The dream didn't come true. German has never been easy for me like English, and I think the main reason is I started too late. My first year in Berlin was spent at the American school, and then I transferred to a German-American school. The second was much better at teaching German, but the rest of my classes were still in English. And, as traveling Americans rely on, everyone speaks English, so I didn't have a problem navigating the city with my limited skills.
I took another year of German when we returned to the States for my high school years (the only year that was offered at my schools), and then I minored in German in college. My college classes especially helped me progress in my abilities, but I've remained self-conscious about speaking German with actual native German speakers. Americans at the same level as I am — sure. But real, live Germans or Austrians, etc.? Not so much.
So the wish remained, a regret that I never did become fabulous in another language.
And I realized — it could be so much easier. My German friends who are fluent in English started learning English in preschool. Why do Americans, by and large, wait until high school? It's so much harder then.
And there are so many benefits to multilingualism: increased cognitive skills, better proficiency at reading and writing (there seems to be something about learning more than one language that makes you aware of language as a construct and helps you decipher the parts more readily, so therefore:), ease of learning additional languages, acknowledgment and appreciation of cultural differences, and greater creative thinking in general, among more practical possibilities like having an easier time in foreign-language classes at school or in getting a job in a language field.
So when I was contemplating having a baby, I thought — I'll make it easy for him. (Forgive the masculine pronoun use, but I ended up having a boy, so it makes sense to me in this case.) I'll start him at birth, before birth even.
But was it even possible? Could a non-native speaker raise a native-level speaker?
I found a book at the library that inspired me no end: Bilingual Children: From Birth to Teens, by George Saunders. It looks to be out of print (and holy-cow expensive), but maybe your library also has a copy or you can access it through interlibrary loan.
George Saunders is an Australian who learned German well enough that he figured he'd give raising his children in German a whirl. He's also a linguist, so this sort of thing amused him. I'm so glad that it did! And that he documented his experiences.
He followed what's known in bilingual circles as OPOL, or one parent, one language. (I learned a lot of such terms when researching these things.) That means that, in his case, he spoke only German to his kids, and his wife spoke only English. You can see from the cover two things: (1) One of his kids did the illustrations, and (2) his kids learned to speak English to his wife and German to him and to expect responses in kind. I'll add a third thing that you see from the cover: George Saunders is very hairy and well-built.
I was encouraged by the positive results of George Saunders's little experiment on his children. They all grew up speaking German with near-native accents and breadth, and their German writing skills were only slightly behind their English skills. There's always debate about what being "fluent" in a language means, or what standards to set for being bilingual (or tri-, etc.), but that was more than successfully bilingual in my book. I'd be happy if Mikko had a decent passive understanding of spoken German and could carry on conversations, preferably without any of my paralyzing social fears.
I wasn't too keen on the OPOL idea, because I'm just so much better in English. As a writer, too, I love to express myself in my mother tongue, and as a singer, most of the songs I cherish and want to pass on are in English. You come to realize when you're considering bringing up a baby with a minority language just how much culture and language are inseparable. Your books, your stories, your songs, your nursery rhymes, your proverbs and catchphrases, your jokes, even your slang and the cutesie nicknames you give your child — all require a wide and deep experience in the language you've chosen.
I checked out a range of books from the library and started reading articles online, and I found out that there's a debate about how regimented you have to be in your language use with your child. There's a large camp that says very and suggests strategies like OPOL or both parents speaking a minority language at home, which wouldn't work with us, as Sam doesn't speak a word of German (he literally refuses). There's another side that says kids will figure it out eventually, and you can be a little more laid-back. They point to a lot of Spanish-speaking enclaves in the United States where the children grow up speaking a Spanglish conglomeration, mixing words and grammar casually, but at school the children are able to separate out the English rules and vocabulary.
At any rate, the latter appealed to me more. Maybe it's my unschooling, they'll-get-there-eventually philosophy, or maybe it was just my reluctance to speak only German. I figured I'd speak German sometimes, and that I'd start during pregnancy.
Boy, did I feel like a fool. I could barely speak to my little one in English during pregnancy, let alone in a language that no one around me could understand. Even when Mikko was born, I found it strained. It was like talking to the cat, or to myself. When I spoke English, I knew that Sam at least was catching what I was saying, and any little jokes I was throwing in. Speaking German felt very isolating, since Mikko wasn't responding in any case. And, since Sam couldn't join in, it felt a little rude as well, as if I were purposely excluding him.
I bought German books and CDs and sometimes remembered to use them. I joined a Seattle-area German-speaking parents group, but here's the sad part — I've been too shy to meet any of the members. I signed up for the email list, and I follow along and mark invitations to church festivals and coffee groups and toddler story times on my calendar, and then I never show up. This goes back to being self-conscious about speaking German to actual German speakers, and I feel doubly bizarre for being a non-native speaker who's interested in raising her son to be bilingual. Most of the other families have one or both parents who are native German speakers, sometimes on contract assignment in the U.S., sometimes a mixed marriage that's relocated to the area. I kept wishing I had someone like me, an American who's just trying her best to understand and speak and who's interested in the language but not an expert. My usual social copout of bringing Sam along won't work, since he doesn't know German.
