Thursday, September 28, 2006

Profile: Jessica and Jeremy learning German and English in Austria

Nadine graciously agreed to answer some questions about how she and her husband are raising their children bilingually in Austria. This post is longer than what you usually find on this blog, but it's so detailed and helpful that I couldn't bear to cut much! You can also check out an article she wrote here.

What is your language background and history?

My husband is Austrian and his mother tongue is German. I am American and my mother tongue is English. I studied German in college. My husband and I got married in my home state of California and a few months later we moved to Austria. I have lived in Austria for 17 ½ years. Both of our children, Jessica and Jeremy, were born in Austria. Jessica is now 12 ½ and Jeremy will be 11 next month. My husband and I are both fluent in German and English.

What languages are you exposing your children to, and how?

From birth on, my children have been exposed to English and German. We use OPOL (one parent, one language) at home. Because my husband and I speak each other’s languages, we can “work” off one another and we know what the other one has told the children. My American girlfriends and I also formed informal weekly “playgroups” to get together and expose the children to more English, sing English language nursery rhymes and songs with them, read stories, do activities, and encourage them to speak English only. We celebrate holidays like Halloween, Thanksgiving, Valentine’s Day, etc. to expose them to more of our American culture as they don’t get that exposure in Austria. Another method was showing them English language TV and movies only. My parents taped children’s shows off of PBS in the States (Barney, Bear in the Big Blue House, Sesame Street, etc. etc.) on LP 8-hr tapes and mailed them over for me. I also purchased many English language Disney movies on video and [the kids] would get to watch those. They actually did not watch German children's television programming until they were close to 7 and 8 years old. I tried to keep any TV time “English only." Of course, nowadays with DVDs and being able to select the language, providing the children with numerous options to view English language movies and shows is wonderful!

Why do you want your children to learn a second language?

Because my husband & I are in a bilingual, bicultural marriage, I found it only natural that our children be exposed to both of our cultures and languages. From the beginning my goal was to raise our children to become perfectly bilingual (active users!) of both languages. Also, all of my family (and I have quite a large family) is back in the US. I could not imagine my parents having grandchildren they could not communicate with; it would sadden and disappoint them. I want my children to enjoy an active, close relationship with family in the US and I feel being fluent in English is a large part of that. Since my children were born and are being raised in Austria, I know they will tend to feel more “Austrian” than “American." But I want them to be aware of their American heritage as well as understand about the culture and country their mother is from. To me, knowing English well is part of that.

How well do your children understand and speak the second language? What do they think about it? Do they have a preference for certain languages in certain situations and with certain interlocutors?

I am very very happy with my children’s language skills in both German and English! I can honestly say they are native level fluent in both languages. They tend to code switch sometimes but I am very strict about that and do not allow it. I stop them in mid-sentence and remind them that at the moment they speaking either English or German; there’s no such thing as “Gernglish"! J I encourage them to stop a minute and not take the word that pops into their head first but rather search their brain and find and use the English word….I think code switching is a bad habit to form because they train their brain that way (and get lazy!) and then when they really have to speak the one language or the other, it will be difficult.

[Note from Sarah: click here and here to learn more about code-switching.]

Both my children are very happy they speak both languages. From the beginning, I believe it has been easier to teach them English here in Austria rather than the other way around. I believe if we were living in the US and my husband was trying to teach them German, it would be more difficult. In Austria, English is very highly regarded second language to learn. Austrian parents pay a lot of money to have their children start learning English from an early age. They send their children to special, private schools that focus on English, attend playgroups, etc. When I am out and about with my children and people hear me speak English with them (and they realize the children and I speak German, too), the response is very positive and encouraging. My kids picked up on that quickly that being able to speak English is “cool."

On the whole, the kids have no qualms about not liking it when I do not speak German with them or my husband…. I think we have been able to create a home environment in which it is natural for us to use both languages equally. I absolutely refuse to speak German with my children and they know it. They know I speak German, of course, and I have explained why I do not speak German with them and why we feel it is important they learn both languages. They seem to be fine with it! In fact, I think if I began speaking German with them on a regular basis they would have a heart attack because it’s just not “natural”! They speak English with Mom!

