September 5, 2011

Angela and I: Spanish or English?

I originally posted this article to my Sitzman ABC blog, but I thought some Sitzblog readers might be interested, too. If you are, check it out:

Language Use in Bilingual Couples and Families


My wife Angela and I. Or should I say, "Mi esposa Ángela y yo"?
Or even, "Meine Frau Angela und ich"?

As you may know, I'm from the USA, so my native language is English. I'm married to a Costa Rican named Angela, and her native language is obviously Spanish. One question that people ask us a lot is "What language do you speak at home?" The answer is that we alternate between the two languages, but sometimes people are surprised at how infrequently we switch languages: once a year.

That's right, every August 25th (the way we chose that date is a more complicated story) we change languages. So about two weeks ago, we ended an English year and started a Spanish year. There are some advantages and some disadvantages to this approach.

I've heard of some couples or families that switch between languages every month, week, or even every day, but I think that would be a bit too confusing. The way we do it, once you start a new language year, it's very unlikely that you'll forget which language you're supposed to speak. As a result, one person can really work on building up his or her fluency. You can also avoid falling into a "Spanglish" trap wherein you speak a mixture of two languages, which can be confusing for you or some onlookers (or in this case "onlisteners," I guess).

There are also some disadvantages. In the case of Angela and I, we usually prefer to not speak our native language. In other words, I prefer our Spanish years, and Angela prefers our English years since we both want to practice a language that's foreign to us. With this approach, one of us has to go for most of a year with little practice in the target language. We do still speak English with my friends and family and Spanish with Angela's. Also, while living in Costa Rica many daily interactions out of home are in Spanish, but we both speak mostly English at work, so at least there's always some practice of both languages.

One big question mark for the future is what we'll do if we have kids. As I noted in my articles about naming customs (USA here and Costa Rica here), we don't even know what last names our kids would have, and we're also unsure how to best raise a bilingual child. I've heard that it's best if each parent always speaks his or her native language with the children so the children don't mix up the two languages. But if we had a kid and it were a Spanish year, for example, it would maybe be weird for me to speak English with the kid and Spanish with Angela, all in the same conversation. I guess we'll cross that bridge if/when we come to it.

What about you? Are you in a bilingual or multilingual family or relationship? Do you know anyone who is? How do you handle it, or how would you handle it if you were? Wow, we have a great opportunity here to practice conditional tenses! 

Thanks for reading, and have a great day!

We're still not sure if our kids will prefer Spanish or English, but at least we can
rest assured that they'll grow up with camouflage skirts and Iron Maiden music. 


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6 comments:

Mr Arttico said...

Hi Ryan,

In our case Paola and I speak Spanish to each other and sometimes English. With our girls Hannah and Sarah we try to talk to them in English since they will ended up learning Spanish from our families. We have noticed that Hannah can understand English very well but it is hard for her to speak it, also she mix words in the sentences and use the easy one while she does, I guess its easier to say Shoes than zapatos, any way, we believe it will be a good opportunity for the girls to be introduced in a new language at the early age.

Anonymous said...

Hi Ryan,

when Jens was a baby I spoke Swedish to him most of the time. That went on until he was 6 and started school. Hen then dediced we had to speak German in Germany and Swedish in Sweden. We have never had any special days, weeks or months for speaking any of the languages. the children never had difficulties to change from one language to the other. At home Swedish or German and at school and with friends German.We had quite a fex foreign students when Maria was a little girl so we spoke a lot of English as well. No problem. When I was reading to the children it was either German or Swedish. Heinz prefered to read German books. Just speak what you feel like and your future kids will easily learn both languages. Both or our kids did without difficulty.
Ha det så bra
Maj

Sitzman said...

Hi Juan and Maj!

Thanks to you both for your comments!

Juan, did you guys speak English together while living in New York?

Maj, thanks for your comment, too! Both Jens and Maria are very talented with languages, and I'm pretty sure Jens speaks better English than I do --maybe it's just his British accent, though! So do you and Heinz do the same thing (German in Germany, Swedish in Sweden)?

Now that Angela and I have figured out what languages we'll speak with each other, I guess we just have to have some kids now!

Ryan

Mr Arttico said...

Yes, but Spanish most of the time. Babies and kids are like blanks hard drives, you can upload it with any information and they can handle it in the best way they can.

Barbara said...

Hi Ryan,

Brian and I speak mostly in German when we're in Germany and English in the US.
But when I tell Brian about a phone call with my parents, for example, I tend to tell him in German because it just feels more natural.

We've been talking about what to do when we have kids. We'll probably try the "minority language at home" approach, because otherwise I fear that that language would get lost in the shuffle.

Barbara

Sitzman said...

Hi Barbara!

Thanks for your comment. That way seems pretty natural and smart, although I don't know if it would work for us (Angela would probably be sad she if she could only practice English a few weeks a year)...

How are you guys, anyhow? I was just thinking of you both the other day, and hope things are well. Hopefully you can meet Angela, and vice-versa, someday soon!

Take care,
Ryan