On Growing Up Bilingually, Biculturally, and Bi-Nationally

(Note: This is a post for all you who have wondered what I am and where I am from. This is also a post for all of those unaccepting people who still think I am German. But most and foremost, this is a post for everyone seeking an answer to their bilingual identiy.)

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It’s said that the strongest story you have to tell is your own story. Everyone has a unique history, an original skill set, and a story behind growing up.

I grew up bilingual with an American father and a German mother. Most people who meet me in the US assume I am American. Most people who meet me in Germany assume I am German. I don’t have an accent when I speak either language. My identity is formed of two cultures. I belong to two great nations and wouldn’t want to give this up for a million.

Most of my childhood and teenage years were spent in Germany. But the first language I ever learned was English. My German was horrible when we were down in New Mexico. At the tender age of 4 ½ half years, my family moved over to Bremerhaven/ Germany and I must have had some difficulties in pronouncing German words and speaking it. But when I was six, I joined the local German elementary school. About 13 years later I was to graduate from the German gymnasium with the highest school degree obtainable in Germany. While all my primary education is based on the German school system, all of my secondary is not. I attended American college by choice and was able to finish with a Bachelor’s degree after 3 ½ years of hard studying.

Needless to say, I love my life. It’s said that the strongest story you have to tell is your own story. Well, I think I started off great when being raised in the way I was. In a bicultural family, life is never boring. It’s not only about the language you speak, but the excitement you feel when dreaming about a life in the other country. And just the fact that you are able to take in both without giving up one another – priceless. At a young age, I felt that my family was different than the ones we were typically surrounded by. Sure, you had the normal military families, who moved around a lot and got to see Japan and Guam. But then you also had the German farmer’s families, who were rather sedentary and settled. You also had similar families like us – one parent German, the other American – whom it was easier to connect to. But by far, we were a minority.

Being raised bilingual certainly had its advantages. Getting ahead of others in school during our English lessons, for one. But it was also the recipe for failure as most teachers expected us, my sisters and me, to be perfect when speaking the language and always turned to us when a classmate didn’t know the answer. In hindsight, I don’t know how I would have handled the situation better. It’s impossible for a child or teenager to know every single word in either of their native languages. I realize that now.

Just like learning a new language takes time and effort, so does maintaining one’s native language. So I started working on it. Reading more books, learning the vocabulary. Because just speaking it wasn’t enough, it took more than that. I also had to work to get rid of my German accent when I spoke English. Going to German schools and exclusively living in Germany had brought that out. I sometimes still have one after a longer stay in the motherland. Not so much after a longer stay in the fatherland.

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Another advantage of biculturalism is being able to work on two different continents without the hassles of having to apply for a visa. There is no real language barrier to overcome and I don’t have to pick my companies according to their sponsor ship. I suppose this is real freedom: Two continents to go to and two countries to choose from. Life is easier and less complicated in that matter.

Growing up the way I did is a part of my identity, a part of how I define myself. Interestingly enough, psychological research has shown that you can develop two different personalities when you grow up bilingual. At one point, my German one was more dominating, more in my thoughts. Now I have lived here for so long, I tend to think in English most of the time and act in a more American way.

But in a sense, this two-folded personality has preserved my ability to speak two languages. It is easy for me to switch between either one. It is also easy for me not to forget vocabulary or certain pronunciations. When I observe Germans who have lived in the US for an extended time frame, I see signs of them forgetting their native language (but they still speak English with a strong accent). My guess is that this happens because they don’t have the mental practice or because certain brain circuits did not develop in their childhood. All of these are theories of course, not scientifically proven (yet).

Finding one’s identity is a crucial part of life. Mine happens to be German-American. Like other German-Americans, I am to a certain degree more German than American, with others it can be the other way around. But overall, we pretty much form a culture of our one, taking with the best of both nations and applying it to our own cultural mindset.

While I have never seen myself strictly as German or American, other people show problems when it comes to this. It seems that there cannot be a middle way in some folks’ heads. So this question of identity becomes an “issue” when people cannot comprehend the concept and try to shove me into one drawer: Either American OR German. But life is not only black and white. And we, the German-Americans, are a perfect example of yet another gray zone in reality. My identity is not only formed by language, but by culture and a sense of belonging. If someone were to ask me what I felt – more German or American – I’d say more European. After all, I did grow up over there. But I highly suppose so would most Americans, who’ve lived abroad for almost all of their childhood years.

I look at French-Canadians and how well they handle speaking both languages (although with an accent sometimes). If they do not have a problem with their bilingual identity, neither should we.

If I were to have children, I would want to raise them in a similar way. I wouldn’t want to neglect them the privilege of a bilingual and bicultural home. Life has so much more to offer than one simple country, why not bring them closer to both? There are so many advantages when learning languages from an early age. It comes to you more naturally and with less hurdle and thought process. You just know “this is wrong, this sounds right” from deep down in your soul. And of course it also broadens a child’s horizon. Not to mention the ways it opens to living in two different countries without much legal hassle.

