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Friday, 24 February 2012

Multilingualism and power struggles



For every family, there comes a time when the children show a preference for one parent. At the same age, the children want to make it clear that they have opinions of their own. Those two phases can manifest in different ways. The preference for one parent becomes visible if the child chooses only one parent for attention and hugs. The other parent is then being ignored for a while. Then, the roles change.

Children can express their opinions in many different ways as well. For example, they suddenly refuse to eat certain things. or they want to wear a certain dress to daycare and wouldn't be persuaded otherwise. Or they want certain things prepared in a certain way. 

Multilingual children have another way to show their preference for one parent or to give voice to their opinions: language. Did your child start saying "Neee" to you, instead of your usual language? Children are clever, and they know they can use the majority language to their advantage, especially if the parents don't speak it. It seems those children feel that the majority language (in our case, Dutch),  is something that belongs to them, and to them alone.

I think this is the motivation behind Ka's behaviour when she is preferring my husband. She shows me a pig, and says, in German: "Schwein!" I tell her: "Yes, Klara. Papa says Schwein, and mama says Ĺ›winia". Klara then looks at me, and announces with great pride: „Klara Schwein!” by which she means: „Klara says Schwein”. Right now, to her, daddy's language is  the cooler one.

To manage this, a great deal of patience, and diplomacy is needed. First, we have to understand that children of 2 years of age can do so many things: they can walk, and run, and explore! But they're not allowed to do everything they want to, and not being able to decide for themselves is extremely frustrating for them.


There are countless rules that a child cannot understand because to him or her, they make no sense. And so the child starts to think that everything is forbidden. And they have to vent their frustration somehow. If they want to get back at their parents, any thing will do. Even what the parents hold sacred because it's a part of their identity: their language. 

The way the OPOL method works is that one language is assigned to one parent. But what happens if the parent is currently out of favor? Most likely, so will his or her language. On the other hand, this is one of upsides of this method because a good relationship with the parents can lead to a positive relationship with their language(s). 

If you are currently the parent that fell from grace, maybe it can help to realize that this is a phase. You will soon be "mommy" or "daddy" again. You will be cool again. In such moments, I keep reminding myself that K. will speak Polish again at some point. 

Secondly, it's a good thing to always speak in positive terms about the majority language (in our case, Dutch), and to learn to speak it. That way, the child sees that they can't really use the language against his or her  parents, because the parents accept and respect the majority language which will sooner or later become a part of the child's identity.


I noticed this funny thing - that Klara not only preferred her daddy, but also his language - a while ago, and decided to write  a post about it. However, none of my clever books mentions this. Maybe I am over-interpreting things? Or maybe she was just working on her German, and needed her daddy for more input? I can now see, a few months later, that I had been very upset about this, but I am not anymore. But please let me know, if you have similar experiences!



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