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Raising Bilingual Children
course my children are going to grow up speaking German!” I don’t remember how
often I spoke words to that effect to friends and family I left behind in
Germany when I moved to the U.S. for college. That move marked the second time
I had left my home country, as I had already spent my middle school years in
America, and uttering these words seemed to reassure those left behind that my
native language would remain a part of me – at least theoretically.
then, children were an abstract concept, something that would happen eventually,
maybe, when I met Mr. Right and only when I had finished school, which required
me to move back to the New World to begin with. By the time I started graduate
school in New York City where I quickly met Mr. Right, I had been living,
working, and dreaming in English for several years. I was, for all intents and
purposes, an English speaker, albeit with a slight accent.
I went on to complete more schooling in English, writing never-ending papers and defending
a doctoral dissertation in that foreign language that slowly but surely felt
much more natural – and dare I say it, easy. I still spoke German with
family and friends, but as the years passed, I found myself struggling to
find correct words and phrases in my native tongue. I soon realized I was not
speaking German naturally anymore; rather I was translating English into
the fact that my German was slowly fading, I always knew
that my children, once I was ready to have them, would speak German. After
all, German was my heritage! Besides, child development experts seemed to
confirm my hunch that children exposed to multiple languages have advantages
down the line. What was there to lose?
my kids were born within a blur of two years of each other and reality set in. I
needed to figure out how we were going to actually raise them to speak two
there are many different ways of going about this (welcome to the online “Mommy
language wars,” which I happily avoid), we opted to assign clearly designated
language roles to each parent. In our minds that avoided most confusion. Also
as a native German, I like structure – so there you go.
husband John, as the native English speaker, would speak only in English to the
children. I would speak only in German. Meanwhile, our collective family
language would remain English since we were living and working in English-speaking
so it began: my brain’s slow return to thinking and speaking in German. I won’t
lie: it was a tough start initially. Having been used to everything in English,
I often found myself longing for not only the correct words but for also those
that would feel right. You know? Like finding an appropriate and fun
term of endearment for my newborn. I tried a few: “Liebling” and “Schatz”
didn’t roll off the tongue right; neither did “Spatz” which my Oma (grandmother)
used to call me. I ultimately settled on “Wurm” and
“Würmlein” (little worm), but it took a few years before these words
rolled comfortably off my tongue and felt natural. I don’t even think these
terms are used very often among monolingual German speakers when referring to
kids. Oh well, we’ll attribute this to cultural and language diversity, right?
dutifully stocked the kids’ rooms with German books, listened to German kids
songs and audiobooks (thank you, Internet), and sought German speakers wherever
we lived to increase their language exposure. When John’s employer, the U.S.
State Department, moved our family to São Paulo, I luckily found a Swiss-German
playgroup so during our two years in Brazil, I spoke German or Portuguese
on most days. My son even attended a German-Portuguese speaking preschool, so
when the time came to move to Austria, a German-speaking country, German
quickly became the kids’ dominant language. Of course it would: they were
enrolled in a German-speaking preschool, had local friends, and a Mom at home
who only spoke German with them.
we moved to the U.S. in time for my son to start school, a few of our family
members (from both sides of the pond) may have been a little worried about the
kids' "lacking" English skills even though they fully understood
English conversation and spoke it quite comfortably. I, on the other hand, was
so proud of my two bilingual speakers but knew that the major challenge
lay ahead: keeping up with their German while we were destined to live in
predominantly English-speaking settings from that point forward. Remember how
hard it was for me to switch to German a few years ago? Well, seeing their
German decline steadily after starting school in the U.S. was so much harder.
And it’s not like I didn’t do my part; oh no, I stocked up on and read German
children’s books, encouraged watching German TV shows, and adamantly continued
to speak only German at home.