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12 thoughts on “On Growing Up Bilingually, Biculturally, and Bi-Nationally

  1. Thank you so much for sharing your experiences with biculturalism and bilingualism. I’m an American married to an Italian, living in Italy, and we’re raising our daughter bilingual. I found what you said about having two different personalities associated with your languages to be interesting. Sometimes I feel like my daughter is a different person depending on which language she’s speaking. It’s wonderful because it it shows the extent to which we are truly are shaped by our culture(s) and how she (and all bilingual people) are really not just one or the other.

    • Thank you for visiting my blog, Karen! It must be quite interesting to be the one who raises a child bilingually. You should write a post or two on it! 😉
      I am actually not sure if my parents ever noticed that I have 2 personalities (depending on which language I spoke) but I think it’s very attentive of you noticing and I only wish that your child will learn to appreciated her cultural upbringing as much as I have come to do so. It is quite interesting how we are neither but I also find it rather insulting and almost “be-littling” of other people to assume we are strictly one or the other.

  2. I have written a few posts on her language development, though not recently. (There’s one I’ve meant to write for six months and I’m going to make myself do it this summer. I hope.) If you’re curious, you can find them under OPOL in the category menu.

    It’s such a fascinating topic. I enjoyed reading your post so much because it was interesting to see the point of view of someone raised bilingual.

    • My parents raised us also according to OPOL. Every child is different but it worked for all three of us (each to a different extent). I’d say you are doing just fine by teaching your daughter so and I wouldn’t do it any different. Don’t listen to stupid people who don’t know too much about it, Italians can be very … passionate about their opinion. 😉

  3. It’s interesting you posted about this last week as that’s when I was studying bilingualism in Human Growth & Development as well as Multicultural Counseling. There are so many benefits for kids who grow up bilingual, so it’s good you have the opportunity. I wasn’t really exposed to foreign languages until I was in high school unless you count that the Sesame Street books I had growing up had a page of Spanish words in each. I wish I had been as it is kind of difficult to learn a new language as an adult. Even for kids, I recall reading that it can take an immigrant child in America five years to develop spoken fluency in English and seven years to develop reading fluency (and more than that if the child comes from a lower socioeconomic background).

    As far as those who lose their native language, fun fact for you, it’s called subtractive bilingualism. I don’t know what causes it for sure, but it seems like it has to do with not being regularly exposed to the language anymore as people who maintain fluency in both tend to still read books, watch programs, etc. in their native tongue and/or speak English for school or work but speak in their native language at home.

    • Subtractive Bilingualism – I will have to remember that term for future “heated” bar discussions!

      I didn’t know the fact about immigrant children. That is very interesting. Thanks for the insight.

      • lol let me know if you use it in conversation.

        You’re welcome. I didn’t know it either until this semester. Oddly enough I learned it in human growth and development class and not in the multicultural counseling class I’m also in this semester.

  4. My experience is more tragic. I grew up biculturally and bilingually. I have American parents, but went to German schools till I was 13. We moved to the USA when I was 13. I am in my mid 30’s now and just realized for the first time that this is the main reason my life has been a total disaster. I am so shocked that none of the therapists I have visited ever recommended therapy for this. I did not realize there were words for it or even treatment. I never learned how to make proper friends in America. I never learned how to relate to women in America. I didn’t fit in with sports teams or religious groups. I barely was able to connect properly with my American family until I was 30 and only some at that. I have never been able to properly work and now I am utterly ruined.

    I could not solve the transition puzzle and maze. In Germany I was doing fine. I was hanging out with girls, I had good friends, I was part of cultural groups, going camping, going to swimming pools, I was attending and helping with parties, I was doing sports, I was doing business and I had good friends. I ‘got it’. I was a part of the group. Life was just life and made sense. It worked. In Germany my friends were Doctors and Lawyers kids and intellectual. When I moved to the USA a lot of my ‘friends’ were janitors kids or from broken homes. I was never able to integrate in any form or fashion on any level at all period. Zero. I was a kid. I didn’t know what I was lacking or doing wrong.

    My life has been hell. By the time I was in America for a few years, I had drifted so far apart from my German friends that those relationships began to fall away. When I finally returned to Germany for college I was surprised that they were still better in Germany than in the USA, but I had changed too much. I couldn’t fit into Germany any more. I was too broken and now I was at odds with them as well. Now it’s practically irreconcilable.

    I appreciate your article. I had totally given up. If anyone else ever reads this, or if you raise a child this way I suggest one thing. This is the only thing I feel that had any redeeming value for me. I am sorry to say, that for me it was too little too late, but here is the trick. If you have a maladjusted, overwhelmed, bicultural child, then do this:

    Spend years and massive amounts of coaching and training making him an authority figure over younger kids in a fun environment. This was my secret missing ingredient. Nothing else helped. By being a leader, I learned the unspoken and untaught secrets of how to connect with others. This gave me a map on how to then connect to the incomprehensible societies around me.

