Friday, October 20, 2006

Profile: Sophie learning English and German in Canada

Fellow Blogger Smashedpea was kind enough to answer my questions--and has one for the rest of us at the end of this profile!

What is your language background and history?

I’ve grown up in Germany, speaking German as my mother tongue, while learning English, Latin and Spanish in high school. I moved to Canada after graduating from high school – originally just for a year or so, but I ended up staying here. Over time, I spoke less and less German, to the point of not ever speaking it anymore – unless I went back on a trip, had German visitors or phoned home. In the end, I went to university here, started working and married a unilingual English-speaking Canadian – so English became my main language, and it is now the language in which I feel most at ease. Trips to Germany or German visitors help me stay in touch and I still consider myself fluent, but I have to admit that when I do use German, I sometimes have to think about a word or the proper sentence structure.

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

Our daughter Sophie, now 16 months old, is exposed to English by everyone around her and to German through me.

Early on, I found it weird speaking to her in German, especially when my husband was around (sadly, he doesn’t understand more than a few words). But I got used to it over time and now speak it with her almost exclusively.

I speak German to her when it’s only the two of us, whether we’re at home, at the playground, in the grocery store or wherever. I don’t really make a conscious effort just yet to try and teach her some sort of topical vocabulary, but it happens naturally, so that I’m likely to talk to her about food when we’re in the grocery store, for example. I’ve been doing this from very early on, so German was the main language for her while I was on maternity leave (9 months, then my husband took over).

Early on, I used to speak English to her when my husband was around, but as she was beginning to understand more, I naturally started speaking more German to her even in front of him. For example, if the three of us are sitting around the dinner table these days, my husband and I are speaking English, but I might ask Sophie in German whether she likes her food, whether she wants more, is ready for her bath or whatever, while my husband may speak to her in English. Similarly, if we’re all leaving the house, my husband and I speak in English, but I will ask Sophie in German to go get her shoes.

When my husband is around, I speak to her in German when something only applies to her, when I know that he can pick it up from the context, or when he’s not involved in what we’re doing. Other times I repeat to him in English what I just said to her in German, but sometimes I only say things in English. Using English only when she is around is becoming increasingly rare for me, since I naturally speak more German to her as her capacity for language increases.

When other people are around, I find this more difficult. For example, in the grocery store I’ll continue to speak to her in German, but not necessarily on the playground if other people are within earshot. Same when we visit my in-laws or have friends over – I will speak English to her because I’m just not comfortable speaking to her in German when I know full well that other people around us don’t understand. It just always seems rude to me, I can’t help it.

We also listen to a lot of German kiddie song CDs and read German books. I’ve asked all German friends and relatives who want to give her presents, to give her books, CDs or DVDs rather than toys or clothes, just to give us more resources. I also read English books to her, but translate the story into German. She can’t read anyway, so it won’t confuse her. My husband has picked up a bunch of German phrases and words from repeatedly listening to Sophie’s favourite CDs and will sing songs with her in German as best he can. He’s also picked up a few phrases from me, just things I tend to say to her a lot and tries to use them on her as much as possible. For example, he may ask her in German whether she wants a new diaper, or tell her to go upstairs with him and put on her jammies, get her shoes, eat or go outside.

We’ve also joined a German parents group, but meeting up with them hasn’t worked out yet since they meet during the week and I’m back working full-time. In the future, there may be more weekend activities in that group, so I’m keeping my eyes on it. We are also planning on having a second child, and I plan on getting more involved with the group while on maternity leave.

English, of course, she gets all day long at daycare, from other people we run into when we’re out, our friends and relatives here and when she spends time alone with her Papa. We are not too worried about this, since it clearly is the language she hears most often.

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

Even though it was a bit difficult for me to get back into using German on a daily basis when we first had Sophie, I can’t imagine not speaking German to her. I think it’s just natural to want to pass on your own language to your children, and to speak to them in your own language. It is also important to me that she be able to speak to her German relatives and my German friends when we go over there or they come and visit us. I just couldn’t imagine her not being able to speak to her one German cousin the next time we go!

We also want to give her the opportunities that come from knowing another language. It’d be great if she could spend a semester or so at a German high school or university, or if she could spend a summer working there when she’s on break from university. I realize that she may not want to do any of this or that she may reject learning German at some point, but for now we just want to put her on the path to bilingualism.

Personally, I also think it’s great for people to know more than one language. I loved learning languages and I hope she takes after me on this. It’s totally okay if she doesn’t, but I see this as opening a door for her and really hope that she’ll take the opportunity to go and explore.

How well does your child understand and speak the second language?

