Language update #2

Almost as soon as I publicly declared that I was going to avoid talking too much about the children on this blog, I found something I’m happy to share. I recently had conversations with both of them that got me thinking about a positive topic that interests me without being too personal: their growing language skills.  So here’s another update on our family’s experiences with the multilingual side of Luxembourg.

Our 6-year-old daughter is our family’s linguistic trailblazer.  She had the daunting task of starting school in Luxembourgish only a few weeks after we arrived here, and she has progressed enormously since my last update.  It’s been challenging for her at times, but with a bit of support (notably from her first teacher here, who spent a few minutes coaching her at the start of each school day) she was ‘muddling along’ by the end of her first full school year here.  Over the long summer holidays, despite speaking only English, she somehow seemed to take a great leap forward, and by the start of the new school year in September she was chatting fluently with non-English-speakers in her class, and involving me in Luxembourgish conversations that I struggle to keep up with.  Her current teacher tells me that she’s now caught up to the level expected of non-Luxembourgish children – and I’ve even heard her saying a few words of Luxembourgish in her sleep!

I had a rather surreal experience recently when we visited the library in town for the first time in months.  Reading Luxembourgish to our daughter previously involved quite a bit of translating and explaining, so when she picked up a rather wordy-looking book I initially resisted.  She insisted on trying it, so I ‘read’ her the blurb on the back, understanding very little but attempting to use Luxembourgish-sounding pronunciations.  I shook my head apologetically at the end – but then she explained what I’d just said!  I had a weird momentary glimpse of the ‘magical’ power of language and the written word, as meaning was successfully transmitted through me without requiring my understanding…

At 6, she has finally reached the year that reading and writing begins in earnest here – in German.  Learning to read in a foreign language creates some confusion: after she once used a German pronunciation when reading in English, it’s become a ‘hilarious’ family joke to rhyme “die” with “key” and declare dramatically, “The princess must die!”.  Learning German is made easier for her by how similar it is to Luxembourgish, but even so I’ve been amazed by how much she’s picked up already – I was very impressed when she brought her first reading book home from school and correctly read a few words.  I then burst out laughing when she declared sheepishly that she had guessed the last couple; it appears that her confidence in German has reached the point where she’s forgotten that for an English 6-year-old, precisely guessing “Kuchen backen” from looking at a picture is actually quite an achievement!

Meanwhile, our son, who turned 4 in November, has also started at Luxembourgish school. We haven’t heard him say much in Luxembourgish yet, but he’s clearly interested in the language and is starting to pick up a few key phrases – he responds appropriately to simple questions such as where something is or whether he needs to go to the toilet when I try asking him in Luxembourgish.  Perhaps in response to this habit of mine, he’s just started to issue Luxembourgish commands to me (e.g. “opmaachen!” when he wants a bag of toys opened).  Sitting in on a Luxembourgish-learning session that also included a little Chinese girl gave me a new perspective & I’d now say he’s had a pretty easy start: he’s definitely benefited from having a big sister who often uses Luxembourgish words and phrases at home, his teachers can all speak English, and at least there is some overlap between English and Luxembourgish…

And what about us parents?  My husband spends his working life in an English-speaking office, so hasn’t progressed much beyond using his schoolboy French to buy lunch or get a haircut.  I do try to keep up with the children, mainly by speaking to them in my version of ‘Luxembourgish’: words I’ve picked up from school vocabulary lists strung together with German sentence structures and fleshed out with guesses based on pronouncing German words in a Luxembourgish way. I’ve muddled through a few sessions of the excellent local language meetup (“Café Babel”) in this way, and I can now make myself understood when hosting playdates with non-English speaking children. My French remains rudimentary, but simple tasks like making an appointment have got easier, and in September I started a French-language yoga class in an attempt to push myself to the next level. I am finding it noticeably easier to understand the teacher’s instructions, but this hasn’t translated into finding the confidence to chat to French-speaking mums on the school playground – I somehow haven’t  found the right moment to ask them to stretch their right leg parallel to the floor, or repeat the same thing on the other side…

After my amateurish attempts in French and Luxembourgish, the rare occasions that I get to use the German I learned at school feel weirdly effortless. Aside from occasional chats with other parents and starting to enjoy a lovely book my husband bought for my birthday, my greatest recent achievements in German have been having my daughter’s school progress update meeting entirely in German, and being sufficiently persuasive on the phone to persuade our car insurance company to cancel a disputed invoice.  Despite these successes, I’m well aware that my second language is not as good as the 4th or 5th of many people here. Multilingual Luxembourg is an amazing place to live if you’re interested in languages, but it can be hard to commit to investing in learning one properly with so many competing for your attention!

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4 thoughts on “Language update #2

  1. Well done little ones! It so demonstrates the ease at which children learn languages that we quickly lose. I’m still very intrigued to hear Luxembourgish!!

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  2. Wow! I impressed myself at the weekend when I translated a first language French woman’s phone number to English and managed to translate to two girls who did not have to take a language at GCSE the concept of a parliamentary rugby team taking on a top club team! It also seems that Raven has finally accepted my insistence that she takes French further and doesn’t give it up at the end of this year. I’m not sure that her Korean is that good, learning from Korean boy band pop songs!

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