Tuesday, July 06, 2010

profile: smashedpea's kids growing up with German and English in Canada, part 2!

Almost four years ago, Smashedpea, a mom from Germany, introduced us to her Canadian husband and their little girl. Today we're going to revisit their original profile now that their daughter is in school (and about to start a French immersion school!) and their family has been joined by a little boy. Thank you very much for answering my questions once again, Smashedpea! Visit her over at her blog, Intrepidly Bilingual, to hear more about her little "punks."

We are a family of 4, living in an English-speaking part of Canada. My husband is Canadian and I moved here from Germany. We have two kids – S, our daughter who just turned 5, and O, our son who will turn 3 in July.

S loves books and letters and likes us to spell things for her, anything she can’t yet spell all by herself, so she can write it down. She currently wants to be an English teacher, probably entirely due to the fact that she loves her English JK (Junior Kindergarten, optional for 4 year olds) teacher. O tries to keep up with his big sister as best as he can and often has to be her student when she wants to play JK. Otherwise his main interests are trucks, diggers, cars, construction sites, planes, climbing on things, and trying to destroy whatever he gets his grubby little hands on.

What languages are spoken by the adults in your household and at what level of proficiency?

My husband’s only language is English, though he has picked up a bit of German over the years and has just finished his first ever German course. Occasionally, he tries to dazzle the kids with German – frequently resulting in hysterical laughter from O and confusion and/or corrections from S.

German is my native language, but these days I feel more at home in English. My German is still fluent, but a bit rusty in that I can’t always think of the right word, am not always sure of all grammatical rules, have no clue about the buzzwords, etc. I have been using English most of the time for a while now, and it shows.

Other languages I studied have mainly fallen by the wayside, though I can still understand basic French.

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

Mainly English and German, through a somewhat relaxed version of OPOL (one parent one language), and we are about to add more French.

While we don’t worry about the kids’ English at all, things are a bit different with German, given that I provide their only regular input and also work full-time outside the house. Although I speak German with them as much as possible wherever we go, they are really only getting a few hours each day before and after work/school/daycare and usually more on weekends – but that depends on what we’re doing.

We incorporate German into our daily lives, so that speaking German is just something that they do, rather than a chore. We are raising them to be bilingual, biliterate and bicultural, and want them to consider German as a normal and relevant part of their lives, so that it isn’t just this weird language I speak with them.

Additionally, we are beginning to add more French. Both kids are already learning some in daycare which switches to French in the afternoons, and this fall our eldest will start French immersion SK (Senior Kindergarten, optional for 5 year-olds), with the little one likely to follow in a couple of years. We are not jumping into French as enthusiastically as we did into German, but if the kids take to it we will probably end up supporting it at home to some extent as well.

Why do you want your children to know more than one language?

German is my first language and I and simply couldn’t imagine my kids not being able to speak it. My husband is very supportive of the kids’ budding bilingualism and wants them to learn German so they can talk to that side of our family, but would otherwise prefer French as their other language (which is the main reason why we’ve registered S for the immersion programme I mentioned above). But it’s really important for both of us that the kids can interact with our German friends and family and that a lack of understanding doesn’t get in the way of having good relationships with them.

That bilingualism gives them other benefits is a nice thing of course, too, but not the reason why we got into it. In keeping going it probably plays more of a role for my husband, but that makes sense as he wouldn’t have much of a connection to German on his own.

How well do your children understand, speak, read, and write the different languages? How do they feel about them? Do they have a preference for what they speak in which contexts? How has their language use evolved as they grow?

Both have age-appropriate skills in all language skills as this is their strongest language, for sure.

This is their weakest language, but they understand simple instructions, can say a few words and phrases, and sing some songs. For S that will change as she starts with French immersion this September.

Both understand it very well, but have to make a bit of an effort when they speak it. They make more mistakes in German than in English, have a comparatively smaller vocabulary, and can’t express themselves as well or as easily as they can in English. O, for example, has only recently begun to separate German from English and come out with complete German sentences of his own, whereas S can talk your ear off in German almost as well as in English these days and is not afraid to make mistakes or ask for words she doesn’t know.

