The European Mama: A secret language just for parents
Can parents really have a secret language from their children, or is it too good to be true?
When I was a child, my parents had a secret language. Whenever they didn't want us to understand their communication, they spoke French. Whenever 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 contact stopped a few years after we stopped going to France.
However, French was always present in our household. My father listened to the news and read books in French, besides the 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 any more.
Now it turns out that history really likes repeating itself. Klara has arrived at the point where she listens to our conversations and asks, "Mummy, what did you say?" I often find myself translating our conversations, from adult German to children's Polish.
Once 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!". Now, 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!
Olga moved to the Netherlands in 2009 with a 6-week-old baby to be with her German husband. She is now mum to two trilingual daughters and expecting her third child very soon. She is a translator, and trainer in intercultural communication. She blogs about her experiences on The European Mama, which focuses on expat life and raising trilingual children. It won the Expat Blog Award in 2012 and continues to gain readership from all over the world. You can find her on Facebook and Twitter.
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