Bringing up a bilingual or in fact even multilingual child isn’t always an easy task. Lots of unforeseen challenges often lay ahead and even with good intentions it’s often hard to follow through.
When our now eight-year old son was born it was simply expected that he would learn to speak German along with English. There were several reasons for it. An important one was that I wanted him to be able to communicate with my parents whose knowledge of the English language would not have been sufficient enough for building a deeper relationship with my son, their grandchild. Another reason was that I had raised my older son, who was born in Germany, bilingual, and I naturally wanted to give the younger brother the same advantage of being comfortable in two languages as well as cultures – since with the language comes along also a deeper understanding of the particular culture. I had learned that early on myself that being able to dive into conversations with the natives when visiting a foreign country opens up a complete different perspective, and makes one understand people of a particular country more in depth, including their values and what makes them drive.
What concerned us, we were initially thinking of raising our son trilingual, since my husband’s native tongue is Spanish. As much as our decision of raising our little son with three languages seemed like a very sensible one at first, it turned out to come with a lot of challenges along the way.
Feeling left out
One easily forgets that someone not understanding and speaking the other language might feel left out eventually. This often happens to be the spouse, but also other family like grandmothers, aunts, uncles etc. What we experienced in our family was that following through on speaking German with our little guy demanded a lot of patience and trust of others in the family particularly my husband whose German was limited at that time . Constant open mindedness was absolutely important for both parties in this endeavor, in addition to being consistent with speaking German despite discouraging looks and comments of people around.
Connecting to your child in your native language
Speaking of consistency, we learned first hand how hard it is for the parent who is working full time to follow through on using his/her native language. Since the main “family language” was English among us and our older children, my husband had a hard time to follow through on speaking Spanish only with our little son. He felt he couldn’t connect to his son properly since all the little guy heard during the day was either German or English. Slowly but surely my husband’s Spanish gave way to English in the end. Only now since our son is learning Spanish in school my husband experiments with speaking some Spanish with him also at home.
My child understands but doesn’t want to speak the language
Another quite common challenge I often hear about is that kids sometimes refuse speaking in the second language despite the fact that they fully understand everything. This was also the case with my older son. We had moved to California when he had just turned six years old. Even though he was already fluent in English and German at that time, he hated it when I addressed him speaking German in public. He didn’t want to be different and my speaking German to him embarrassed him in front of his friends. He constantly answered back in English and begged me to “speak normal” meaning using English when conversing with him. I then tried to reduce my German speaking to conversations at home, and ignored the fact that he was answering back in English. Today one of his courses in college is German literature after all.
Once all these various difficulties have been addressed in one way or another, it can be a very rewarding experience to raise a child with more than just one language. In our case it was not only our little son who benefitted from it and now can chat along with his cousins in Germany, but my husband learned to speak and understand German as well.
Constant immersion into the second language is one important key to success
I believe it is very important to have the other language/s be a constant component in the daily life of a multilingual child. It is critical to implement a natural understanding of the other (native) languages especially in the very early stages of childhood. If my son wanted to watch a movie or listen to a story when he was little, it had to be in German. Now that he is older and has his friends from school over I am more relaxed regarding German, even though our personal communication continues to be in German.
A great support not only for the child but also the specific parent I found, is initiating friendships with other children who grow up learning the same language. Join a German mother-child group or a German Immersion Kindergarten or start your own. Find some resources here on our website. Helpful in finding likeminded families can also be attending one of the German Saturday schools throughout California.
Find creative ways to immerse your child into German to strengthen those language skills. Have him/her listen to German books on tapes which make car rides fun. Watch German kids movies or TV series like Biene Maja or Die Sendung mit der Maus , and enjoy reading to them in German as well! There is great reading material out there and so much new kids & youth literature to discover, be it by German or English authors. Just get the book in German instead of English. We for example can’t get enough of Cornelia Funke’s books these days, but also can’t wait for the next book in Michael Buckley’s series “Die Grimm Akten” (engl title: “The Sisters Grimm”). They are all being read passionately in our house.
Finding adequate reading/movie material
The Goethe Institut in Los Angeles has an extensive media room and offers children even to rent out German movies. They host book fairs and Saturday movie mornings for children. There is also plenty of literature online these days, try the online libraries of the Gutenberg Projekt for example, which offer 10,000 titles for free including a great selection of Märchen and other children stories. If you are looking for a particular book or movie, try Amazon.de, they will send German movies oversees.
Should you worry about your child not learning English properly?
My experience is that since we are living in the U.S. and we are surrounded by people speaking English, one shouldn’t worry. The environment our children are growing up in is infused by the English language. Wherever they go they will most likely be addressed in English. They will have neighborhood friends who will speak English. And, as soon as your child attends Kindergarten or school he/she will make even more English speaking friends and therefore easily learn to transition into English whenever needed and master it in perfection as well.
So dive into the fun of (re)discovering German literature and movies for your child and for yourself, and make it an enjoyable learning adventure for everyone in the family.
Finding a German Kindergarten, School, German Immersion School
Check out CaliforniaGermans Resources
Further Reading Material of Interest:
Article on Language Immersion Programs for Children: http://www.pbs.org/teachers/earlychildhood/articles/language.html
KPCC – Bilingual Learning Report http://projects.scpr.org/bilinguallearning/#options
“Global Communication Begins at Home” http://www.multilingualliving.com/2012/04/24/the-abcs-of-multilingual-parenting-the-letter-t/#more-8222
Language Development – Bilingual Children http://www.babyzone.com/baby/language-development/raising-bilingual-children_73233-page-2
Foreign Language Learning for Adults: http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2012/03/120328172212.htm
“Better living through Language Immersion” http://socialexpat.nymgo.com/?p=1242
Article on Raising a Child Bilingual: http://forward.com/articles/154652/why-my-daughter-isnt-bilingual-yet/?picks_feed=true
“German in a Multicultural World” http://www.nytimes.com/2012/04/15/education/edlife/german-in-a-multicultural-world.html?pagewanted=2&_r=4
“What Role Does German Play Internationally” http://www.magazin-deutschland.de/en/artikel-en/article/article/welche-rolle-spielt-deutsch-international.html
Online Gutenberg Book Catalog: http://gutenberg.spiegel.de/buch/5502/1
- What Kind of Multilingual Parent Are You? (germanintheafternoon.wordpress.com)
- Speaking Your Mind (psychologicalscience.org)