When I was a child, my parents had a secret language. Wherever they didn’t want us to understand their communication, they spoke French. Wherever they spoke this language, I pretty much knew we were in trouble- or, on the contrary, we were in for a nice surprise, even though I didn’t really understand the language.
My family has strong ties with France, with my grandparents, uncle and two cousins living there. We used to go there for vacation, and my cousins only spoke French. I remember communicating with them in French as a child. However, our contacts stopped after a few years, and we didn’t go to France anymore.
However, French was always present in our household. My father listened to the news in French, read books in this language and then there was this tradition of French as my parents’ secret language. It worked very well for a few years. While I knew that it was something about us (or else they wouldn’t speak a language we didn’t understand), I didn’t really understand the words. Maybe I was too busy with German and later English? I don’t know.
What I know is that suddenly something in my head went “click”, and I was able to understand what my parents were saying in French. When I told them that, my parents were surprised, and briefly considered learning another language that would have nothing to do with the languages I already knew-for example Hebrew.
They decided not to after I told them that I would learn it much quicker than they would, and I was probably right. My parents then continued using French out of habit. Since I was an adult already, it didn’t really matter whether I understood the conversation.
Now, only yesterday it turned out that history really likes repeating itself. Klara has arrived at the point where she listens to our conversations. She asks “Mommy, what did you say?” I often find myself translating our conversations, from adult German to children’s Polish.
Yesterday, we wanted to go to the zoo, and we wanted it to be a surprise for Klara. My husband said to me, in English: “We can go to the zoo if you’re fit enough.”I replied, in the same language: “Yes, I’d love to go to the zoo!” Klara looked at us and said: “Oh, we’re going to the zoo!”. Mind you, the word “zoo” is pronounced in a totally different way in English, Polish and German, so it couldn’t have been that. It’s the first time we spoke something else but German with each other, and this could have been just a coincidence, but maybe not?
We have many expat friends and our children listen to a lot of English. I think that contrary to what the books say, children may not react to the language spoken by their parents, but it may be “saved” somewhere in their heads, helping the children to learn the language later on.
The truth is that we parents can forget about having a secret language just for the us… our children will learn it anyway!