A Multilingual Life


Ring, Ring… “Salam alaikoum, labas? Mei’ tskiirt? Is’ tanna?” – “Alhamdulillah, oui ça va. Et les enfants vont bien, was machen sie? kulshi bi’chair?” – “Willst du mit Papa reden, er fragt wie’s euch geht”… (That was a typical phone conversation in our family, including at least 4 different languages).  

I am German, my husband is Berber. We live in Morocco and we have friends from all over the world, mashaallah – that means that five languages are constantly on the run here.

I am often asked how we raise our children and in which language we are talking here.  Aehm, in fact we are mostly talking our own mixture of German, Berber, French, Arabic and English, – but let’s see how it all began:   

When I met my husband we both talked French together; it was the easiest for both of us and until now we mostly communicate in that language. But soon he learned German and I learned Berber and a little Arabic and so we mix whatever comes easiest into our mind.

When our first son was born it was clear that both of us would talk to him in our mother tongue. So I talked German, hubby talked Berber (Tachelheït).
Although the first year we were still living in Germany, our son was already used to hear his father talking in a different language and he was also already used to hear us talking in a third language (French).
When we moved to the Atlas Mountains, the environmental language changed: We lived with my Berber in-laws and now I was the only one talking German with him. It wasn’t always easy for me to be consistent, but despite some feelings of separation or of being looked at, I managed to only talk in my native language with my son and alhamdulillah, he soon began to talk back in either German or Berber, depending with whom he spoke.
Subhanallah, he quickly found out which person means which language and he also found out that mum and dad are communicating together in another language.

When we moved in our own house, I became again the main contact-person for him and German was (and still is) the mainly-spoken and mastered language at home: most of our conversations and nearly all the books and films we have are in German. But because daddy still only speaks Berber with the kids and because we are living in that Berber community with family and friends around, they perfectly communicate in the local language as well, subhanallah.

As the children grow older, they sometimes use now their own unique language-mix as a secret remedy between them. And when we have French friends around, they easily switch into the language and already understand and use it. They do so with English as well, because there is no fear to pronounce new words or to try a new language – their brains curiously soak in everything new, subhanallah.
Sometimes our eldest even asks me to speak French with him, so he can learn more.
And with religious practice and also in school there is Arabic to be learned now as well…
… and maybe someday also some Italian, Spanish, Czech or other, inchaallah… 

Alhamdulillah, multilingual-child-raising works and I really want to encourage everyone to practice it, if living in a bilingual marriage or in a different culture!  

Children are able to learn from birth on two ore even more languages – and never will one learn a different language as quick as during these early childhood years.
The different languages in the life of a multicultural child are part of her identity and it is important to nurture each of them. Knowing different languages is a lifelong gift and there are so many benefits connected to it such as increased brain fitness and intelligence, openness for other cultures, a wider horizon and most importantly the ability to communicate with an extended family and the world around.

Out of our experience these are a few of the things you have to consider when practicing multilingualism:

–         Speak to your child in your own mother tongue from birth on, as feelings, thoughts and words will come out most naturally and most honest, and especially in difficult parenting situations you will feel much more confident when talking your own language.

–         Be consistent in doing so even if you are the only one speaking that language; don’t care about being an outsider, being looked at or having no one around who understands. Once your child speaks your language, you will feel blessed.

–         Don’t fear that your influence won’t be strong enough. As for example for a father who mostly works outside the home and does not see his child often – it still will work and the child will learn the fathers native language if he stays consistent in talking to her as often as he is available, making time for common experiences, play-time, storytelling or simple everyday-communication.

–         Be patient with your child’s speaking abilities, as a multilingual child maybe will begin to talk later than others kids. She first has to sort out all the words and meanings of the different languages in her head, but one day she will use them appropriate and speak each of them correctly, inchaallah – simply believe in your child’s ability.  

–         Stick with your own language at least until your child is four years old. It is important for the learning process that the child continuously knows who speaks which language. Only when you feel that the child is strong and able to communicate and express herself well in the language you are sharing with her, you may sometimes playfully switch into other languages as well, if you or your child feels so.

–         Use books, films, family visits and stories about your own background to strengthen your child’s connection with the culture and language.

Happy Weeks- and Years-end!
Masalama, ’Llah’oun, Salut und bis demnächst, inchaallah!


20 thoughts on “A Multilingual Life

  1. haha…we have 5 languages as well and I usually find them all in one sentence….your are right about sticking to your mothers tounge but Im afraid im guilty of mixing them all together as well….alhamdulillah even though its a bit confusing inshallah they will have a wide base and bigger choices of literature and communication with different places of the world…

  2. Bravo to you and your hubby for your perseverance!!!! Al-Humdulillah!You and your children are now reaping the benefits.!! Many of us give up to soon. Insha’allah your post will inspire others!!!JAK…… your language history was fun to read!!:)

  3. Assalamo alaikum,

    How truw mashAllah! In my psychology research we studied the effects of multi linguists on a child, and it has been shown that a child can learn up to seven languages simultaneously without any effort. Seemingly though this can only be fully achieved up until the age of seven, Allahu ‘alim.

    It’s wonderful to read about your experiences, mashaAllah very inspiring! Please tell us how the school is progressing.
    JazekAllah khair xxx

  4. Wow! I cannot imagine! What a fascinating way to raise children. How smart they will be! I think your children will have an advantage over others who only learn one language.

  5. Asalaamu Alaikum

    This is great. My kids can speak english and French but their dad doesn’t really teach them malay except a few words..its really a loss since they can’t really communicate with all their relatives when they go back with their dad. I believe children have a right to learn their father tongue as well as their mother tongue.