    I barely ever do any cultural switching into German. It is too painful and can cause short circuits. Not everyone is suited for such stress to unravel the secrets of two different societies. I never met anyone as weak as me or as crippled as me culturally. I have seen countless therapists over the years and no one even hinted at the fact that I never was able to properly connect and integrate on ‘any’ level at all. Forget meaningful. I mean any level. Everything was broken. 20 years I have been fighting a war. The worst part was the fact that my ability to connect with women was monkey wrenched right when I was going through puberty. I have been fighting to figure out life and just to survive. But the second thing I ever wanted was the love of women and I could not figure it out. The stress, the frustration, it is unimaginable.

    Please wish me luck that I can some day use my pain to help others. I have lived in agony and terror and isolation my whole adult life. I am so angry. I have been telling everyone for years, I couldn’t handle the transition. It was too hard for me. It can be dangerous. No one ever even said, there is help. Not even the therapists. I am so angry.

    There were other factors that played into everything, like the fact that there are ZERO kids in the family or extended family. I was always the weakest kid in every class and group so I never learned leadership. I probably just fell through too many cracks. My parents and family just thought they were culturally expanding my horizons and I should just deal with it and ‘he will figure it out’. NO! I never did. I was in over my head. Way over my head.

    Remember: Dedicate your kids life to learning how to become a leader or else he might end up an abused train wreck like me.

    • Dwight, your story is heartbreaking. I’m quite a bit older than you, born to a Pomeranian refugee mother and an American “wilder Hengst” (so meine Oma muetterlicherseits 😉 ) father. Except for 7th thru 9th grade (when I attended German schools in “Schtuagrt”— 😉 ), I lived in the U.S. But my mother and her mother (who reared me) were still living in Germany, mentally and psychologically. Culturally, our home was a state-within-a-state: we spoke German (well, they did, I eventually refused, LOL!), ate German food, read German magazines and books, listened to quite a bit of German music (olle Kamellen & folksongs), and overall functioned on a German paradigm. My ShGerman-tank grandmother would barge into my schoolroom during class, with her thick German accent blasting the teacher with questions: “Iss Widerspenstig behayfink? (being respectful; doing homework, yada yada). The kids would mercilessly taunt me: “Nazi! Nazi!” (This was during the 60’s, when American TV teemed with movies portraying all Germans as Nazis.) “You smell like sauerkraut!” (We had sauerkraut maybe once/year, and our kitchen windows were open all year round, no matter how cold the Denver winter.)

      I came to passionately hate EVERYthing German, and refused to speak German (reaping classically Nazi punishment from my mother, who was 7 when Hitler came into power, meaning she spent all but one year in Nazi-run schools—ironically, though, she was not allowed into the BDM bec. of her sickliness [“Only strapping Germanic lasses need apply!” I myself would’ve better fit the bill {snort}]). By 6th grade, I hated human beings and wanted desperately to hide out in the Rockies as a veterinarian hermit. My biggest wish was to be able to transform myself into 100% American (and to chew bubblegum to my heart’s content, LOL! My mother wouldn’t buy it or let me buy it from my Taschengeld [which I had to earn doing lots of chores each week]. Bubblegum and Wonderbread were the quintessential ingredients of being American! 😉 )

      But then we moved to Schtuagrt, where I was the novelty in my 7th grade class: “MIR hen e Amerikanerin en onsre Glasse!” For the first time in my life, my peers accepted me. I was in my element: I felt MUCH more at home in Germany (culturally) than I ever have in the U.S. (I always say, if you were to dissect my soul, you’d find it was Kraut to the core! The only part of me that’s staunchly American is my political inclinations: I cherish the constitutional heritage of the U.S. and passionately HATE collectivism of any stripe, no matter how “humane” it presents itself.)

      When I was 24, living in N.C. (the absolute antithesis to my Prussian background, LOL!), for about 3 months, I went thru a struggle: should I move back to Germany or stay in the U.S.? Because the longer I lived in the South, and the more educated I became, the more alien I felt. I hankered after Heimat. After weighing the pro’s and cons, I decided that it made more sense to stay in the U.S.

      I’m 60 now, and still never feel truly American, tho over the years, I’ve found wonderful American friends. I’ll always be something of an outsider, till the day I die. (It’s comforting to know that the everlasting Heimat waits on the other side. 😉 )

      Blessings to you!

  5. Thank you for your warm response. I am glad I didn’t cause problems or derail your blog. I have not thought about writing a blog post and this was kind of a chance thing. I very much appreciated your question. I was touched.

    My main problem is that I can’t find my audience or ‘my people’, so I am crippled as far as actively publishing something. If you had any questions, I could see about answering them.

    I think when I responded to your writing I wanted to show the dark side of being raised bi-culturally and some of the tools I learned to survive. Teach the kid to lead, empower him to lead, train him, coach him, but focus on leadership for his whole life. Forget everything else. That’s what I would have needed and didn’t get. I had to figure it out the hard way and it was lethal.

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