Jeanne has only recently started to use other languages with all of her six children, but she reports that for the most part the kids are catching on and liking it a lot. In recent emails to me, she mentioned that her three-year-old just said his first independent word in German (in addition to his repeating words after her). And now her oldest son and daughter have started speaking to their younger siblings in German and asking for her to teach them more! You can follow along with Jeanne's family's linguistic explorations and adventures at her blog, Books and Brownies.
What is your language background and history?
I have always been fascinated with languages. At the age of 12, I heard a song by Menudo on the radio. It was their first English release. I liked it so much that I bought the tape, and then I wanted more of their music, so I started buying their Spanish albums. This led me to want to study Spanish, so I took 2 years in high school along with 3 years of French. When I went to college, I began to study German and continued my Spanish. I then decided to major in languages, so I majored in German and minored in Spanish. After graduation, I enrolled in graduate school and earned an MA in German. Since graduating in 1996, I have been at home with my children. I have no family connections in either Spanish or German, and my husband speaks only English.
What languages are you exposing your children to, and how?
I have six children: Robert is 17, Gabrielle is almost 11, Mary is almost 9, Ryan is 3, and Alexander and Christopher are identical twins who are a year and a half old. They are being exposed to three languages besides English to some extent, but German is the primary one.
Robert (17) is learning German at home using a high school level text called Deutsch Aktuell, and he spent a month in Germany with me when he was 5 ½. During that month, he spent the mornings at a home daycare that a German family ran. By the end of the month, he understood most of what was said to him. An elderly woman at a museum asked him several questions, which he answered with “ja” or “nein” appropriately. Later she overheard us speaking English and asked me if he was German, so she obviously had thought he was. I wish that I had been better at teaching him German through the years, but I was very lost as to what exactly to do with him. Robert is fairly good at languages and studied Latin for two years, has some Spanish, and is currently volunteering with me as an ESL assistant teacher. However, he is not anywhere near fluent in any other language. We plan to finish at least three high school years of German before he graduates, and also two official years of Spanish. I also hope to be able to get him to Germany next year somehow.
Gabrielle and Mary have taken German classes through a German group we belong to called CarolinaKinder. In addition, we have done lessons at home. We tried using Power Glide Jr., which was expensive and not at all worth it! It did not produce any noticeable German. Then, I didn’t know what to do with them, but got some inspiration from our math books. The Saxon math series does a “meeting” where the child has daily practice on things like writing the date, counting money, etc. I decided to have a German meeting with them to teach them basic vocabulary and review it every day. I used Usborne’s First 1000 Words in German sticker book as a base. Every day we reviewed numbers, colors, days of the week, seasons, months, time of day (like morning, afternoon, etc), weather, and clothing. As they learned the basic vocabulary, I added in more German. I also wrote phrases in the book so it wasn’t just vocabulary. For example, under the picture of rain, it says “der Regen” and I wrote in “Es regnet” so they would know how to say “It’s raining.” Then we added in some verbs and we had a page that we were learning. We started with pets. We would play games where they would be an animal and we had to guess what they were. For colors we would play I Spy.
I don’t know how to measure our success with this. They did learn basic vocabulary, but I spoke way too much English doing it with them. I tried to add in more German, but at the time I was not too comfortable with my spoken German, which had gotten incredibly rusty. I tried to mix the languages so the girls wouldn’t stress about what I was saying, but in hindsight, I wouldn’t have done it that way. Eventually, they had learned the words and were getting bored with what we were doing. I then bought LinguaFun cards and we played games with them, which the girls enjoyed. We played while I was on bed rest during my pregnancy with the twins. At this point, their German mainly consists of knowing basic vocabulary and being able to answer, “What’s your name?” Now they hear me speaking it to the little ones, so that helps. I hope to get them back into German classes this fall.
In addition, Gabrielle is very motivated to learn Spanish. She is currently using a program called “Learn Spanish with Grace.” She has a very good accent. She sang in a Spanish children’s choir when she was five, the only non-Hispanic child to participate. She would love to do that again. I am going to start having a short time every day of speaking Spanish with her. Mary is not “officially” studying Spanish, but she overhears a lot of what Gabrielle does and so is learning it too (sometimes you have to be sneaky!).
Mary wants to learn Swedish. That comes from the Kirsten series in the American Girl book line. One day she came to me and asked if I had any songs in Swedish, since Gabrielle was learning Spanish songs. I actually do, because I love ABBA and they recorded several of their biggest hits in Swedish. So I gave her the CDs (which had the words thankfully) and she learned them all. It’s very interesting to have an 8 year old singing “Waterloo” to you in Swedish! I have been searching for a children’s program to use with her and so far have been unsuccessful. She doesn’t want to do it entirely on the computer. We have the Bilingual Baby video in Swedish and she learned some basic vocabulary with that, but how many times can you watch the same video? I would love to take her to the Concordia Language Villages sometime in the future. Since Swedish is kind of obscure, it’s hard to find resources. We do live near a large university, so I have been thinking of seeing if I could find a Swedish exchange student who would tutor her. That is probably the best option. I am happy to learn it with her, but I know from experience that just knowing the language doesn’t mean you know what to do to teach it.
