Helen or Hélène. The actual quote that touched me is "few language users are poets.""/> InCultureParent | How Francois Grosjean Broke My Multilingual Heart

Pin It
Wednesday, November 2nd, 2011

How Francois Grosjean Broke My Multilingual Heart

By

Francois Grosjean broke my heart with an article he wrote recently, “Helen or Hélène.”

The actual quote that touched me was not from him but from Uriel Weinreich, who was a language researcher in the U.S. It goes “few language users are poets.”

The idea is that if you are multilingual, you are trying to be more efficient with your communication. Based on whom you are communicating with, situation or other factors, you will use whatever language best gets your point across. Kind of a real-life example of “function over form.”

Hm… so what if you are writing for a blog? Or if back in the days when you were monolingual, you really appreciated beautifully crafted text? Is it possible that because you are now multilingual, your ability to communicate with style has actually suffered? Is your head so full of languages that you are not able to excel in any of them? That is quite a frustrating thought. And it touches a deep-lying fear that I didn’t even know I had!

Observations

Thinking about it now, I did worry about my German in the recent past. The two issues I saw were code-switching (or rather failure not to) and situations where I used slightly inappropriate language.

When I am speaking with Germans, I often find myself using words borrowed from English and French. I am sure this annoys the heck out of them and makes me sound like a pretentious idiot, but I can’t help it–it’s how I speak now.

Most multilinguals code-switch in their daily life. As Francois Grosjean points out, one reason is that we pick up language for new life circumstances as we live through them. I never needed to learn language describing all aspects of being a parent while I was in Germany. And my vocabulary around buying a house is entirely English because we bought a house in the U.K.

To aggravate things, we do not speak a common language at home. While I speak German with my daughters and some colleagues, my communication is dominated by French and English (not sure which one is more present, actually). Plus, I basically code-switch all the time, because most people around me do understand and it just is more efficient.

I’m afraid I have very little motivation currently to develop any of my languages. This strikes me as a terrible thing! I used to love language and playing with it. I used to be a snob about it, to be honest. I used to have a fairly good active vocabulary. My mother used to run a bookshop and I read pretty much everything she brought home. I rarely had to look up grammar and I conservatively decided to stick with the old rules when Germany adopted new spelling and grammar rules in 2006. Yeah, that snob.

These days I find myself in business meetings rummaging through memory in search of the appropriate thing to say. I often feel I am lacking a certain finesse. I have at times said completely inappropriate things because I just couldn’t remember a sophisticated way of saying what I had to say.

It’s not bad news, of course. I didn’t actually lose anything. I merely shifted my attention to foreign languages. What I lack in refinement in German, I can easily make up for with an eclectic English vocabulary. Every German word lost, I replaced with a French or an English term, sometimes both.

So can I get my German back?

I think I can. It will involve reading more German books and more importantly using my German more often. I have to write more too, I suppose. And the more I write, the better I’ll be at it. Nothing beats experience.

You can read Francois Grosjean’s response to this article here: www.incultureparent.com/2012/01/francois-grosjean-responds-cherishing-the-multilingual-heart-not-breaking-it/

© 2011 – 2013, Jan Petersen. All rights reserved.

More Great Stuff You'll Love:


An Islamic Perspective on Child-Rearing and Discipline

Does Islam's reputation for severity and harshness apply to how Muslims raise children?

6 Favorite Children’s Books about Ramadan

Our top picks for Muslim and non-Muslim kids alike

Almost African: My Childhood as a Serbo-Croatian in Sudan

The freedom of growing up as the only Serbo-Croatian in Sudan

Breastfeeding Around the World

In photos and figures

ABOUT THE AUTHOR


Jan, who is German, works mainly from home as a software engineer. His wife, who is Algerian, stays at home to look after their three girls aged 7, 4 and 1. They live in the U.K. and are raising their children multilingual in Arabic, French, German and English.

Leave us a comment!

1 Comment
  1. CommentsFrançois Grosjean Responds: Cherishing the Multilingual Heart….Not Breaking It | InCultureParent   |  Sunday, 29 January 2012 at 5:25 pm

    […] the end of last year, the title of a post by Jan Petersen on InCultureParent caught my attention: “How Francois Grosjean Broke My Multilingual Heart.” I was troubled at first as I have defended bi- and multilinguals most of my academic life, […]









Notify me of follow-up comments via e-mail.
Or leave your email address and click here to receive email notifications of new comments without leaving a comment yourself.

Get weekly updates right in your inbox so you don't miss out!



Why I Travel 13 Hours Alone with My Kids Every Chance I Get

Travelling with children, while definitely more of a mission, contradicts the old saying that “life is about the journey, not the destination.”

A Diverse Book for Preschoolers in Celebration of Multicultural Children's Book Day

A book that honestly and simply celebrates the every day diversity that children experience.

Why My African Feminist Mother Gave Me the Identity of My Father's Tribe

She gave me an identity so different from her own.

2 Children’s Books about Jamaica

Explore Jamaica with your child.

Costa Rica with Kids: Two Weeks of Family Travel

Two weeks of Pura Vida in a country with so much to offer families.

Should I Worry about My Child's Accent in Her Foreign Language?

See why Dr. Gupta takes offense to this question and where children learn accents from

How to raise trilingual kids when exposure to Dad's language is limited

My kids only get 1-2 hours of the minority language per day-help!

What Cultural Norms Around Bare Feet Taught This Mother in Guatemala

Her baby's bare feet ended up being a lesson on poverty and privilege.
Hi Kim! I am so glad that this article was useful for you and made you feel validated as a parent. It's not often in this judgmental world of parenting we get that, right?! That's the main reason...
From The West’s Strange Relationship to Babies and Sleep
I love reading your work. I can olny imagine what it would be like to have such beautiful customs and true community. I understand why it is so very very important to keep these traditions alive. Be...
From No Kids Allowed: How Kenyan Weddings are Changing
Your mother in-law seems somewhat reasonable. Many Chinese Mother In-laws are not. In their scenario, they would be number 1 to the child and you would be number two. Many want to have a bond closer...
From How My Chinese Mother-in-Law Replaced my Husband
I think Konstantina is actually responding to what is probably more familiar/praised/or preferred socially as well. I was an English teacher in Poland with a distinct accent. I struggled to get Engl...
From Should I Worry about My Child’s Accent in Her Foreign Language?
Noor Kids' title "First Time Fasting" is another great rea...
From 6 Favorite Children’s Books about Ramadan
This article was shared in a community I run to connect globetrotting parents and everyone LOVED it. You should join us! We all relate to your experience. Many of us, including me, are in the same b...
From Why I Travel 13 Hours Alone with My Kids Every Chance I Get
Please help: I Love my wife and my son. I am also EXTREMELY involved as a dad. I had to move to china ( in a tiny tiny town) where I am the only foreigner so that my wife can take over the family bu...
From How My Chinese Mother-in-Law Replaced my Husband
Thanks for writing this!! My baby is 7 months, and I love having her sleep in my room. I don't mention it too often to people who have had kids because they seem a little judgy on it. So tonight I...
From The West’s Strange Relationship to Babies and Sleep
Honestly, it looks like the author married into a very backward and old fashioned family. Not stimulating children's curiosity, differences between boys and girls, and women slaving in the house, wh...
From French versus Italian Parenting in One Multicultural Family

More from Our Bloggers