I also failed to find support among my family and friends. For my family, this is just one more weird parenting thing I'm doing (I can hear them sighing right now). For my monolingual friends, they can't see why I'd bother. For my friends raising a bilingual baby, they're in the same shoes as the native German speakers above: They have a reason to be doing so. One half of the couple speaks another language, or the grandparents do, or so forth, and they've been a little dismissive of my attempts to create from scratch an artificial bilingual environment. It doesn't help, either, that German is not considered a practical language in the U.S. If I were teaching Mikko something "useful" like Spanish or Chinese, I think I'd get some more understanding, but my high-school Spanish is execrable, so German it is. I understand, I do, that what I'm doing is weird. I just wish I had more gumption to do unusual things when I'm not getting support.
So, all in all, I've really been a slacker at the German thing. Now that Mikko's starting to speak, I really can't put it off any longer. I read a statistic that children need to hear a language at least 30% of the time to take it in. I recently resolved to pick days of the week and speak only German to Mikko on those days: Monday, Wednesday, Friday, and whenever I feel like it the rest of the time. That way, it's finite, and I know I can enjoy English the other days if I want to. And it takes away my forgetfulness, because I have no idea how often he heard German before this. I've kept the German books and music handier now, because I need them on our German days. So, despite my love of all things loosey-goosey and unscheduled, I found out that I needed to be more definitive about when I would speak the minority language if I was going to speak it at all.
Our other big change is that next week Mikko will start attending a half-day German preschool two days a week. I have more posts in me about that decision. But the basic reason for it is that I've determined that I can't shoulder the responsibility of raising Mikko to speak German on my own, after all. I don't mean that I'm giving up. I don't mean that I need to be better at German. I just need more outside resources. Ideally, eventually we'll maybe connect with those German-speaking families for free, but for me, this preschool is my less threatening entry into the German-speaking world. I'll pay someone else to do for Mikko what I've been putting off for close to two years — surround him with German speakers.
Even though he hasn't started the school yet, I already feel more natural speaking German with him. I have renewed confidence that he's understanding me, or will come to. (I even do find myself speaking to the cat in German!) And now I have his teachers and the other parents and children to interact with, so maybe I'll be thrown head first into an immersion environment myself. I'm even finding myself wanting to speak German on my English days, which I go along with whenever the urge strikes.
And it's perfect: If Mikko will talk to me in German, then I'll have my friend — my American friend who's learning German just like me, and who will go with me to the playgroup outings!
Or maybe he'll be embarrassed by my German and leave me behind...
In case you were wondering, I present you with internet evidence that, apart from George Saunders, I'm not the only freak monolingual trying to raise a bilingual kid:
- Bilingual Parenting in a Foreign Language has this excellent FAQ that answers questions such as "Do I know enough of my second and non-native language to try and teach it to my children?", "If I want to teach my children my second language, how can I compensate for my non-native language abilities and help my children learn beyond my abilities?", "If neither my spouse nor I speak a second language, how can we help our child become bilingual?", "Isn't it unnatural to try and use a non-native language as the primary communication with your children?", and "Will my children pick up my mistakes and is that a problem?" — basically, all the questions that come to your mind when you consider non-native bilingual childrearing! Besides the FAQ, the site has survey results from real-life families using a foreign language(s) in the home, and links to various resources.
- Bilingual Babes asks the question: "Should I speak a non-native language with my child?" (not to spoil it, but the answer is yes). She includes links in her sidebar to profiles of other non-native parents raising bilingual babes. She also talks about the usefulness of baby sign language as a bridge for spoken bilingualism, which was one of the reasons I started baby sign with Mikko. (As a plus, her blog has a gorgeous header photo!)
- The Linguist Blogger gives practical tips on raising bilingual children, based on another out-of-print George Saunders book, Bilingual Children: Guidance for the Family.
- On the WordReference Forums, ILT in the second post down relates her positive experiences as a Spanish-native mother speaking English with her son.
- The Multilingual Children's Association asks the question "Why would you speak to baby in a language not your own?" and answers "Why not?" This resource and others confirm my experience in gradually feeling less silly speaking a minority language to my kiddo: "So, what about the awkwardness of speaking a foreign language to your child? The only way to find out if this is a problem is to try. The general consensus from parents who have, is that the first few weeks are awful but after that things get easier."
I hope to put together a list of some more general multilingual resources another day. Viel Spaß!
Letter jumble photograph courtesy of Manu Mohan on stock.xchng