Things certainly have changed a lot for both kids over time, especially so for S, who just turned 5. Until about a year ago, she pretty much refused to speak German, even though she understood everything that was said to her. Her English was ahead of that of other kids her age, but she barely managed a simple “Ja” [yes] or “Nein” [no] in German, and had no interest in speaking it at all. Not even when we went to Germany and spent a lot of time with her then still monolingual cousins – because she understood everything they said to her, she could keep up in their games and that kind of thing, and never saw the need to even consider speaking German.

At that point, I hadn’t really done anything to encourage her to speak it either as I had always just assumed, rather naively, she’d be speaking German because I was speaking it to her. When that didn’t happen, I began encouraging her, and slowly we turned things around. When she first started out speaking German, she did so very haltingly, with an English accent, and lots of word-finding problems (even though she’d have understood the words she was looking for had I said them to her). Slowly and with some set-backs she came around and started to realize that speaking German was getting easier as she used it more. She lost her accent very quickly, doesn’t nearly have as many word-finding problems anymore and has become as talkative in German as she is in English.

She has become so used to speaking German with me that she does it even in situations when I’d be okay with her speaking English (e.g., when I pick her up from a play date with an English-speaking kid and we say our goodbyes to the kid and her parents), and frequently reminds me to speak German myself under such circumstances. Occasionally she still gets frustrated with speaking German because she can’t express herself as easily as she can in English, but she is learning to cope with that. She often sings German songs without anyone prompting her; picks German books for bedtime stories; belts out German songs for her relatives, regardless of whether they understand German; has taught some German words to one of the daycare workers, her cousins and her best friend; and has recently asked to have a play date with a little German boy we know. She has come a very long way!

Her German is by no means perfect, but she can carry on conversations quite easily. The main problems are that she confuses the three articles; doesn’t always conjugate irregular verbs correctly (she still has the same problem in English); sometimes uses the wrong word; has a smaller vocabulary; and often uses the English sentence structure. Some of this might be age-appropriate, so I don’t worry about it and I definitely don’t correct her constantly. But it is quite noticeable when she speaks, and she is certainly aware that her German is not quite as strong as her English. She is also interested in improving it, and sometimes asks how to say something or if she’s used a word correctly, etc.

When she speaks German, she code-switches quite frequently, all the while keeping German grammar for the English bits as best as she can (e.g., adding a German verb ending to an English verb). Similarly to the other issues I mentioned above, this doesn’t necessarily worry or bother me, although I do correct it when I catch it as I don’t want her to get used to speaking a mix all the time, especially when I know she could say it all in German. I have also noticed that when I let this slide for any amount of time, she takes more and more liberties with it and pretty quickly starts making sentences that are more English than German. Interestingly though, she rarely inserts German words or parts thereof into her English.

She is very good at knowing with whom to speak what language and never uses the ‘wrong’ language. At least not with adults, although her default with other bilingual kids is English, and she will only speak German as long as the other kid doesn’t switch into English and I remind her occasionally.

She can switch back and forth between English and German effortlessly, and has to do this all the time when we’re together as a family so that she can talk to both me and my husband. She is very good at translating and has no problem answering my questions in German and then turning around and telling my husband something in English or translating what we just talked about.

Her preference, however, is quite clearly English. She speaks to herself in English and has never made comments about it being difficult (which occasionally still happens with German). At times, she has been quite self-conscious about speaking German, but these days she is quite proud of it. I’m really excited about how well she’s able to communicate in the language, and can’t wait to see what happens as her little brother picks up speed in his language development and the two can maybe interact in German a bit more.

