Teaching English in a German World

Weekend mornings at my house are messy but blissful - legos strewn all over the floor by our 4 year old, our teen sleeping in, while my partner and I attach ourselves to the couch and occasionally talk over newspapers. My son provides the soundtrack by counting, singing and role playing all in qerman.

About two years ago it dawned on me that my son's mother tongue was german although his mother spoke to him primarily in english. This was a disorienting ego-check that made me step back and re-evaluate how I wanted to manage languages in our household.


We moved to Germany 3 years ago in part because we knew that the kids would not learn german in any useful way unless we did. The language of our communication seemed to be hard-wired as english no matter what tricks we tried.  I was inspired by wanderlust and all the research I read about the bilingual advantage for  children.  However, my idea of how german would manifest on my kids' tongues was very english-centric and naive.

My daughter, who was 14 when we moved, was fluent in no time.  Not only does she speak accent-free german but has an intuitive grasp of the language that I will never have although I've studied it more intensely.  I spent 2 years in intensive german classes, really doing the homework and participating in class.  My teachers were impressed but I doubt I will ever dream in german.

My son was not yet speaking when we moved here.  Shortly after moving here, he entered a german kindergarden and spent his days immersed in the language.  I should not have been surprised when german was his first language of choice.  On the one hand I should have been happy.  Linguists seem to agree that german is way harder than english and that the leap from german to english is easier than vice versa.  On the other hand I felt a bit like a fail as a mom.  Wasn't I talking to him enough?  What about all those english books that I read?

I was reminded of spanish/english bilingual families where the kids responded to spanish questions in english and Mexican-American kids that could speak spanish but could not read or write it.  I wanted my son to have a mother-language knowledge of english so I was afraid that in my zeal for a bilingual experience, I had in fact created a situation where my son would only really have a firm grasp of german.  Therefore I embarked on a mission to do something I never thought I would have to do - teach my child english.

Fast forward 2 years later and I feel a lot better about my son's language development.  While he still leads in german, he fully understands english and is truly bilingual.  This has taken work and commitment. I realized that I was the only one in his life that talked to him exclusively in english.  My daughter uses both english & german and my partner uses only german.  I started to develop a language learning program with him that enriched our relationship and has him volunteering to speak in english.  My experience with him led to me teaching english in his kindergarden.

As long as we live in Germany, I will have to be vigilant about his english-language education and create what amounts to a home school to teach and reinforce what I thought I could take for-granted.

3 comments:

  1. Great Post! I didn't even know you had a blog. Well, I can totally relate. Sabine also speaks French quite a bit more than English and she isn't even two! She spends 3 mornings a week at a kindergarten. We hang out with English speaking mamas and kids, so I find it a bit puzzling except for one thing: her dad. Yes, she is a daddy's girl all day long and he speaks French to her at night/weekends.

    Question, have you thought about enrolling him in a bi-lingual school?

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  2. I have a 10 week old son and although it's a while until he is says his first word (he has just started to make wonderful cooing sounds) the discussion on bi-lingualism has been going on in our household and with friends for a while.

    Unlike most of our friends with kids where one parent is German and the other a native English speaker (usually the woman) we are both British so the issue we have is how to develop a proper sense of Germanness in our child?

    We have decided German schools are the best option for us as the German will naturally be the missing link culturally in our home (although we both like the German name for Father - Papa we always slip into the English Daddy and I will always be Mummy).

    Also, we are aware that we miss the other link of German grandparents and other extended family so his summers will be spent in beautful Sussex or Dorset rather than the wonderful Rhineland.

    I would be interested in hearing from two parents from the same or different culture and how they immerse their child(ren) into the culture of the country they live in.

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  3. this is a really interesting post.
    My 2 year old (half English half German) spent her first year in America, the next 9 months in Berlin, and for the past 2 months has been in England (we'll move back to Berlin in 2 years and stay there!).
    Her language development is surprisingly advanced, even for a 'mono-lingual' child. When we first moved to England she spoke more German than English (Although as a couple me and my bloke speak English to each other, pretty much all of our friends in Berlin are German, so I spoke German 80% of the time - which she heard too). We're very strict with sticking to our own languages when speaking to her, and she's already aware that there's mummy's language and papa's language (she answers 'nein' to him and 'no' to me).
    Since starting nursery here though, she's shifting all the things she used to only say in German (eg: 'angst vor autos') to saying it in English ('scared of cars'), which I find a shame, but am not surprised by.
    It's a bit worrying to think that I might have to teach her English when we move back to Berlin (when she'll be 4), because I'm guessing once she starts a German Kita, then school, she'll choose German as her language of choice.
    Thanks for posting this, it's something I hadn't really thought about for the future. I just assumed that me speaking to her would be enough!

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