I haven’t written much on living as a bilingual family. It’s not that I haven’t wanted to but I have been scared to expose my failures. My own Norwegian language inadequacies have made the subject a little painful for me. I have lived in Norway now for eight years. I have earnt the standard language hours that fulfill my residency status, I’ve had countless study hours and social interactions, I even work and interact with hundreds of Norwegians weekly, but still, I struggle with the language. I would certainly not be able to pass the Bergen’s test (a standard Norwegian language test that confirms ability, required for university entry and some workplaces). I am still a basic speaker of Norwegian. This makes me feel guilty. I have worked really hard to learn the language but there is just something that doesn’t click. I’m slowly coming to a realization that I need to be OK (and so does everyone else) with making a life in Norway without Norwegian.
Language has become an obstacle for my young family. I speak English to my two small children, Lilu and Lil’Red. I want them to learn English and have a native understanding. I feel this is something very valuable that I can give to my children. Moose speaks Norwegian to them and sometimes English so I can be included. I often use Norwegian to confirm simple commands and ideas from English but I do not use Norwegian when I’m talking creatively or from my heart. Norwegian kills my personality, my humour and my confidence. Moose speaks English as if it was his native language so it is difficult for us to speak Norwegian all the time – we just forget, we are too tired, and most often communication between husband and wife is more important than teaching opportunities.
My kids understand basic English but still need Moose to translate me at times. They speak a little English back to me, with an accent, but mostly Norwegian. They are very curious and active in learning English words, (it has become a magic trick for them pulling out English words here and there to get a delighted reaction from me), and they are very keen to also translate me into Norwegian. I often catch the kids discussing between themselves, figuring out what I just said. Their Norwegian is OK, but not as clear as other Norwegian kids. They also have a slight ‘immigrant’ accent (not that I can tell). The kids went to kindergarten (barnehagen) from three years so they could learn Norwegian more thoroughly to prepare for school. There was a kerfuffle for a little while as the barnehagen put Lilu into a Sami speaking group. Lilu would often speak Sami, English and Norwegian in the same sentence. (No wonder I couldn’t understand her!) Lilu, who is now five and has started school, can read Norwegian well. Even still, at school she is put into an ‘immigrant’ reading group simply because she has an immigrant mother and at home we speak English.
Our unique bilingual language environment certainly has its challenges. Much of the time I don’t understand my kids and they don’t understand me. This limits my ability as a parent. I cannot properly use teaching opportunities to explain to my children why we do or don’t do things. I cannot tell them stories about my own life and childhood. I don’t know when they are speaking Norwegian inappropriately, and even if I did pick up on it, I wouldn’t be able to appropriately teach them to stop or do things another way. My children cannot tell me about the intricate things of their lives, why they dislike an activity or how a sibling fight got started. They can’t relay to me the five-point set of instructions that their teacher gave them for their homework and they can’t explain why they were left out of an activity at school. Language just gets in the way.
Our lives are centered around misunderstandings. However, everything that is said is forgiven. No one gets offended at a wrong word or meaning, there is no point. So we live our lives without the trickiness of words. We know that there are things more important than language – like, our hearts. Even though our life is language-challenged, that we cannot really say what we mean, there is no doubt that we love each other. Love is certainly more than just words. I can express more love by sitting next to Lilu, my arms around her as we look at pictures in a book, or laying next to Lil’Red watching the snow fall in the window or even making warm chocolate for everyone after a play outside in the cold snow. Touch and action has been my language of love. Looking at them with beaming eyes as they beam back at me, speaks all the words I need to feel loved. There will be a time when my kids and I will understand each other completely and we will be able to talk about normal things taken for granted by most parents, but until then, I will cherish our silent love.