As for the little one, he is lot easier going than his sister and has never refused to speak German altogether. He doesn’t seem to have a preference and hasn’t ever (yet?) complained that German is harder, but as I mentioned earlier, his verbal skills in English are much stronger than in German. He can now produce complete sentences in German and is definitely making more of an effort to keep his languages apart. But he still mixes a lot, and in both languages (unlike S). For him, it’s mainly because he doesn’t know all words in both languages, but at times also because he has a number of words that he knows in both languages yet strongly prefers in one.

For example, he picks “Nachtisch” over “dessert” every single time. But he also knows enough to turn his request for “Can I have Nachtisch, bitte?” into “Can I please have dessert?” when the original gets him confused looks, for example from his English-speaking grandmother. His enthusiasm for the German word “Bagger” [digger] on the other hand seems to be so contagious that a number of other little kids have picked it up from him - ensuring his continued use of the German word, even though he full well knows the English one.

He has also begun to develop some understanding of what language works with whom. For example, he notices and reacts when someone who normally speaks English with him all of a sudden speaks German, which he never does when S or I switch languages as he’s so used to hearing us speak both, depending on where we are and who else is around.

They are both doing quite well in German, but I wish they spoke it to each other. I’m trying to get S into the habit of speaking German to him when it’s only the three of us (and maybe other German-speakers), but she usually doesn’t. She seems to be quit strict about picking her language based on the person she is speaking with rather than choosing by context, and to her, their language is English. As he is getting better at keeping his languages apart, I might start asking him to speak German with her and we’ll see if that makes a difference. He does use more German when she speaks it with him, so I’m curious to see how this will play out in the future.

How have you been able to expose your children to the culture where the different languages are spoken?

We’ve been to Germany once with both kids, and hope to go back next year. O was too young to really remember anything, but S remembers enough to know that we were there and often asks to go back. As they get older, I think this will become a much more meaningful way to help them along and it’s definitely something we’re planning on doing.

My mother comes to visit us regularly (if only once a year) and keeps us well stocked with German books, DVDs, CDs, board games, and treats. There are regular phone calls to and from Germany as well, but I shamefully admit that we haven’t skyped yet – we are on the verge though since we recently upgraded our ancient computer to something that can handle it.

S is now also old enough to talk about the differences between Germany and Canada. She has become fascinated with some things, e.g., that her German cousins go to bed when she has lunch; that Santa comes the evening of the 24th and not the morning of the 25th; that Germans love their bakeries and eat cake in the afternoon before dinner and not after dinner the way her Canadian relatives do; that her German cousins are learning English in school; and that Germans don’t necessarily eat the same foods we’re eating. She seems to be quite interested in this sort of thing and soaks it up, often re-visiting those topics days or even months after we’ve initially talked about it.

We also take the kids on outings we organize or to events we come across locally, either with other German-speakers we know or by ourselves. It’s not the same as going to a country in which the language is spoken, but it’s still important to us. We want our kids to know German traditions as much as they know the ones that are native to Canada, so we make an effort.

To help the kids with this and hopefully have some fun along the way, Nikolaus comes to our house every year; we have been to a “Laternenumzug” [lantern parade]; I made the traditional “Zuckertüte” [literally, sugar cone, but really a cone filled with treats and little things useful for a kid starting school] when S started JK last year; and the German Easter bunny usually makes an extra trip to all the little German-speakers in town when we get together with one of our playgroups. While O has a lot of fun with these things, they make more of an impression on S, who is often prompted to talk about her friends missing out on the excitement. We’ve also been to a German Christmas Market; the Christmas Party of the German Saturday School; we bake German Christmas cookies and cakes; sing German songs; etc.

To the extent that these things happen in a group setting, the kids don’t just get to know some of the German traditions, foods and whatnot, they also get the benefit of being exposed to more subtle cultural aspects or things they wouldn’t necessarily get from me. For example, they will hear different German accents and experience different kinds of foods; play with kids who have lived and gone to school in Germany; see other people interact with their kids in ways that can be quite different from what they see in their Canadian counterparts, all in German; and hear more people around them speak German. I think these types of things make using German more meaningful for them, and I’m hoping that it gives them the feeling of belonging to a group, so that speaking German, eating German foods, and in some way being German does not make them feel alone or that they stand out.