The situation with non-English speaking Austrian friends is a bit tougher. I speak twice; once in English and then again quickly in German for the benefit of the non-English speaking friend. Sometimes, though, I do not believe I’m being rude in public when I only speak English with the kids. After all, I am speaking to my children and not for others around me. Only during a few incidences in the US when I wanted to tell my children something quickly and privately without anyone around me understand, I would say it in German. When that happens, they know it’s a rare situation and an exception.

Lately I don’t bother too much with translating for the Austrian friends. Mostly because a number of them now have English at school and they say they like it when I speak English because they can ‘practice’ and see if they understood what I said. J

Have you been able to expose your children to the culture(s) where the second language is spoken? How?

As mentioned, through using video tapes of US children’s TV shows, movies and cartoons, speaking only English with them, forming playgroups with other American moms and children being raised bilingually, reading to them a lot (in English), and playing computer games in which instructions, etc. are in English. Purchasing English language story cassettes and CDs for them to listen to before bedtime or ‘in the background’ while playing quietly with Legos (or whatever) in their rooms or the living room.

What challenges have occurred as you teach your children a second language?

Code switching is a problem. They speak so much German in their environment at school and with friends that when they speak English with me, often a German word will pop into their head faster than the English word so they’ll get “lazy” and just insert the German word in the sentence. As mentioned, I do not accept that and I make them either think of the word in English or I give them the word and make them say the sentence again.

Writing can be a problem. German is a very phonetic language with defined grammar rules. Sometimes they carry these things over into their English writing and misspell words (trying to write phonetically), capitalize nouns (which, we do not do in English, of course), place commas incorrectly, etc. They can probably only best learn in the course of the next few years by having their work corrected and learning from their mistakes. They somehow have to learn for themselves that “…doing this belongs to this language and doing that belongs to that language.…”

Sometimes I find the longer we are here (before a summer trip home to CA, for example), the kids’ English starts getting “accented” and clumsy and I know from the structure of the sentence, they are directly translating from German. That is when I know it is high time for a visit to the US! It is amazing to me, though, because over the years I have observed that the minute we are in the US, after just 2 or 3 days, they speak American accented English (the Austrian accent is gone) and their word usage and sentence structure is good ol’ English again and not “translated German."

What resources have been most useful to you?

1) English language TV shows, movies and cartoons.
2) Computer and Gameboy games in English are also fun for them.
3) Books are a wonderful source and I make sure I keep them well stocked with English books. Jessica loves to read in English! Fortunately I can choose and order from a wide selection of English language books from Amazon’s German sister site. Before the children could read, I would read to them a lot in English! And I mean I read to them a lot! J I think that was also key in learning English well. I think it’s important to know that when you are working with small children, you do not necessarily have to have books in that language. They can’t read anyway, so just take any children's book you have and loosely translate the story into the second language. Point out all of the things in the pictures to increase their vocabulary: sky, trees, butterfly, etc. and repeat constantly. You can do that for many years before they actually learn to read! You don’t necessarily have to order a lot expensive foreign language books, especially since that can get expensive.
4) Getting together with friends whose kids speak English is also important and something we do as often as we can.
5) English language story cassettes and CDs to listen to at night before going to bed. When they were smaller we listened to many music CDs with classical children’s songs, etc. and later they loved listening to story cassettes and CDs.

What do you think parents, caretakers, teachers, and/or researchers need to know about teaching a second language to children? What do you wish you had known when you started?

I believe that consequence and constant repetition is the key and vital to successfully teaching a child a second language. Remaining consequent is probably one of the most difficult things to do, especially when you are using a language the majority of people in your environment do not speak. I think it’s important to show the children a person is proud of that language, has reasons why (and share that with the child! As soon as they're old enough to start rejecting the language, tell them why you’re doing this!), and is strict about not accepting the other language. If parents can create a home environment where it is perfectly natural to speak that language, I believe it helps as the child does not know anything “different” or is aware that learning a second language is not the norm in every household, you know? It’s just a natural thing.

Answer your own question now--what did I not ask about that you want to comment on?

