(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.)
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.
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.