Saturday, March 14, 2009

Monolingual raising a bilingual baby, or why we're choosing a German immersion preschool

I've been interested in the idea of multilingualism ever since we moved to Berlin for several years when I was 10. I had visions of rattling off a new language with fluent ease, and everyone who spoke only English would wonder what fabulous things my German friends and I were talking about. I practiced by babbling to myself, pretending I was saying something insightful.

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


Anonymous said...

I congratulate you on the decision to raise a bilingual child. Trust me, it´s even a challenge for bilingual parents teaching our kids our native and minority language. We have to find ways to make the minority language something organic and fun in their lives. It takes courage and dedication.
I´d love for you to check out the site a friend and I have created to serve as a resource for parents raising bilingual kids. We´ve only been in the blogosphere since early Feb and are loving the sense of community the site has created. It´s
We focus on Spanish-learners, but the expert advice and informative articles are useful for any languages.
Best of luck and I´m so happy to have found your blog!!

Anonymous said...

It is a challenge, but it is possible to raise bilingual children even in the U.S. Consistency is key.

I blog about some of these issues from a research perspective over at:

Anonymous said...

You go, girl :)

Giving a kid a second language (or more) is a great gift, regardless of how well/whether you speak that language or not.

I am bilingual (German/English), but still have some of the same challenges you have. Like feeling silly speaking German to my kids when we're out in public. Thinking it's rude to do it when my unilingual husband is around. That kind of thing.

But I keep trying. So far, my oldest (4 in June) understands both languages equally well, but is squarely under the impression that she speaks no German (despite evidence to the contrary!). And my wee one at 20 months understands both and has words from both languages, though definitely more in English.

They'll both be going to German Saturday school when the time comes and I'm hoping for a ton of help from them.

Hope it works out for you (and us)!

Lingo Toys said...

Congratulations on raising a bilingual child. I too contemplated when I was pregnant with my son to have him learn his native tongue
my husband and I are Greek American and although we fluently speak the Greek language we often spoke only English.
So I decided the best gift to give my son is language and te best education he can have.. long story short he is 2 years and 8 months old and speaks English and Greek!!!
SO keep up the great work

Lauren Wayne said...

Thanks to everyone for the encouragement! Things are going really well so far, and I'm enjoying speaking more and more German with our little guy. And it turns out he understands it! Cool!

ana lilian: I'm really enjoying and have added it to my reader. If I ever make that list of bilingual resources, I'll be sure to include it. It's really helpful for ideas and encouragement, and I love that it's fostered community. I've been idly wondering if I could add a little Spanish to his days as well, but with my pathetic high-school Spanish...well, maybe some books and songs! :)

elizabeth peña: Your blog is really intriguing, and I'm following along as well. (Oh, for anyone else who had trouble getting there — it looks like a letter was left out initially, so it's actually I love reading research, especially when it's on unique populations like bilingual people.

smashedpea: I'm so glad to hear I'm not alone! I've been feeling better about speaking German to him despite my initial discomfort. In public now, it just makes me feel like I have a secret or something. :) And, the funniest thing, my husband who swears he's horrible at languages is picking up some German words and phrases without any prompting from me! And he's been really supportive, which is such a help. It's funny about the age differences you mentioned — there's a 4-year-old at my son's school whom the teachers keep reminding to speak in German. I'm not sure if he really forgets to or if he's just so much more comfortable speaking English. Still, he clearly understands everything they say, so I bet he could start chattering away if he was ever plopped down in Germany. So probably the same with yours!

lingo toys: That's so cool! I'm glad your son is learning both languages so well. That's such a gift. I know my mother and her siblings were disappointed that their parents raised them monolingually — my grandmother spoke Swedish and Finnish in addition to English, but out of respect for my grandfather who spoke only English, they raised their kids only in English. My mom's always been sad about that. So I'm sure your son will someday be so appreciative of your gift to him.

Corey said...

A friend just forwarded me your blog and I realize that you live in Seattle! I started the Seattle Kinderstube group here and was laughing when I read about your hesitation to get involved... I hear you! It can be so intimidating! I also started the Bilingual/Bicultural Family Network and Multilingual Living Magazine ( but we are kind of on hold at the moment - priorities have reminded me that I have three kids, a husband and a paying job that I must attend to. :-) But I'm sure you will find some helpful information there.

