* I wrote this article in May 2021 as we were winding down our time in Italy and preparing to move to Germany. Thanks to technical problems and moving country, I never published it. Five months later, finally feeling settled, I decided to come back and share this post anyway because it’s important to talk about our fears in order to work through them. In a follow-up post, I’ll share my perspective from this side of the journey & you’ll learn if any (or all) of these fears have become a reality.
Several weeks ago I had a group coaching call with my incredible language mentor, and she asked how I felt about the sudden shift I’ve had to make in my language habits. In five weeks our household goods will be packed and loaded into a truck that will drive them to Germany. Between now and then we must go through every room, wardrobe, and drawer to downsize and declutter. My daughter still has three weeks left of school, and we’re spending extra quality time with homework to make sure she finishes strong. Then there are appointments to be made, day trips to have, and emotions to manage. In short…it’s a lot, and I must be very intentional with how I prioritize my time.
So, how do I feel about this change? How do I feel about knowing that my language life will continue to change unpredictably over the next few months, perhaps even a year? I definitely have some worries and fears, so I want to unpack those here to really give them a good analysis and solidify my sanity moving forward. Here are the top 3 fears I’m facing right now in my language journey:
Fear 1: Losing my Italian
I’m afraid that moving out of Italy will cause me to lose this beautiful language — the first language I’ve learned besides my native one. There are so many benefits to learning a language while living in a fully immersed environment, and losing those advantages is really intimidating, especially when I think of all the time it took me to reach a low-intermediate level in the language. How can I possibly keep a language without seeing and hearing it everywhere I go?!
Reality Check: Immersion hasn’t sustained my Italian; studying the language has.
The truth is, I have so many U.S. American friends and acquaintances living here in Italy for just as long as I have who haven’t learned the language. This is proof enough for me that immersion isn’t what’s sustained my Italian. The difference between these friends and me is that I chose to study the language. I’ve made it a priority to spend time with the language, memorizing vocabulary and digging in to its infinitely complex grammar. I’ve immersed myself at home through reading, writing, and listening. I speak with my children in Italian often, and I read to them in the language almost daily. We make it a part of our lives because we love it, not just because we live here.
Furthermore, I’ve learned German from complete beginner to about A1 in a few short months without living in the country. In other words, I’ve already proven to myself that I am capable of learning a language through self-study at home, and so many others before me have done the same. Even if I lose some of my momentum in Italian when we move and I need to focus mainly on improving my German, intentionally keeping Italian as part of my everyday life will guarantee that I don’t lose it. And I’ve grown an amazing community of support through Italian-speaking/learning friends, tutors, and social media acquaintances who are always there in such a way that we continue to practice languages together and encourage each other to keep moving forward.
Fear 2: Getting to Germany and not understanding anything
Like I said, I’ve studied German at home, which includes listening to music and podcasts, working with an iTalki tutor, and learning through reading in the language. But what if I get there, and I don’t understand anything at all? What if everyone talks too fast? Uses dialect more than standard German? Has an accent I’ve never heard? I remember what it was like the first year or two in Italy, when I knew some of the language academically, but I couldn’t seem to understand anything native speakers said. These thoughts make me afraid that I will be immediately demotivated, frustrated, and paralyzed to improving my language skills.
Reality Check: I’m not the same me who arrived in Italy as a monolingual 4 years ago, and my German is already better than my Italian was then.
The reality is, I will have many times where I don’t understand people, but I will also have many where I do. It will be difficult to go back to a place of feeling lost or left out. But this time I know how to improve my listening skills effectively (and I’ve already started). This time I know that it takes time and patience, and I won’t get down on myself when I’m not progressing as I “should” according to some unrealistic expectation. This time I have the support of my Language Life coach, language learning community, and family members whose mother tongue is German. So really, I’m not starting all over from the beginning. Because of the hard work I’ve already put into my language journey, I’m so much better prepared to make this transition than when I moved to Italy with no language experience. My ear is already more trained, and I know how to maneuver around interactions where I’m getting lost in translation.