So far, Sophie seems to understand English and German equally well. At least she responds to a few things, when she’s in the mood, regardless of whether she’s asked in English or German. She can get her shoes or jacket, pick up whatever she just threw down and give it to the person asking her, kiss people, wave bye-bye and respond with either shaking her head no or saying her own word for yes when asked whether she wants to eat a certain thing or have a bath or get a new diaper etc.

She also babbles all day long and one of her babble-words is ‘ich’, which happens to be the real German word for ‘I’. It doesn’t seem to mean anything just yet, but it has a sound in it that doesn’t really exist in English. She is also obsessed with dogs and has been barking quite a bit for the last couple of months. And she barks the German sound, not the English one. I don’t know if either of this means anything, but I find it encouraging.

At this point, aside from Mama, her only other clear word is ‘bird’. It started out as ‘brd’, but it’s now quite clearly ‘bird’. She says it whenever she sees a bird or someone says something about birds to her. She has never said the German equivalent Vogel (much harder anyway), but when I say something to her in German about a Vogel, she excitedly says ‘bird’. She’s also pretty close to saying ‘ball’ – but at this point it’s too early to tell whether this is the English or German pronunciation (they are quite close).

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

Only really through CDs at this point and the occasional visitor from Germany. I’m hoping that the German parents group will help fill this gap once we’re able to meet up with them. I know from emails I’ve received that they celebrate some of the German holidays that cater more to kids, e.g., Karneval. At home, we celebrate Nikolaus and have our big Christmas do on Christmas Eve. I think the local children’s film and theatre festivals sometimes offer international entries, and we certainly would take advantage of that, if age-appropriate. Of course, eventually we’ll also take her to Germany for visits. I’ve also subscribed to the mailing list of the local Goethe Institut , but so far they haven’t had any kid-friendly events.

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

Nothing yet, though in the beginning, simply remembering to speak German to her. I live my life in English and I think in English, and have been for years, so switching to German around her took some getting used to.

What resources have been most useful to you?

For now, German kiddie CDs have worked especially well for us. Books, too, but to a lesser extent, since it’s just as easy for me to translate her English books into German on the fly. Or we just talk about what’s in the pictures – when she stops running around for a minute or two. She also loves any and all music. We often have one of her CDs on while having lunch or while she plays, and we sing to her in German quite a bit, too. We don’t really let her watch TV or DVDs yet, but once we do, I’ll be after my German relatives and friends to keep us supplied. The next time we go over there, I also plan on stocking up with all sorts of German books, tapes, CDs, DVDs and games to increase the variety in our resources.

If we were able to participate in the German parent group, I suspect it would be right up there, too, to exchange books, to participate in the singing circle, to celebrate the kid-friendly holidays, to find German-speaking playmates--and for me to hear and speak more German.

All in all, we haven’t really had to worry about this too much yet as she’s still so young, but I’m beginning to think more about it now that I notice her understanding and responding more and more.

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? What, if anything, would you do differently now?

I think it takes a fair amount of commitment and follow through to do it, especially in a situation similar to ours. Sophie may hear German from me all the time, but often it would be easier to just use one language. I also worry that it just goes under in a sea of English.

I wish I would have looked into resources earlier, while still pregnant even. I don’t mean books and CDs, but playgroups, festivals etc. I never thought about it at the time, maybe because we were busy buying a house and moving and of course, I didn’t really know then that you don’t get around to much of anything with a newborn in the house, so I missed out on the German parent group. When I finally unearthed them, it was too late – I was about to go back to work, so I could never take advantage of their activities.

Young kids are such sponges, so my approach is based mainly on osmosis I think. It may not be very methodical and it’s not based on any sort of research on my part, but for us it works to just make German a natural part of our day. We go about our business, but we do it in German as much as possible. We try to make it fun and keep it varied and just expose her to as much German as we can.

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

In the long run, we probably have to be a bit more organized about this and decide whether we want her to learn how to read and write in German as well. I know kids who’ve been to Saturday school to learn their parent’s language and they hated it. I don’t really want to force her into it, but at the same time I think it’d be best if she did learn.

Any thoughts on this?


  1. An update on Sophie - she now has her first German word! We're pretty excited about it, even more so than about her slowly growing English vocabulary.

    And her word is.... nein (meaning no). She used to only say it when she was trying to fight us on something and it was always screamed or at least delivered with a lot of emphasis, and I mean a lot. It was always "NEIN!!!! Nnneeeiiiiiinnnn!! Neeeeiiiin! NEIN!!!

    She's been screaming it for a couple of weeks, but now she can also say it. It usually escalates pretty quickly into screaming still, but hey, she's coming along.

    And I'd been wondering just when she'd be learning to say no anyway, opinionated little monkey that she is :)

  2. Congratulations on Sophie's first word in German--how exciting for you to hear your daughter speak your mother tongue! Keep us updated....