As I walk into the playroom I find my two favorite dudes and all their Playmobil dudes hanging out in a city built with blocks and boxes. The firefighters are to the left and the police officers to the right, some knights mixed with pirates and Vikings are gathered by a box. This box is the knights’ “Castello” I am informed – a newly learned Italian word (meaning “castle”) from playschool earlier in the day. I am given the grand tour of this city; part of the tour is in German, the part about firefighters and Vikings. On the next part of the tour, I am told all about the wonders of an elaborate trap that was built by the guards and the gold the pirates can search for on the island. The thing is, this second part was all in English, but I hadn’t quite noticed until my three year old stumbled a bit on remembering the word for “trap”. Although I speak primarily in English to the boys, they know I know German fluently –so they could talk to me about their city in German. Why did they switch languages mid tour? My guess is that they did what I think of as “flipping the language switch.”
It’s fascinating to me, having grown up bilingual myself, I remember “flipping the switch” as a young child, although I do not remember being proficient at it like my boys are now. I can remember, for example, my grandmother speaking Portuguese to me, understanding her but not finding the switch fast enough so I didn’t have the right words to answer. Pretty soon, I would know exactly what I wanted to say but the moment had passed. It was frustrating and, sometimes I wondered if that weird feeling of being stuck in one language would ever pass, and then it did, I don’t remember how old I was but it did.
Anyways, this switch seems to be easier for my two sons. They spend almost equal amounts of the day speaking German and English. We read a lot in both languages and then, aside from the day- to-day stuff, we play games and sing songs in both languages as well. Although I hardly (read never) speak Portuguese to them for day-to-day stuff, we enjoy reading stories and singing many Portuguese songs. Add to this mix the fact that we recently moved to the Italian speaking region of Switzerland – we are now learning Italian. Talk about needing to flip that switch often!
I know there are theories and recommendations on how to best foster bi-lingualism (or multilingualism), like “one parent, one language” or situation based language assignments. Like most things “parenting” I am trying to keep a flexible attitude towards this whole language thing and do what is working for us. Initially I did worry that the need to constantly flip the switch could make the boys uncomfortable or feel stuck as I sometimes did, but then I remind myself of the richness of this experience and really so far it seems to be working just fine.
Whenever I have doubts I just have to remember that the switch seems to get flipped pretty fast when the boys really want something and I say no to their English request so they then ask in German. Then of course, for sheer silliness, they love to mix it all up and I admit it is hard to say no when being buttered up in a multilingual sort of way “Bitte mama, please and por favor, can we?”