  6. MashAllah! Hopefully this will give me the little push i need to teach my kids my mother tongue: Spanish. I’ve been told once and again and I know myself that I’m depriving them of something priceless by not teaching them Spanish. InshAllah make dua that i put laziness aside and speak to them in my mother tongue…
    Thanks for sharing your experience and encouraging others to do the same :o)

  7. MashaAllah, very nice post. Thank you for continuing to share, it is very inspiring. Jazaka Allahu khayran.

  8. As salamu alikoum, liebe Schwester Itto,

    soubhanAllah, dein Beitrag trifft ja genau meinen momentanen “Nerv”. Ich würde so gern Tamazight/Tachelhit lernen, stehe aber vor dem nicht unerheblichen Problem, beim Sprachenlernen immer ein Buch als Stütze zu benötigen. Doch leider ist alles, was ich bisher auftreiben konnte – ausschließlich Publikationen des IRCAM – in Tifinagh geschrieben, was alle Masiren in meinem Umfeld nicht lesen können.
    InshaAllah kannst du mir weiterhelfen und mir ein Lehrbuch empfehlen, das gern in Französisch verfasst sein kann.

    JazakiLahu khayran

    Umm Abdoullah

  9. my daugher speaks three languages, and we have never been consistant in which ones we speak to her. That didn’t hurt her in anyway. She starting speaking very early, and is a real chatterbox. She speaks all three languages so well that people think she is older than she is. So I think that there is no one rule and all kids are different, and its best not to worry or think too much about these things, they all sort themselves out!

  10. Congratulations on your nomination as one of the Best of Morocco Blogs. We just want to remind you that the voting will begin at midnight on the 7th of January at http://www.moroccoblogs.com. Please make sure that our listing for your site is correct and encourage all of your fans to vote for you! You can get the Nominated badge by downloading it from MoroccoBlogs. Also, be sure to follow us on twitter and facebook at http://www.facebook.com/moroccoblogs and http://www.twitter.com/moroccoblogs

  11. just wow!!! i love reading your blog. i adore how you live your life. in your articles there is always such a positive kind of energy that gives hope .
    unfortunately my parents didnt care so much about teaching their mother tongues 😦

  12. Salaams Itto!

    What a wonderful thing – 5 languages in one home, MashaAllah!

    I grew up speaking one language (English), my son is growing up learning two, AlhamduLillah (english and some Arabic).

    I was wondering though, when it comes to reading and writing, in what language(s) do you teach your children? It could become a bit confusing when they’re learning numbers, colours etc.

    Fi Amanillah.

    P.S. You may not be familiar with me. I visit your blog occasionaly and comment rarely. Yet when I do visit my heart and mind always comes away refreshed, inspired and touched each time. May Allah bless you for sharing your ideas and photos in such a wonderful blog.

  13. It is absolutely wonderful to hear your enthusiasm, it gives big hope on our modern way of living mixed up as we all are: we are all locals and globals at the same time. Yet it is a question I keep asking myself. I was brought up with four languages and ended up learning three more (I had to stop myself at some point as it was becoming almost addictif, to travel, learn and absorb new sounds and cultures). Languages were very important to my parents and at home we mixed three all the time. It gave me of course a flair, a sense of curiousity and adaptability which many envy. Yet in my heart I felt a sense of insecurity, a sense of not belonging (or belonging everywhere and nowhere at the same time). With the years that passed I learned to accept and embrace my experience and I am passing it on to my son who will have pursue my journey. I cheerish the multilingual experience yet there is something admirable also of a deeply rooted child who masters and loves the language of his land, a sense of belonging which far away languaged and cultures can not give.

    PS: you do not know me but I read often your blog which was introduced to me by your friend Barbara. I live in France in the countryside and have a son. I am half German, half Spanish, brought up in Italy and lived in England for many years.

  14. oua alaikoum salam liebe schwester Umm Abdoullah,

    entschuldige bitte, dass ich mich erst heute melde auf deine frage bezüglich tachelhit-literatur.
    ich habe die sprache nur im alltag gelernt, da ich nie wirklich zeit und lust hatte aus dem buch zu lernen – vielleicht hat es mich deshalb mehr als fünf jahre gekostet, bis ich mich einigermassen verständigen konnte… ich hab noch nie eine so schwierige sprache kennen gelernt 😉
    naja, jedenfalls kann ich dir mit büchern auch nicht viel wieterhelfen ausser eines, dass ich teilweise ganz praktisch fand zum nachschlagen: von der Peace Corps organisation (sitz in Rabat), das habe ich von einer volontärin mal bekommen, es ist in englisch gecshrieben. nicht alle wörter stimmen, da die ja sowieso von region zu region anders sind, aber die grund-dinge sind ganz hilfreich.

    liebe grüsse und Allahs segen mit dir,

  15. salaam & bonjour!
    i am a regular follower of this website “multilingual living” and wanted to pass on this website to you. http://www.multilingualliving.com/
    I am thrilled at your multilingual experience, and inspired by your lifestyle!
    here in seattle we live in a english-french-farsi speaking household with 5 kids! i was really hesitant about pushing the languages until i realized it is absolutely healthy and positive! take care!

  16. Assalaamu alaikum 🙂

    I’ve been a silent reader for a while, but I am really interested in this topic! Do you have any book recommendations on this? I’d love to know 🙂

  17. My book recommendations are:
    1. Language Strategies For Bilingual Family: The one-parent-one-language Approach (Parents’ and Teachers’ Guides) by Suzanne Barron-Hauwaert

    2. Bilingual By Choice: Raising Kids in Two (or More!) Languages by Virginie Raguenaud

    3. Raising Multilingual Children: Foreign Language Acquisition and Children by Tracey Tokuhama-Espinosa

    I loved all three, and there are other books too that are great. This would be a great start in my opinion!

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