I am raising my children in German, which is my non-native language, and wrote a few articles for Multilingual Living Magazine about how best to go about this. My husband is German so we both speak it at home with the kids and about 50% with one another - it is very helpful for us BOTH to be speaking the non-community language. We also homeschool, so that really helps keep German alive for our kids too. And we have them go to the Seattle German Language School on Saturdays - they don't learn a ton of German but it helps!

Check out Colin Baker's book: A Parents' and Teachers' Guide to Bilingualism (from Multilingual Matters), it is an easy and supportive resource for raising bilingual children! Luckily for us, there are some really good books out there now (finally!) due to the interest in childhood bilingualism.

Lauren Wayne said...

Hi, Corey! How fun to hear from you! I'm still shy about Kinderstube gatherings, though I think I'm just going to have to force myself! I've been able to meet some German-speaking families now through the preschool my son goes to, so that's been a little easing in, maybe. :)

I will definitely check out your link and the book. I had been to your site before and remember enjoying it. I will go search for the relevant articles now. I do understand trying to balance writing and all those other things that demand attention and/or pay money!

Maybe we could meet up someday. I'm in West Seattle, and if that sounds like the boonies to you, we could come out your way. :)

Anonymous said...

I finally got around to reading this older post of yours and I'm so glad I did. I'll be in the same boat as you in terms of trying to teach my son a language that neither my husband nor I are native speakers of, and where my fluency is limited as well. I'm also like you in that I'm shy about speaking my second language around native speakers. I know I'll have to get over that eventually. Thanks so much for sharing your journey,

Corey Heller said...

OMG - I completely failed to get back to you (my fault for spending too much time getting Multilingual Living going - the website I've been working on for many years but didn't get my act together to complete it). I also couldn't find this post again but finally found it today! Woohoo!

YES! Would love to meet up in W. Seattle. Why is it that most of my friends live in W. Seattle. I swear it is a conspiracy! Let's set a date! You don't homeschool, right? We live near Ravenna Park - another option. ;-)

So glad to be connected!!!

Lauren Wayne said...

Navelgazingbajan: Catching up on comments. :) So glad you're in this with us! It helps to know of other non-native speakers with big ambitions.

Corey: I really do love your website! My son's teacher was just recommending it again to me the other day. :) We used to live in Ravenna, right next to the park, and I'd love to go back there and play. I will figure out a way to contact you through your site, or my email is mail {at} Yea!

Kari B. said...

I read this as soon as I saw the link because we actually live in Germany right now with my one year old. I have full intentions of sending him to a German preschool (they can start at two years old) next fall, but it never occurred to me to research bilingual families and children! So thank you so much for the links, I will be learning all I can about it as my husband an I are both native English speakers. I do speak enough German "to get by" but I'd like to step it up in order to teach Johnny enough to carry on once we head back to the States. One of the ways to do that would be to join our town's Krabbelgruppe where there are kids under school age and their mamas just hanging out, but I'm also so nervous! It's been a year tho so maybe I'll just take the plunge because I know we'd learn a whole lot quick-like. Silly how our nerves get in the way of things we'd like to do and teach our children! It's good to know that they have multi-lingual preschools Stateside, I'll have to look into it once we get back!
What a great post!

Milwife Mama of One said...

I just found this post while surfing through your site and it (the post) struck quite a chord. I am bilingual (English and American Sign Language) and my husband is monolingual (English). We live in Japan, which has its own sign language completely unrelated to ASL. I'm decent, but not fluent and not a native signer. I have no one to sign with so I know my skills are deteriorating the longer we are here (been here 2 years, 2 more to go). We have no access to signing peers for our 10-month old daughter (or for us!) so are trying to give it a go with just the two of us (one or two friends use a handful of signs with their babies, but that's about it). Before our daughter was born we decided to try voice-off ASL only days every other day. Yeaahhhhh, that totally didn't work. I discovered the hard way, and quickly, that signing when your arms are full of baby is a challenge! I tried signing when we were out and about, but in the stroller she faced away from me and I couldn't carry her in the Moby for more than 30 minutes (bad back). So, my options were to say nothing when I wasn't in her line of sight or to fill in with English. I chose to fill in with English. So now here we are, 10 months later, still trying to figure out this bilingual thing so it'll work for our family... I think maybe now that she's mobile and can sit in the grocery cart (i.e. face me when we're shopping) we can go back to trying every other day, but we are wide open for tips and totally feel ya' on the awkward/non-native speaker/trying to work out the kinks bits!

Artsyfartsy said...

Thanks so much for the links. They are super helpful!

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