Since the girls have other languages they want to learn, they don’t understand why I want them to learn German too. They think one other language is enough. But I tell them that they can learn both, and they need to study German because I said so. My husband backs me up on that, so it helps. I hope to organize some activities for older children in our German group, but what I find is that the older children all speak English to each other when they are together. I know that I need to create reasons for them to learn German and get that desire back. It’s likely at some point we will go spend some time in Germany and I want them to at least be able to converse in German. They do like learning German songs and can sing about 5 or 6 children’s songs.
Now, onto the little ones! Ryan is 3 and the twins are 20 months. I decided about a month ago to begin speaking German to them consistently. This now means that I speak German at least 50% of the time. I would like it to be more, but I need to increase my child-centered vocabulary! I learned German as an adult, and didn’t know how to say things like, “Would you like to play catch?” So I sit there with my little dictionary and look up words as I need them. I just bought more children’s books in German, so I read the books to them and talk to them and play with them.
Why do you want your children to learn additional languages?
Because I just think it’s wrong that Americans believe they don’t need to learn any other language. I just read yesterday that the EU is promoting being able to speak your own language plus 2 others – in the US hardly anyone speaks just one other! I don’t think that the US can afford to be isolated anymore. I believe that studying languages is fun and interesting and that anyone can learn to some extent. I want them to learn German because it will help them with whatever they decide to do in the future, and because we may at some point go to Germany so I can study. I think it’s great that they also have another language they want to learn, and I want to support their efforts and get them to a basic level of fluency in both.
How well do your children understand, speak, read, and write the other languages?
Robert seems to have a basic understanding of German and Spanish and can usually figure out the topic of something he is reading. He likes languages, but not as much as I do. To him they are just a means of communication! Gabrielle and Mary are very much beginners in their languages. Ryan is understanding some of what I say in German and repeating it back, but doesn’t spontaneously say things (although we did just start with the German in the last month or so).
How you been able to expose your children to the culture(s) where the other languages are is spoken?
Mainly through our German group. They have holiday celebrations like they would in Germany. I tell my children about Germany, show them pictures, and read books about Germany. For Spanish, there are a lot of Hispanics in our area. Our church building looks like a transplant from New Mexico. Just yesterday I was explaining to the girls that even though there are a lot of people that speak Spanish, they have different cultures, just like England, Ireland, the US, and Australia all speak English but have different cultures. I also like to listen to Latin music, so they know some of those songs. We have gotten books out of the library about Sweden for Mary, and she will tell us, “In Sweden they do such-and-such.” A couple of weeks ago, we all watched the Eurovision contest on the computer and that was a lot of fun. It inspired my daughters to have their own contest with their Barbies. They got a map of Europe and chose countries for each Barbie and made outfits and then had the contest.
What challenges have occurred as you teach your children other languages?
The biggest challenge has been just not knowing exactly what to do! Another big challenge is finding good resources that don’t break the bank! And since we live out in the country, I have had to decide that it’s worth it. Yes, it’s worth it to drive an hour for a 30 minute storytime. It is a commitment of time and money and energy, but I don’t want to have my little ones grown and say, “Why didn’t I do this with them? Why didn’t I give them this gift?” like I am doing with my oldest. Another challenge is my daughters’ resistance to German. Hopefully I can overcome that. And I already mentioned how difficult it is to find Swedish resources for Mary.
What resources have been most useful to you? What, on the other hand, has not been useful?
Useful: Berlitz book Help Your Child with a Foreign Language by Opal Dunn, Usborne language books, a songbook and CD set I got from Alphabet Garten [specializing in German materials], other German picture books, Sound Beginnings CD, Bilingual Baby videos, LinguaFun cards, Enchanted Learning website, Deutsch Aktuell, Learn Spanish with Grace.
Not useful: Power Glide, Rosetta Stone (and on her blog, Jeanne also explains the inadequacies of the Pimsleur program)
What do you wish you had known when you started? What, if anything, would you do differently now?
I would like to see more research about effective ways for families to learn a language together, and also for a parent to teach a non-native language to his or her own child. I really can’t believe that I let a month’s worth of German slip away from my son! I should have continued with him and maybe by now he would be fluent.
Answer your own question now--what did I not ask about that you want to comment on?
Another thing that I would really like to do, but have been unable to figure out how, is teach other subjects in the target language. I guess I could probably find resources to do this with Spanish, but it would be hard to do it in German and even harder in Swedish. And I guess that one would have to reach a basic level in the language before anything else would make sense. Any ideas about how to do that? I really am inspired by your creativity with the games and ideas that you do with the girls you tutor and with your nephew!
Jeanne, thanks so much for answering this questionnaire with so much detail! I really like seeing how it's possible to start using a foreign language with kids of such varied ages. Thank you too for all the specific resource recommendations. Readers, do you have any questions or comments for Jeanne?