bilingual parenting: anne {norwegian and english}

Name: Anne G. Sabo
Number of children and ages: Lilly, 4 ½
The languages your family uses: Norwegian and English

What motivated you to raise your child(ren) bilingually: 

I am native Norwegian and language has always meant a lot to me. With a Ph.D. in comparative literature, I served as an academic for ten years teaching courses in among others Norwegian language and literature. I could really see how exposing students to a new language opened them to a different way of thinking — a new mindset with a broader perspective. Norwegian values of democracy, gender equality, and social welfare are a good counterbalance to the politics of life in the US.

How does the bilingualism work in your family?   

My husband, who is born and grew up here in the US, took a year of Norwegian at the college I taught before Lilly was born. We had decided to speak only Norwegian in the house and when we were with our child after she was born. As it turns out, it ended up being a bit awkward switching the language of our home and life so suddenly from English to Norwegian. What really helped us was the fact that we’d planned on living in Norway that first year of Lilly’s life. Not knowing I was pregnant, I had applied for a leave to write my After Pornified book at the Centre for Gender Studies at the University of Oslo where my husband would pursue an International Master’s Degree in Ibsen Studies. So when Lilly was 6 weeks, we moved to Oslo for a year. Living in Norway made speaking Norwegian completely natural.

What are some of the challenges you’ve encountered?

My husband’s language was perhaps at the intermediate level at its best, which made it challenging to have more complex conversations. With limited time to talk, combined with the distractions and busyness of taking care of a child, we would sometimes revert to English to get something conveyed as quickly and efficiently as possibly. Eventually that first year we made a vow to not speak any English until she was in bed, and we were sort of able to stick to that.

I do remember after we’d moved back to the US and she was one that I would sometimes feel self-conscious speaking Norwegian with Lilly when we were at play-dates or in children’s classes at the library, but that passed fairly quickly. I recall early on asking a few fellow moms and dads if they felt excluded by my speaking Norwegian with Lilly when I was with them and they all just reassured me that they were so impressed by my sticking with our bilingualism. And that was encouraging to me.

Lilly has primarily been with me unless she was with her dad until she started preschool in the morning when she was three. Being exposed to other kids and especially older girls that she looked up to, brought a different kind of challenge. English became the “cool” language she wanted to speak. I remember spending a lot of energy that first fall encouraging her to repeat what she said in Norwegian and myself insisting on only speaking with her in Norwegian.

Lilly developing her English language more since beginning pre-school has of course also been a good thing. After preschool she’ll do a lot of role-play in English processing her day at school and a language other than the one she’s exposed to the most. At 4 ½ she’s very aware of the differences between the two different languages and who speaks which language when and what the different words are in the two languages for the same thing. She’ll sometimes throw in some English words in her Norwegian and we need to continually work on that. And her dad and I need to work on not reverting to English when we want to get something out of the way quickly while she’s around.

I remember as a college professor having several students with Norwegian heritage who’d grown up speaking some Norwegian but then forgotten most of it as English took center stage. Many of these students expressed regret not having made more of an effort to keep their Norwegian language alive. I want to do my best to help Lilly not get to a place where she experiences those kinds of feelings of regret too.

What have been some of the rewards of raising a bilingual child?

That she has access to more than one way of approaching the world. Language represents a way of defining and navigating our life and surroundings and having access to more than one way of doing that is a huge asset. The fact that she can claim ownership to two languages and two cultural heritages has given her a sense of open-mindedness and respect for diversity around her; that there are more people than her who speak a different language and who live their life differently than the mainstream. I like that she can point that out when she hears or sees it. And it’s been great to see her interact with others in Norwegian, both here in the US (we know a few who either are Norwegian or speak the language) and in Norway. And the literary tradition! I love reading books and sing songs to her in my native language; stories and songs I myself grew up with.

What role does your extended family play in your decision and ability to raise a bilingual child?

Not much. I am not close with my parents or extended family in Norway. But Norway will always remain a home, just as the US has been a home for me half my life by now.

At first I got a sense from extended family on my husband’s side that they weren’t so thrilled by my speaking Norwegian with Lilly when they came out to visit since we don’t get together that often (they live out of state), but that sort of passed. I think once they realized I wouldn’t cramp my style to please them, they just sort of had to let it go.

What resources have you found useful?

Essentially using the language together, talking, reading, writing, singing. Having books in Norwegian has been great.

What are some of your long-term goals?

To return to Norway for an extended time to really ensure she gets a strong grasp of the language and a real feel for the Norwegian culture.

What advice would you give a new parent starting the process?

If you can’t live in the country of the other language at least for a limited amount of time, surround yourself as much as possible with the other language through music, television shows, movies, books, chat rooms, coffee with others who speak the other language, etc.

And drop any self-consciousness speaking a different language around others. It’s not rude. Your parenting job is not to please others; it’s to follow your heart and beliefs about what’s best for your child and you.

 **

Thank you, Anne, for this thoughtful and inspiring account of how you’ve made Norwegian a priority in your household. You can find more of Anne’s writing on her blog, Love, Sex, & Family, “ a resource site devoted to progressive human sexuality information.”

You can also find more profiles of multilingual families on our bilingualism page. Would you like to contribute to the series? Are you raising your child(ren) in more than one language and as part of more than one culture? Contact me for details!

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{Bikes, a new baby, and the story of us.}
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2 Responses to bilingual parenting: anne {norwegian and english}

  1. Ezra says:

    I really love this post and I think if you can teach your child more than one language when they’re young its a great idea! My father is a Dominican immigrant and unfortunately for whatever reason we never spoke Spanish at home so I picked up very little. Now I work hard on learning Spanish on my own, something that could have been second nature to me.

    Also my younger brother who is just over 3 years old now, can already understand a good amount of English and Polish(his mother is Polish) and I’m sure through my father he’ll be learning some Spanish as well. It seems that he can differentiate between the languages well, and his mother has a Polish speaking baby sitter to help encourage him to learn which I think is great.

    Bi and Multi-lingualism all the way!

  2. Mama Bicycle says:

    Name: Shuichi :)
    Number of children and ages: Mana, 8 Mao 4
    The languages your family uses: Japanese only but a little bit English
    Honestly, I am not planning to raise my daughters in such a wonderful situation. But the way to move to a second language country is wonderful! Such an action is worth hearing. I am just a parent and I am an English learner. I could tell you a beneficial tool for your second language. Lang-8 (http://lang-8.com/) is one of the helpful opportunities, I suppose. The registered member of this website is over 500 thousands from around the world. It enables us to communicate with many people from other nations while correcting and writing entries. My home page is here; http://lang-8.com/166338, . I guess you may not be interested in Japanese. But sure that I will correct your Japanese entries if you join this website. Somebody will also correct your Norwegian posts there!

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