Interview with Emma: a Multilingual Adventure

This week in the expat interview series let me introduce you to Emma from Scotland who, together with her Hungarian-Romanian husband, raise their two children in Stuttgart.

Please tell me a little bit about your family.

I’m Scottish and my husband is a Hungarian from Romania. If that wasn’t complicated enough, we live in Stuttgart, Germany. Our daughter was born here at the end of 2012 and our son was born this summer.

How long have you lived in Germany? What brought you here?

I’ve lived in Germany since summer 2005. I studied German at university in Scotland and once I graduated I found a 3-month work experience placement as a translator and proofreader in Heidelberg. I moved here fully expecting to be staying for only 3 months but my contract kept being extended and I ended up in that job for 16 months in total. At around the time my contract finally finished, my boyfriend (now husband) finished his masters and found a job in Stuttgart, so it seemed natural to move to Stuttgart with him and look for a new job. Many years later we’re still here and I can’t say I’ve ever looked back.

graph_EmmaWhat languages do you use in your family?

Right from the start me and my husband spoke our own respective languages to our kids (English for me, Hungarian for him) – it was a no brainer. I’d feel like an idiot speaking anything but English to them. When it’s just the four of us me and my husband speak mostly English to each other and our own languages to the kids.

Since the kids are still very small they don’t talk to one another yet, but I can’t wait to find out what language(s) they’ll choose to speak to one another in. My daughter will probably decide this since she’s older. Once she starts to speak in full sentences she’ll probably start speaking to her wee brother even though he won’t be able to answer her yet, and I assume that once he does start to answer her, he’ll speak whatever language she’s chosen to speak to him in. Exciting stuff!

Since you and your husband speak your respective languages to the kids, what is your approach to having conversations together as a family?

We understand each other’s language which means that we can have a natural conversation in the two languages without anyone feeling left out and without any annoying breaks to translate or explain things. If I couldn’t understand what my husband was saying to the kids I’d get really frustrated and probably end up throwing a hissy fit and begging him to speak English all the time. Not particularly constructive. Not that my Hungarian is particularly wonderful – I’ll not be holding philosophical discussions about the meaning of life any time soon, but I can handle everyday stuff like “Have you done a poo?” and “Let’s go to the playground”.

The time we spend together as a family should be fun for all of us without pesky language barriers getting in the way. For us, speaking several languages is a normal part of everyday life that we do without even thinking. It just happens. That’s how it should be for our kids too. No extra “homework”, no “Now let’s sit down and practice the colours in English”. Just lots of playing and reading together so there are plenty of chances to hear and use their languages naturally. We’re not trying to “teach” them lots of languages as an experiment or so they’ll be able to get a better job in 20 years, it’s just the way things are.

Are you (or have you considered) sending your children to daycare in Germany? If yes, do you intend to look for international / multilingual offers or opt for the German language ones?

I went back to work when my daughter was 6 months old. She spent 24 hours a week with a childminder (Tagesmutter), who was Chinese but spoke very good German. I didn’t look for an English-speaking childminder because it was hard enough finding one at all. It would have been impossible to find an English native speaker I think.

My daughter has been going to daycare (KiTa) since June. It’s a normal German-speaking one, although they did have a Spanish work experience girl in last week and my daughter learned how to say “hola“. I put my daughter on the waiting list for a couple of places that offer English language exposure but I’m not going to switch her now if she suddenly gets a place there, since she’s finally settled in really well at her current place and her German is progressing really fast.

The definition of “bilingual” daycare seems to vary really widely too – from a place that has one native English speaking teacher in each group to another place (hugely expensive) where a German girl who spent a semester in South Africa comes in a couple of times a week for an hour or so and talks to the kids in English. Doesn’t sound particularly useful…

Do you expect to encounter any challenges or difficulties with passing on English and Hungarian while raising your children in a German speaking environment?

Yes and no. I wrote a whole post about it.

Do you feel support in your community for a multilingual upbringing of your children? (e.g., contacts with other multilingual families, support or understanding of your choices from your pediatrician, etc.)

Yes. Everyone I’ve talked to has been very supportive of our idea, especially because one of our languages is English. All the non-English-natives here say how much of an advantage it will be for my kids to be able to speak English as a native language. Nobody mentions Hungarian in that way though, since it has less “prestige” over here.

The only people who have been negative are my husband’s brother and his wife, but that’s partly down to the fact that their kids don’t speak Hungarian, which causes all sorts of problems within the family. They get very defensive about their decision but I still have a hard time understanding their reasons. They told us that our kids will never speak German properly if we teach them English and Hungarian too. I strongly disagree but I’m not going to rant about it here!

As your children will be growing up in Germany, do you wish that they form a strong belonging to Germany, and perhaps also an identification with it?

Part of belonging to Germany, at least where we live in Stuttgart, seems to be being multicultural and multilingual. There are a LOT of immigrants here from all over the place. In my daughter’s daycare group alone, which has 10 kids in it, there are twins with a Slovenian father, a boy with a Jamaican mother, and a boy whose parents are both Turkish. So half the kids in the group speak more than one language. I love that that’s completely normal here, it’ll make my kids feel less weird for not speaking German at home.

Of course my kids will develop an identification with Germany, but I’m not sure whether they’ll feel German, Scottish, Hungarian or a mixture of all of them. I once asked a girl I know (around 20 years old) who was born here in Germany but whose parents are both Hungarian, and she said it was impossible to answer the question. She didn’t know if she felt more Hungarian or more German.

Do you yourself feel integrated in the German society around you? If you can, please name a few things that were the most difficult and the easiest to adjust to.

I’ve always been integrated in German society to the extent that I speak fluent German, have a job, pay taxes, and don’t put a burden on the German state by taking welfare payments, but until I had kids I didn’t really feel integrated with the people. My friends were all Hungarians from the community here or British colleagues from my job as a translator. When my daughter was born I took her to a lot of mother and baby groups and made a lot of German friends there. Now I feel a lot more integrated.

I honestly can’t remember what I found it hard to adjust to here since I’ve been here so long (9 years). I feel more at home here than in Scotland sometimes, since I know how to be an adult here, whereas in Scotland I was a school kid or a student and I’ve never had a proper job there or any significant amount of money. Sometimes I feel out of place in Scotland and find it hard to adjust to being back. Especially the pace they drink at over there!

Finally, could you please share an anecdote or a funny story from your time in Germany?

Sometimes I find it hard to understand the logic of German idioms. When I was 17 I spent a semester as an exchange student in Schleswig Holstein, living with a host family. One morning I came downstairs to breakfast, still half asleep, and started getting the muesli box out the cupboard. My German host mum said “Die Milch ist alle.” (lit. “The milk is all.”). I thought “The milk’s all what? Weird woman.” and turned back to the cupboard to get the muesli. My host mum repeated her idiom again, and eventually had to explain more literally that there was no more milk. Since then I’ve had a healthy respect for German idioms and if I don’t understand one I ask, because there’s usually a reason why they’re saying it!


Emma blogs about her family’s multilingual and multicultural journey at Lingolised. I strongly suggest checking it out, especially if you are interested in raising kids trilingually, but be warned: clicking on a post may lead to clicking on another, and another and before you know it you will have subscribed to the blog! 😉

In case you missed it, check out also the other interviews in this series:

I am looking for more interviewees so if you are a foreigner living in Germany or know someone who is I would love to hear from you! Click here for more details.

One Reply to “Interview with Emma: a Multilingual Adventure”

  1. Such a great post!
    I sent you an email (super late, sorry)

    (catching up on previous posts)

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