devon who happens to Tweet a lot. My knowledge mostly stems from my family and a lifetime of watching too much anime and reading too many comics.

See all posts by Rebecca Prouse