I never thought I would have a bilingual family. Language is never an issue when you marry one of your own countrymen. However, I married a Norwegian, and so language has become an everyday battle in my family’s life.
When raising children in a bilingual family you need to decide how you are going to teach language. Whether it be speaking one language at home and one outside, both at home or only concentrate on one, you need to have a plan. This plan needs to consider extended family members, schooling, community, convenience, and heritage, but most importantly the future opportunities for the child.
In Norway children are first taught dialect Norwegian (the Norwegian of the region they live in) in every part of their lives – home, pre-school, at friends and family. Television is presented in either Bokmål or Nynorsk – the standard written languages of Norway (that have now become the basic Norwegian language institution for immigrants and foreigners). In school, children speak dialect but also learn how to write and speak Bokmål and/or Nynorsk. At about grade 3 children also have English language classes at school as part of compulsory education. Norwegians are raised in a bilingual society, even though English is not an official language in Norway.
With every Norwegian required to learn English, it sure makes it easier for me, being an English speaker, to communicate with a Norwegian, however, it severely frustrates my Norwegian language learning. Norwegian conversations with me are agonisingly slow, very basic and most often converts to English to save embarrassment and time. It is extremely hard to learn Norwegian in society so you’d think that it would be a lot easier to practise Norwegian at home but it is not, especially when your spouse knows English so well.
Up until a year ago, our language spoken at home was English. This was partly because of:
1. convenience – it was quicker, easier and more accessible
2. laziness – thinking and speaking Norwegian was exhausting as my pregnancies were taking up a lot of my brain power
3. habit – Moose and I had gotten too used to speaking English together, but for good reason – we were newly married and so needed to develop our relationship (you can’t do that with simple ‘hello’ and ‘good-bye’ sentences)
4. limited learning – I had only been to Norwegian classes for three months before I had to stop to have a baby and therefore I only had a small understanding of Norwegian and a very small vocabulary.
The pressure to learn Norwegian soon escalated after the birth of our first child. How could I teach my child a language I didn’t know myself?! I was worried I would be putting my child at a disadvantage. Worse still, I didn’t want to miss out on my child’s life because I didn’t know Norwegian.
At my daughter’s four month check-up we had a Sami doctor. I asked her advice as being Sami she too had the job of teaching her children two languages – Sami and Norwegian. She said at home they spoke Sami and out of home the kids learnt Norwegian. This way they got to learn their Sami language and heritage as well as Norwegian. She also mentioned that when children learn two languages they usually take a little longer to start talking. But not to worry as usually by three years bilingual children should be able to construct basic sentences. This is because they not only have to learn twice as much as other children but also how to sort the information into each language. Before long, children of bilingual families will be able to speak both languages fluently which will greatly benefit them in the future (especially English for school). Well, that made me feel at ease, actually, a little pleased with myself that my English would give my children the advantage.
However, this still didn’t solve the problem of me not being able to understand my daughter if I didn’t learn Norwegian quickly enough. She will obviously zoom by me with her language skills and I will miss out knowing her in Norwegian. (I already sense the romantic agony of not knowing what my husband is like in Norwegian – when he speaks his native language his tones are stronger and deeper and I just know that he expresses himself differently even though I can’t understand what he is saying.) So little by little I started to be active with Norwegian in my daily life. I still haven’t been able to go back to Norwegian classes due to start times and another baby but there has been small things I’ve done to build a strong foundation in Norwegian – most of these have been learning experiences with my daughter:
1. I read to her simple Norwegian books
2. I watch children’s programs with her so I can listen to the language
3. I say all commands in Norwegian: yes, no, sit, come here, careful, don’t touch etc.
4. I write txt messages in Norwegian
5. Moose is now talking to me mostly in Norwegian even when I speak back to him in English (usually because I don’t know enough vocab or how to construct the sentence)
Moose speaks Norwegian to our daughter when they are alone together but also in front of me so I can get in some extra Norwegian learning. And, of course, every Norwegian naturally speaks Norwegian to our children – on the bus, at the shops, in the library and where ever we go. Because of this our 20 month old daughter’s first sentence was ‘Ka du gjør?’ (What are you doing?) in Tromsø dialect! So there is certainly no need for me to worry about her language development. (However, it did make me realise I need to speak more English with her!)
The best thing is I don’t feel guilty anymore for speaking English to our children, I even sing! For the first time I see English as part of my heritage – it is fashionable but quirky, and always rhymes much better than Norwegian. English used to be just normal to me, now I see it as special.