After seventeen years in Austria, I recently had an opportunity to take a six-month leave of absence from my job in Austria and I made plans for an extended stay in California from the end of February to the end of August. The children and I stayed at my parents’ house in north Orange County, and from the end of February to mid-June, the kids attended elementary school in my hometown. My daughter was in 6th grade and my son was in 5th grade. It was an absolutely wonderful experience for them! Naturally they were very nervous about it but the kids in their new classes made them feel very welcome and right away like part of the community. The kids had an opportunity to work more in English (reading, writing, spelling) and improve their comprehension and vocabulary (including, the current slang and – probably unavoidable – the more “colorful” words of the language that they do not learn from Mom!). ;-) I was also very happy that they had a chance to experience the more positive, encouraging and helpful atmosphere of American schools and dedicated American teachers! I have many issues with the Austrian school system; however, that is completely different can of worms that requires a website of its own! ;-) Suffice to say I am not completely happy with the Austrian school system and the (ancient, medieval, old fashioned) methods of teaching and how kids here are treated. That said, the children had a fantastic experience in California where they improved their English, made wonderful new American friends, got a great boost of confidence in their academic abilities, became more “fun” and silly somehow (instead of being “serious Europeans”) and learned many new things!

I understand this is something not all families can do but I believe that if a family has the opportunity to do something like this (where there’s a will there’s a way!), I highly recommend it and it is an invaluable experience for the children. I believe age plays an important part, too, in planning something like this. When the kids hit a certain age (around 11 or 12), they are less reluctant to leave their friends and school and familiar surroundings! The older they get, the harder it becomes! We just barely managed to get Jessica over…. ;-)

Now that the kids are back at their regular school here in Austria (they attend an International School where English is the foremost language of instruction), it is only now they can reflect and compare on the differences from the school they attended in the US. They needed time to do that because it was all so different. When the kids speak English now, they still continue to speak very “American” and their vocabulary and word use is fantastic.

[Sarah again: I'd like to thank Nadine for taking the time to share so much. Her story confirms much of what I've read by linguists and heard from other parents: that lots of input is crucial to learning a second language, that parents can and should address the fact that their children are bicultural as well as bilingual (when that is the case), that consistent input (one-parent-one-language) cuts down on potential confusion, and that peers and the status of the second language does affect the children's perception of and desire to speak it. It's also interesting to note that even older children who are balanced bilinguals still code-switch; my research so far has confirmed that this is a natural part of being bilingual. I also found Nadine's suggestions of inexpensive ways to provide input very helpful: it's true that books for pre-literate children can be read in any language, and taped TV shows certainly are cheaper than buying that many videos and DVDs. So I have a couple of questions for other parents or teachers of bilingual kids: which of Nadine's suggestions seem most valuable to you? Do you have any others to recommend? Have any of you enrolled your children in the second language school system at any point, like Nadine did recently? Have your experiences been similar or different from her family's approach to learning two languages? (Click here to be reminded of difficult it can be to teach your kids a second language. ) Please click on "comments" to share here--and/or email me if you'd like me to post a profile of a bilingual kid you know!]


  1. wow, the world is small!!!! Fancy reading this here ... I happen to know Nadine! Thanks for posting this, it was very interesting ... ;)

  2. Thanks for the post. My baby is now almost 8 months old and i have been speaking to him exclusively in German. However, I am not totaly confident in my abilities and I'm not living in a German speaking country. what resources are there out there that I can use to supplement his language study that aren't totally expensive (i.e. the Muzzy program). Do programs liek that even work?

  3. Hi Anna,

    Thanks for commenting. I only just now stumbled across your comment on this post. Sorry for not answering your questions sooner! I haven't actually seen the Muzzy program myself (didn't want to spend the money when my nephew was too young to watch tv). There's Rosetta Stone, but that's even more pricey than Muzzy and isn't for young children.

    Briefly, I'd recommend doing all you can to boost your comfort level and familiarity with German (especially reading--any type of text, including websites), learn lots of songs to sing to your child, "read" his English books to him in German (don't feel like you have to translate word for word--just describe the story and the pictures), hire a German-speaking babysitter, attend or create a German playgroup....

    As it's been a few months since you posted your question, I don't know if you'll be back to see this answer. But if you are, please email me (babybilingual at gmail dot com) or comment on a recent post to let me know you're still around, and I'll do a post on this topic and ask my readers for their suggestions for German as well!