Fear 3: My Italian isn’t good enough to help my kids maintain theirs, and my German is so basic that I can’t help them there, either.
I must admit that it took me years to figure out how to properly support my daughter in learning Italian. The majority of her contact with the language was at school, but I didn’t know what to do at home. I was slowly learning the language myself, and I wasn’t capable of speaking and reading much at home. Furthermore, I hadn’t yet learned how to get fun and creative with our language time. She listened to Italian all day at school, and in the beginning she didn’t want to watch TV or play games in the same language, especially when we were both struggling with vocabulary and pronunciation. Homework was difficult because I had to translate most assignments before getting started, and even still there were gaps where instructions didn’t translate in a meaningful way. Her teacher’s only advice was for us to speak Italian at home, but I was still a beginner, and my husband didn’t learn the language, so that wasn’t an option for us. However, it did plant a seed of doubt in my mind as to my role in my daughter’s language learning life. If speaking the new language at home was the answer to all our problems, then I was sure to fail her.
When we found out we would be moving to Germany I began to stress about how to juggle another language with the kids. My oldest has a very deep connection with the Italian language as it’s the language all her friends speak, so she wants to maintain it. Yet German is her heritage language (it’s the mother tongue of my parents-in-law), and she wants to attend the German schools and make new friends in our local community. My 5-year-old son will start in Kindergarten, and he’ll soon need my help with homework and speaking at home. Immediately, I felt like the pressure was on me, as the adult language learner in the family, to create a plan for balancing both Italian and German in the home, plus working with both kids on reading and writing in English. How in the world would this even be possible?!
Reality Check: My language abilities will impact their language retention/acquisition much less than my ability to support their personal goals and needs.
Deep breath, Heidi. The truth is, I cannot pressure myself to speak a language at home that doesn’t feel comfortable or natural to me, let alone two. And that’s okay because at the end of the day, it’s not my job to teach my children languages. It’s my job to support their emotional well-being. It’s my job to encourage them to branch out and try new things (like a new language). It’s my job to find fun and creative ways for us to learn together, experience the language together, and tear down barriers to learning according to their individual likes, personalities, and preferred learning methods. The truth is, we will have a community to help my children learn German. Together, we’ve already made so many how-to language learning mistakes that we’re all wiser about expectations and have discovered our best and favorite methods of learning. We have a foundation that we didn’t have before. For Italian, though we’ll lose the natural daily contact, we still have technology for phone calls and video chats with friends, books and TV shows, games, etc. I’ve noticed that when I switch to Italian with my kids, they always respond in the same language. I don’t have to speak it all the time, but every time I do is another tie to the language. Another chance to use and keep what we know.
My children get excited talking about languages with me. My 8-year-old has even told me she wants to learn Korean one day, practices counting in Spanish, and asks me daily how to say things in German. My 5-year-old loves counting in German and wants to learn how to say “poop” in as many languages as possible. (I did mention he’s 5, right?) Their passions and interests will drive them, and all I have to do is be there to encourage and support this without forcing or pushing.
The Take-Away: Everything is going to be just fine. We can do this.
There are so many unknowns about our journey from Italy to Germany, Italian to German. These unknowns can be scary, quite frankly, but resulting fears can be healthy if I allow them to give me a starting point for planning a way ahead. Sometimes I just have to sit with the fear. Think it over, peak down some what-if pathways, and then keep moving forward. I’m afraid of losing my Italian, and I can use that fear to intentionally create an environment of Italian around me in Germany. I’m afraid I won’t understand anything in Germany, but I can continue focusing on input and practicing how to ask people to repeat something slowly. I’m afraid I won’t be able to help my kids with their language acquisition and maintenance, but connecting with other multilingual parents, making phone calls to native-speaking friends and family a priority, and letting my kids lead their own respective journeys are things I can do. Even if any or all of these fears came to fruition, I’m prepared to work through them and keep pushing forward.