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Raising Bilingual Children

June 2016

by Nicole Schaefer-McDaniel

“Of 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.

Back 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 German.

Despite 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?

Then 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 languages.

While 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.

My 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 settings.

And 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?

We 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.

When 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.

But, 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 friends’ lead.

This 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, the heartache!

Not 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 German.

Practically 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 either language.

To 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.

Then, 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 German!).

So 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 in German.

But 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.

He 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).

It’s 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.

You 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.

That little moment made all the heartache worth it.

Seeing 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.

Has 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.

But 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 exposure.

© 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.