What resources and activities have been most useful to you? What, on the other hand, has not been useful?

Mainly, we make an effort to let the kids hear and use German in many different contexts, so that they see it as a normal part of their lives. What we find most useful is anything that provides lots of opportunity for interaction in German (e.g., talking with me about what goes on in their lives; joking around with me; playing board games; reading books together; phoning their largely monolingual Oma; etc.), any event or activity that involves German and is fun (e.g., hiking trips with the German playgroup, play dates with other German-speaking kids), and anything that exposes them to elements of German culture and traditions, especially if it involves kid-friendly fun.

Additionally, we play vocabulary games we make up on the fly when the kids are in the mood; play with our German learning computer they both love; use a German babysitter whenever possible; have little secrets about which we can only talk in German; and occasionally we watch German DVDs or visit German websites.

Some of the above we do more than others, some encourage verbal skills and others are fun more than anything – but anything that incorporates German into their normal lives works to keep them talking and see it’s usefulness. Additionally, they get exposed to different cultural aspects, some of which they might not get otherwise because we live here and not there.

For example, watching a German DVD of “Die Seite mis der Maus” may not do much for their language skills, but it teaches them about how things are in Germany. So, now they know that garbage trucks there are orange and not blue (probably not something I would have ever told them about), and they have learned a few things that can help them relate to their cousins there a little more. Similarly, playing soccer with “Sandmann” on-line becomes fodder for conversations about their Oma’s (and everyone else’s) obsession with soccer and about their cousins going to bed when “Sandmann” visits German children at night with his special sleep-inducing sand. Similarly, I often translate their favourite English songs on the fly – not always with the most elegant or accurate results, but always with a lot of fun. Some of them we’ve done so often that we now have our own versions of “Baa baa Schwarzes Schaf” [Baa Baa Black Sheep], “Leuchte, leuchte kleiner Stern” [Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star] that the kids can sing themselves.

S sometimes also likes to talk about mistakes she tends to make a lot. This is maybe not for every kid, but our little Ms. Perfectionist can get quite into this in an effort of trying to get something right. Explaining and practicing something specific with her, on her request, has lead to improvements in her use of German in the past. And it usually comes with an aha-moment on her part, when you can just tell that she’s gotten it and she knows she has, which probably motivates her to keep going, too.

We often also just talk about how cool it is to be bilingual – so she is now quite excited about the possibility of going to Germany again, to go to the playground there and hang out with the German kids. She sometimes also feels sorry for my husband because he doesn’t really speak German, so he won’t be able to just go to the corner store and buy himself a little treat the way she might get to do next time we go. She is also interested in talking about other bilingual people we know and what kinds of languages they speak – which is how she has learned the vocabulary for a number of languages and countries, and, maybe equally important, learns to see bi- or multilingualism as normal and expected.

Finding things that are not so useful for us are a bit harder, though to some extent, I would list playgroups and the German Saturday School that S has been attending for the last year in JK.

I think playgroups have a lot of potential, but we never really knew the right kind of people to do this with. We currently are part of two groups and the kids do get some benefits from both, which is why we haven’t given up on them, but I guess I was just hoping for more. I wanted regular get-togethers with a bunch of little German-speaking kids running around having fun, little friends for the kids for play dates and that sort of thing, but it’s never really worked out to have much happen on a regular basis. Maybe my expectations were unrealistic, but for us it works out better to organize activities in smaller groups, with just the people we’ve become friends with.

Regarding the German Saturday School, it turned out that S’s German was too advanced by the time she started there last September. I guess that’s a good problem to have, but I was just hoping she’d learn new things there and be exposed to more German speakers. However, as most JK kids didn’t actually speak any German when they started out, the teacher had to speak mainly English. S loved it for the first few months and her teacher did speak German with the few kids who could understand, but aside from hearing German from her teacher it’s hard to say whether she learned anything more than she would have had she stayed home.

