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Friday, February 10th, 2012

The Power of Culture in Raising Multilingual Kids

Image: / flickr - Kodomut

TV and Other Cultural References

Through use of technology it is fairly easy for us to expose our children to all kinds of languages and cultures. Need proof? My daughters recognise the title song of a TV show called “Wickie und die starken Männer” even though we live in the UK where it will never air.

I used to watch “Wickie” (“Vicky the Viking”) when I was a kid. It is one of the few shows I remember, along with “Biene Maja” (“Maya the Honey Bee”) and of course “Sesamstraße” (“Sesame Street”). I watched these shows because when I grew up, they were the only ones around. No worries, I’m not going to go on about the good old times or anything. My point is that had my parents been expats, it would have been very hard for them to get access to any non-German TV shows or even films.

I don’t think TV is the most important cultural achievement of humankind, far from it. But nobody can deny that it is influential. For at least two generations, it has been part of our socialisation. I can easily pick out people in my age group by finding out who the resident humans in “Sesamstraße” were when they were watching (Lilo & Henning, in case you’re asking me).

There are also books, of course. I can easily buy English, French or American books on Amazon these days. Twenty years ago, I went to bookstores and they ordered them for me, which worked ok, but I was relying on some other sources to even find out what I wanted to order.

It’s clearly easier these days to get materials in about any language, so the question is: chicken or egg? Is it now easier to be an expat? Or do we have more resources because there are more expats?

Creativity with Language

A lot of people would call it “mixing languages” and they might even worry about it, but I love it when my three-year-old takes English words and modifies them so they fit into a German, French or Arabic sentence grammatically.

I am German and we like making words by stringing shorter words together. My feeling is that with the level of creativity my daughters show even now, they will be great at coming up with German words! The most important part is of course their ability to read in four languages and two totally different alphabets, something I envy them for. I might eventually be able to decipher Arabic, but don’t hold your breath.

When my daughters meet their cousin in Germany, they have the most hilarious conversations. Often, their cousin will smile or laugh about the way they say things. And then she borrows some of their expressions, creating something special between them.


Music is the art form (or entertainment) that has the most impact on my feelings. It can make me happier, give me energy, cool me down or sustain sadness. I can not fully explain what it does to me, to be honest. Different music fits different situations, of course.

Music has always been fairly international. I used to listen to English music on the radio a lot when I was young, later I listened to music from France and these days I’m having trouble knowing where something comes from. All kinds of styles have crossed over and created a lot of different, interesting blends.

Those of us who are non-native English speakers might remember how as teenagers we were singing along with English music not having the faintest idea what we were singing. Sometimes this can be hilarious (there are videos on YouTube about the phenomenon), sometimes even slightly inappropriate.

When I started to understand French songs I was surprised: knowing what they were about added a new dimension to my listening pleasure. Same for English music. Now my kids will be able to listen to music in Arabic, English, French and German and understand it! Isn’t that great?


Books have a similar impact as music on me, only it takes longer to immerse myself in the experience. One might almost say books are a four-course menu for the soul and music is the candy bar. What I wrote about TV, films and music applies here as well, especially because often the more obscure and specific nuances and references of written language get lost in translation.

It is very dear to me that my daughters will be able to read books like Onkel Florians Fliegender Flohmarkt by German author Paul Maar. You might have gathered that mastery of language is something I value very highly–I am only really comfortable writing in German, which makes German a special language for me. Onkel Florians Fliegender Flohmarkt is a book that plays with and bends German around and is great for kids from ages seven or eight up. I absolutely loved it when I was small. I recommend the book for anyone who can read German.

© 2012, Jan Petersen. All rights reserved.

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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.

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