Problems with multilingualism

Karina is from Prague and spoke Czech in her family growing up. She attended high school in Frankfurt and speaks accent-free German. She now lives in Vienna and she and her husband are raising their children bilingual – Czech and German.  She spent her junior high school year in Maine and speaks almost perfect English. She can switch from one language to another smoothly. She can also speak Russian and Polish, but at a lower level of fluency.

A multilingual dream, right?

She has a doctorate and is a consultant and public speaker, but would like to write articles and perhaps a book to support her career, but does not feel confident writing in any language.  Her father proofreads her Czech writing projects, and her husband proofreads her German writing projects.

There could be no better example of the gulf between spoken and written language. This gulf is obvious to a professor of writing like me. Conversational intrusion is common in the essays of my students, most of whom are just emerging from high school.  Examples: “It was, like, really really confusing,” or “We had an awesome time at the party.”  (“Awesome” in this case is slang and has no standalone meaning.)

Karina’s situation also illustrates the importance of having a true “native language.”  I feel the profound satisfaction of being at “home” after immersing myself in other cultures. Yes, I delight in expressing myself quite fluently in French, but coming home, I can mumble, “awesome” and everyone will understand me. There is no place like home.

Karina and her husband are raising their children bi-lingual in Czech and German, and have recently sent their 10 year old son to England for a two-week immersion course so that he will be able to attend the English-speaking school in their town. (I don’t know if ALL courses are in English, but many of them are, as are textbooks, etc.) What will his “native language” be?

When he grows up, perhaps interior cultures will change, and it will be satisfying to be a citizen of the world. Am I just a visitor from the past, or is “native language” a basic human yearning?

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