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The Curse of the Englitalianeutsch Posted by on Sep 14, 2016 in Uncategorized

When you live in a multicultural context, you start to cultivate curious habits, like speaking a mishmash of languages. And what happens if you raise a kid in that context?

Itchy Feet: The Curse of the Englitalianeutsch

The other day my wife and I were with my mom in an airbnb up somewhere in the middle of nowhere, Germany. My mom is American but speaks perfect German, having studied it in college and later marrying an actual, living German for over twenty years. She’s an even more voracious language learner than I am – she also speaks fluent Spanish and French, and her Italian’s pretty dang good as well. But she’s a proper, do-it-right language learner, and doesn’t like to mix them up. So when I was in the kitchen preparing a salad with my wife and I asked her, “so the formaggio, should I schneid it?” You can imagine the look my mother gave me.

The Englitalianeutsch strikes again.

Il formaggio is of course Italian for “cheese,” and schneiden is the German verb to cut (and the Englitalianeutsch was so convoluted I didn’t even conjugate properly – in German you’d say soll ich es schneiden since, as you may know, an infinitive verb follows a conditional clause – so I should have said “should I schneiden it?”).

We’re expecting a son in December, and we wonder about this a lot. What language will be his “mother” tongue? The language his literal mother speaks, Italian? The language of the household, which will probably be English? Or the language of the country where he’ll grow up, German? Or – god forbid – will the accursed Englitalianeutsch be his mother tongue?

What does “mother tongue” mean, anyway – is it the language you’re most comfortable speaking? That could be a lot of things; my German dad, for example, has lived in the USA for so long that he’s more comfortable speaking English than German. Is it the language your mother speaks? I’m sure there are plenty of examples of mothers speaking languages that don’t get passed on to their kids. Or is it more a “cultural” mother tongue, the language you feel you “belong” to? In that case, I’m guessing our son will check all three languages off for that one, if we do our jobs raising him to be familiar with our respective cultures.

But I’m not sure. I just don’t want him to feel like a foreigner in all three languages. Shouldn’t we all have one language that we can comfortably rely on, no matter what?

What’s been your experience? What’s your mother tongue, and is it different than what people might think? Do you raise bi/tri/multi-lingual kids, or were you one yourself? What’s your equivalent of the Englitalianeutsch?

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About the Author: Malachi Rempen

Malachi Rempen is an American filmmaker, author, photographer, and cartoonist. Born in Switzerland, raised in Albuquerque, New Mexico, he fled Los Angeles after film school and expatted it in France, Morocco, Italy, and now Berlin, Germany, where he lives with his Italian wife and German cat. "Itchy Feet" is his weekly cartoon chronicle of travel, language learning, and life as an expat.


Comments:

  1. Kandi J Wyatt:

    I’m a Spanish teacher at a small school. Each morning I’m greeted by one of my former students and a personal friend of the family. She enters my room and says, “Ohio gasamimas”. (Okay, I have no idea how to spell the Japanese greeting.) I usually respond in Japanese, but switch to Spanish and ask, “Como estas?” She usually replies in Spanish. One day, I sneezed after this exchange. She immediately said, “Gazuntite” (again, poor spelling). I reverted to my German 1 my senior in High School and said, “Bitte”. The fun part was it made perfect sense to us. My student says her mom doesn’t like it when she (the student) does this at home. 🙂
    Thanks for the fun read.

  2. Eugene:

    I grew up in Russian speaking region with Ukrainian lessons few times per week and a lot of Ukrainian TV in background. I speak standard Ukrainian quite well. If you choose to speak to the child each in your native language only and don’t break that rule I suspect you’ll get a quite good trilingual adult at the end.

  3. Jelena:

    My mum wanted to raise me in Serbian. As my daddy is German I’d be bilingual. But because I didn’t start talking at all, the pediatrist told mum to stop with Serbian. (In the 1970s it was commonly thought that two languages would confuse a child. Nowadays it’s known bilingual children start to talk later, but it’s because they have to learn that a chair is a chair and a Stuhl and that there are different language systems.) She stopped and some time later docs found out I couldn’t move my tongue and that’s why I didn’t start to talk. So, when I had finally started to talk, mum restarted with Serbian. But in the meanwhile I had learned that she knew German well and I didn’t want her anymore to talk Serbian with me. Now I could kick my ass for that, as my Serbian is now improving, but far from perfect.

    About three languages at the same time: Mum knows somebody who talked German with her daddy, Esperanto with her mum and learned Danish on the street. She’s fluently in all three (and even more) languages, so it can work out. You will have to make opportunities for your boy that he also hears German, but it’s also important that you stick to your personal languages when you talk to him.


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