How to Have a Baby in a Country Where You Don’t Speak the Language


Given the lessons learned from my several botched Russian attempts, when my job moved me from Armenia to Germany, I decided I would not learn German. I initially had little interest in the language and was only in Germany for an interim period while I waited for a new water project to materialize in Bolivia. But then everything changed when my love life took an unexpected turn.

As I was only supposed to be in Germany a few months, I wasn’t looking to meet anyone serious. But fate had other plans when I met the seemingly perfect guy. To make matters more linguistically interesting, this guy and I didn’t speak each other’s native languages, and I couldn’t speak German, so we could only communicate in French. My long lost French that I hadn’t used since college was suddenly revived! In those early days of conversations—you know those ones where you can’t get enough of learning every intricate detail of a new partner’s life and thoughts—I went nowhere without a French dictionary in my purse. Sometimes the urgency of communication required my stopping in the middle of a Frankfurt sidewalk to whip out my handy pocket French dictionary.

When we would go out with my new boyfriend’s friends, I was the only one who could not speak German. Most of the time it wasn’t a problem, as usually the friends could communicate in French, Spanish or English, and we could make do (although with one of his close Sicilian friends, he spoke Italian to me and I spoke Spanish back to him—it worked, kind of). But slowly, my initial lackluster approach to German started to reverse. The project in Bolivia never materialized. I was, after all, sort of living in the country, even if I traveled 80 percent of the time and didn’t really feel part of life in Germany beyond my boyfriend.  And then another thing happened, which wed me to Germany even closer. Our relationship got real serious, and the guy went from boyfriend to fiancé to husband to expecting father.

Six months into my pregnancy, when I could no longer travel for work, we were busy buying baby stuff we hadn’t yet realized we didn’t need. As my husband was translating our conversation with the salesperson to me, as usual, I had one of those slow-motion realizations. I was having a baby in a country where I did not speak the language. This was crazy! I liked learning languages, and I was about to have a child in a place where I could barely communicate. So I enrolled myself in a German class and started to really enjoy it. Three months later, I spent my eight days prior to birth in the hospital memorising German song lyrics (Xavier Naidoo’s “Zusammen” was my favorite) to kill the excruciatingly long drone of hospital time.

When the baby finally came, I could haltingly converse with the Hebammen (midwives) about all sorts of stuff like cervix, contractions, breastfeeding and other totally useless words for everyday life.

By the time we left Germany, somewhat unintentionally nine months after Jasmin was born, I was getting comfortable in German. I could hold an intermediate-level conversation and understand a majority of what went on around me. And then we left.

And now I am raising two bilingual daughters, ages four and six, in Arabic and English at home (my husband’s native language is Arabic). We also introduced Spanish earlier this year. When my oldest was born, I swore that I too would speak Arabic by the time she was talking. Well, she started talking four years ago, and my Arabic is still largely non-existent beyond basic greetings and random phrases that I probably wouldn’t need to say to an adult like “Close the door. No screaming! Do you want me to spank your mother?” I’m not kidding. I do know how to say that last one. And no, my husband doesn’t spank me. It’s apparently a common phrase used to joke around in Arabic that doesn’t have a direct translation, much like “I’ll be a monkey’s uncle”, or “it costs an arm and a leg”.

Arabic remains my next frontier. I’m excited and slightly intimidated by it. Follow along with me as I try out Rosetta Stone’s tools in Arabic and talk more about language and raising multilingual kids.

Stephanie Meade is the Founder and Editor-in-Chief of InCultureParent, an online magazine for parents raising little global citizens. After living in four countries and working in many others as an economist in international development, she can speak four languages, including Spanish, French, Portuguese and English. She is passionate about all things related to language, especially raising bilingual children, as well as bringing up children with a global perspective. She is raising her own Moroccan-American daughters bilingual in Arabic and English at home while recently introducing Spanish. She always assumed she would speak Arabic by the time her oldest child was able to talk (which was four years ago now!) and she is finally making the time and effort to learn this year.

1 Comment

  1. Sue Mark - May 4, 2013

    I love this post! Thanks for sharing your experiences navigating life in multiple languages.

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