after a few weeks at his American school, my son Luca decided to either only
speak with me in English or not at all. My daughter Juliana, who only went to
preschool a few hours a day, still kept up her German (and continues to be the
better speaker even now) but Luca was pretty set on following his English-speaking
is by no means unusual for bilingual children, who often decide to simplify
their lives by choosing one language for communication – or sometimes start
speaking in one, only to switch languages mid-sentence. Still, I was
heartbroken when Luca refused to tell me about his day at school but then
opened up and talked for what seemed like hours in English to my husband. Oh,
wanting to make speaking German a chore, I decided on another approach. Since Luca
was learning new things at school in English, I assumed it was only natural
that he did not know the right words to express what he did in German. So after
listening to Luca recount his days to my husband, we started translating his
words into German – giving him the vocabulary necessary to express how he
spent his days. This seemed to appease Luca, and it’s more or less the method we
still use today, in Mongolia. Now that he is in first grade, with homework
added to the school day, we often start out reviewing and completing his
assignments in English before I switch to translate what he’s been doing into
speaking, keeping up with two languages at home is not simple. I often have to
say things multiple times to make sure the kids have the right language and the
right words. And while I occasionally have to slip into English, I always
revert back to German. At least I try. Sometimes I tire of talking so much in
add to the mix, my kids are now learning Mongolian at their predominantly
English-speaking school, I have been in awe at how quickly they are picking up
the language. Luca even prefers to write his name in Cyrillic characters. But as
his English reading and writing abilities have progressed, I’ve been secretly a
little stressed about his declining German skills. In Mongolia, I am the
kids’ sole German speaker, aside from the occasional Skype date with my parents.
My attempts to find other native German speakers to increase exposure or even
form a little “German class” haven’t been very fruitful (besides, I still
hesitate to make learning German a chore by taking away precious play time). So
I continue to speak German, read German books to them, and encourage German TV.
But their interest has been waning – with Luca for sure, and more and more
with Juliana as well.
just as I was starting to get tired of it all – tired of the translating, the nagging
reminders “auf Deutsch bitte” (in German please), and of getting shut out when
the kids didn’t want to speak my preferred language with me – I received a
welcome surprise. Halfway into Luca’s first grade year, I received a note from
the school about an upcoming literacy festival inviting children to give a
short presentation or sing a song in a foreign language. I asked Luca if he
wanted to participate and very unexpectedly he jumped at the chance, firmly
stating “Mama, ich sprech’ doch Deutsch!” (Of course, Mom, I speak
I searched the Internet and begged German-speaking friends to help me find a
simple poem or song that I could teach him to memorize since he couldn’t read
he said no. Repeatedly, to both choices. I read a few poems to him and sang
some songs, but he was firm: no. He was not going to do that.
had a different plan. He wanted to read from a favorite book in German.
Sure I thought; let’s do it. “Just one tiny problem. You can’t read in German,” I said (well, I said it in German).
not like I haven’t tried to teach him how to sound out German letters and read
a little. Considering that German is such a phonetic language, reading it is
actually much easier than reading in English – an argument that Luca did not
care for, at all, trust me.
know what happened next? Luca opened up his German book and started reading it
out loud to me. Without warning. Without me obsessively teaching him. Just
because he could.
little moment made all the heartache worth it.
him stand up in front of his school friends, many of whom speak multiple
languages, microphone in hand, clumsily reading chapter headings of a favorite
animal book in German while a big screen behind him showed the accompanying
text was not something I would have imagined him doing ever, if someone had
asked me a year ago. It’s amazing how quickly kids grow up and mature when
they’re ready to take on new challenges; this is definitely not the same kid
who not too long ago had stubbornly pushed me out of his school day.
his German progressed since the literacy festival? Yes and no. He’s now more
willing to read in German and asks for the meaning of new words (especially
when I lovingly challenge him), and I’ve been spending more time reading longer
German books. Some nights before his bedtime, we take turns reading books to
each other: me reading in German (with him having to read a few sentences) and
then him reading a book to me in English.
he remains the same self-determined kid who works towards his own self-identified
goals at his own speed when he wants to – which is often not the same time when
I would like him to do something. And, just as Luca is learning more about my
language, I am learning more about him every day – like that I can’t push him
into doing something he’s not ready to or simply doesn’t want to. Somehow, he
has set his priorities on his own and figured out ways to achieve them. It
seems like my son is onto something. Clearly another benefit of dual language
© 2016 by Nicole Schaefer-McDaniel. All rights reserved.
Nicole Schaefer-McDaniel is one of the Real Post Report Editors at Tales from a Small Planet and constantly on the international move. She currently lives in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia with her family where she is struggling to find the correct Mongolian words while grocery shopping. Thankfully, her children often accompany her and don’t mind translating. Aside from balancing international moves and encouraging German to be spoken at home, Nicole is also a professor at the American University of Mongolia where she has to remind her Mongolian students to speak to her in English. Some days she’s not quite sure which language to speak to whom.