Raising bilingual kids

John and I met (a gazillion years ago) when I was living and studying in New York City (still one of my favourite cities in the world, ok, fine my most favourite city in the world).

By that time, I had graduated from a US college and was just beginning graduate school. Even though I had grown up in Germany, speaking German as my native language, I spent a few years in the US where I went to an American school (those were the fun middle school years). And despite the fact that the vast majority of my elementary and secondary education was in German, I never felt truly comfortable expressing myself in German. Perhaps it’s the language, perhaps the culture, or perhaps English just made more sense to me.

By the time I met John, I was living, working, breathing, and dreaming in English. I mean, how can you not when everything around you is in English? And yes, he will tell you I initially had funny ways of pronouncing certain words (like “gallop” and “limb” which apparently come up quite a bit when you first meet a Texan?) but those quickly faded the more time we spent together, speaking English.

I went on to complete more schooling in English, writing more and more papers (and defending a dissertation) in that foreign language that soon became much more natural and dare I say it, easy. Sure, I still spoke German with family and friends but over the years, I often found myself searching for the correct words and phrases. Apparently my brain started finding it necessary to  translate English into German before I could speak.

Sometimes my brain was successful, sometimes not so much like that time I asked my best German friend the awkwardly worded and minor offensive question “wann bist du fällig?” when she told me she was pregnant (in my defence, her pregnancy was a surprise to all of us so my German brain did not have adequate preparation time).

Yet despite the fact that my German was slowly fading and I could no longer keep my eyes open to read books or major newspapers in my native language, I always knew deep down inside that my children would need to speak German. After all, that was my heritage! And yes, while Germany and I may have a complicated relationship and German literature and history are by no means easy topics for reading or discussion, they are still a part of me; so my children would need to learn it. (Also, yelling in German is so much more exciting, isn’t it?).

Raising bilingual kids was always a goal John and I had – you know, at least in theory, down the line, once we were ready to have kids, that is. After all, John was learning German on his own to communicate with my grand-parents (before becoming a fluent speaker for work when we moved to Austria) and while we didn’t research the topic in depth, we assumed the experts were right when they claimed that children exposed to multiple languages have advantages down the line. And besides, what was there to lose?

And then we had kids and reality slowly set in. We needed to figure out how exactly we wanted to go about raising them to speak two languages.

While there are many different ways of going about this (just do a quick google search and yes, everyone you ask will have a different opinion – welcome to the Mommy language wars), we opted to assign clearly designated language roles since in our minds, that avoids most confusion. Also as a native German, I like structure so even more reason.

John as the native English speaker was allocated to only speak to our kids in English and me only in German. Our family language would remain English since we would be living and working (and going to school) in English speaking settings.

And so it began: my brain’s slow recalibration to speaking (more) German. I won’t lie: what a tough start that was 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: “Schatz” which didn’t roll off the tongue right, neither did “Spatz” which my Oma 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 “real” (only) German speakers when referring to kids, oh well. We’ll attribute this to cultural / language diversity, right?

So, yes, it was a difficult start and it has been far from the smooth journey we originally naively envisioned this would be. 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. Thankfully, I found a Swiss-German playgroup when we lived in São Paulo (and let me tell you, there’s a huge learning curve even for native German speakers to understand the Swiss!) so during our two years in Brazil, I mainly spoke German or Portuguese on most days. Luca even attended a German-Portuguese speaking pre-school 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 Luca to start school, some family members may have been a little worried about the kids’ “lacking” English skills even though they fully understood English conversation and conversed quite comfortably (of course making cute mistakes of literal language translation that only kids can make).

I was so proud of my two bilingual speakers but knew the major challenge lay ahead: keeping up with their German while they would only live in predominant English-speaking settings from now on. You know how hard it was for me to switch to only 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 (again, thank you, internet), and adamantly continued to speak only German at home.

To no avail. After a few weeks at his American school, Luca decided to either only speak with me in English or not at all. 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.

I was heart broken although this is by no means unusual for bilingual children. And sure, the kids have mixed up the languages and still do so to this day inserting an English word or two into their German sentence when their brain can’t think quick enough. Sometimes their sentences start in English and end in German or the other way around. Yes, that is normal and I expected that but I was simply heart broken 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 John when he came home and asked him the same question. Oh the heartache.

Not wanting to fight the battle (and make German a chore), I took another approach. Since he was learning new things at school and learning them in English, I assumed it was only natural that he did not know the right words to express what he did and learned in another language. So after listening to Luca recount his days to John, we started translating his words into German – thereby giving him the vocabulary necessary to express how he spent his days in German. This seemed to appease Luca and it’s more or less what we still use today, in Mongolia.

You see, the practicality of keeping up with two languages at home is not that 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 slip into English, I always revert back to German to reiterate. At least I try. Sometimes I tire of talking so much!

As 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 and its alphabet. Luca prefers to write his name in cyrillic and as his English reading and writing abilities have progressed, I’ve been secretly a little stressed about his declining German. In Mongolia, I am the kids’ sole German speaker with the occasional Skype date with my parents and my attempts at finding other native German speakers to increase exposure or even form a little “German class” haven’t been very fruitful (besides, the kids are at school all day long so I am a bit reluctant to add more academics and take precious play and free-time away). So I continue to speak German only, read German books to them, and encourage German TV. But the interest has been waning – with Luca for sure and slowly more and more with Juliana as well.

Cue in last week when I received a note from the kids’ 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 it was a done deal. He was so excited since “Mama, ich sprech doch Deutsch!” (I speak German).

So, I searched the wisdom of the internet and bugged friends for the perfect simple poem I could teach him to memorise (since he can’t read in German) or a song to sing. 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 favourite 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 but you know….English blog and all).

And it’s not like I haven’t tried to teach the kids how to sound out German letters and read a little (considering German is such a phonetic language, reading German 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 a German book and started reading it out loud to me. Without warning. Without me obsessively teaching him. Just ’cause he could. Sure he makes mistakes but he’s reading – in German – on his own. That, my friend, is huge to me. Yes, he can forget words when speaking but being able to read means he can re-learn the language any time.

And that made all that heart ache worth it.

Lessons learned: Luca has a mind of his own and just like other developmental miles we hit (potty training comes to mind; boy am I glad that phase is over), I need to learn to let my children take the lead.

Apparently they are onto something. Clearly it must be the dual language exposure…see another benefit, the experts will say!


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