What challenges have you faced as you raise your children with more than one language?

I think most of all I underestimated the amount of work that goes into trying to do something like this, given that our circumstances are not exactly ideal. The biggest challenge probably is exposing the kids to German in the first place. I work full-time, so at best they are getting a few hours/day. I’d love for them to have a bunch of little German-speakers in their lives, for example, for regular play dates and outings. And I’d love for them to speak German to each other, all to increase their exposure – and so far we have a little of that, just not enough.

Also, as they are getting older and their German becomes more advanced, we’re beginning to have a bit of a problem with my husband, the last remaining mainly monolingual member of our family, feeling left out. Early on, when S refused to speak German and understood everything but only spoke English, he was fine as he understood enough from context or her answers. Now, it’s quite different. She has lengthy conversations with me all in German, conversations he can’t understand anymore. We translate and that kind of thing, but it’s not the same as all of us talking to each other in a language we all understand.

Another issue is well-meaning German family members and friends who think they should try to speak to the kids in English to make it easier for them. I have explained many times that the kids need the German more than they need the English, but with some people it’s not sinking in. Then there are others who want to give us gifts, but don’t like to give German books/CDs/DVDs because they don’t like the fact that then my husband can’t use them with the kids, that kind of thing. We have a few Canadian relatives who are not all that much in favour of the kids learning German, but they are not as much of a challenge as they usually get told off by other relatives who think of the kids’ bilingualism much more positively.

And lastly, we haven’t really been able to go to Germany as much since we had kids as we used to before. Outrageous daycare costs and a general lack of vacation time get in the way of much international travel these days, something that should become less of an issue over time. I just think that travelling to Germany would help along the kids’ German, and motivation to keep going, a lot. Maybe more so than anything we can do from here.

Do you have any advice for us?

Oh, I’m not sure I’m in a position to give advice to anyone, but I think what got us to where we are now are:

  • Persevering; speaking the minority language even when/if the kids don’t answer back in it.
  • Making it fun through anything we can think off that engages our kids.
  • “Knowledge is power” - reading up on childhood bilingualism really helped us fine-tune what we were doing and has turned S from a passive bilingual to the chatterbox she now is. At the same time, occasionally the information has also helped address the concerns of the naysayers we all run into now and again.
  • Taking cues from our kids as to what’s working and what’s not.
  • Exposing them to as much minority language (and culture) as possible using many different activities and resources.

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 wish I’d have known more about early bilingualism when we first got going. It sounds incredibly naïve now, but back then I assumed bilingualism would just happen through some sort of osmosis, i.e., S and (then O) would be speaking German to me simply because that’s what I was speaking to them. And in some ways that probably is how it happens, at least if O is anything to go by, but it sure didn’t do the trick for S. I just found it re-assuring to find out more about early bilingualism, language acquisition and other useful stuff like not needing to worry about mixing languages, code-switching, and that sort of thing.

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

Setting realistic goals can be challenging. For example, as much as I would like for the kids to speak German to each other (increased exposure time), it’s probably not going to happen. Also, given S’s concern with mistakes, what should we try to work on and what is simply a developmental thing and will go away as she gets older? And how do I separate out my expectations from what they want – e.g. do they want to learn languages? Do they want to learn German (and French)? Do they want to be able to speak, or would they be happy to just understand? Choosing bilingualism has profound effects on our family life – did we do the right thing?

I’m not sure there are any right answers either – it’s something that each family has to sort out for themselves, and it’s probably something that changes over time. But it can be quite hard and sometimes frustrating.

I should also add that I think it’s great that we can give our kids the opportunity to learn other languages and have no regrets about what we’re doing (though occasionally, alongside others, I might grumble about it). In fact, I’d have loved to have grown up multilingual from infancy/childhood myself – but I think it’s also important to be honest about it.

Overall, in spite of the hard work, it is absolutely amazing to hear your kids interact in their ‘other’ language!

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