When people from two different countries get together, the question of where to live is not always as straightforward as it might otherwise be. The scales can tip as one person carries on as normal, while the other may feel like they are climbing a mountain just to reach where they already were, before they got on a plane to follow their heart.
The Norwegian and me chose Australia, a new country for both of us. The only flaw in the plan was the distance from origin. When Switzerland presented itself an as option, it seemed like it could be the perfect country, neutral in every sense.
Three small fellow passengers brought a new dimension to things. School days memories were already being etched, of best friends, and a yellow uniform, and possums in the playground. The idea of replacing this with the unknown was a little daunting.
International school seemed the kindest option, but the reality was a choice between that or having somewhere to live. Holding onto the positives about the cognitive benefits of being bilingual, we decided to send our English speakers to the local Swiss school.
People have commented many times since we moved about how easy it is for children to pick up a new language. Like many things, there are different ways to reach the same destination. To learn a language through immersion, even with additional language classes, is to get thrown in at the deep end. To say that it is easy is almost to undermine their efforts.
I stopped German classes after a year, too hard, the Norwegian too, work commitments. They felt like genuine reasons at the time, but it was humbling to look at the kids, who never questioned why we gave up when they couldn’t.
I was reassured by claims that children can learn a language within a couple of months. Our reality was more like a year, a long time for a child not to be able to interact with the world around them.
But now we have reached the point we were aiming for, and it’s bittersweet, because the children now speak a language we don’t understand, and with language comes cultural identity and belonging.
People will speak German to my child, before turning to me and talking in English. I find it strange that other people know a side of my children that I will never know.
There is no illusion at our place that the adults are more knowledgeable than the kids. You loose that once they’ve seen you struggle to buy a stamp, and when they know that year one homework is beyond your capabilities.
Our family language is English, but when their friends come over they speak German. Once, when even the Furby joined in, I had to shake off the feeling that I was an outsider in my own family.
As to whether they’ve been given a gift by learning a new language, that’s not for me to say just yet. I don’t know what memories will stay with them and if they will remember when their very foundations were shaken. That is their experience, one that only they can fully understand, and their story to tell.