Friday, March 26, 2010

Being intentional with non-native bilingualism

This post was written for inclusion in Bilingual for Fun's Blogging Carnival on Bilingualism, hosted this month by Multi Tongue Kids. Check back at Multi Tongue Kids for the carnival when it posts April 2!

Yummy yummy Currywurst at an Imbiß in Germany
back in those pre-child travel days
I've been thinking lately about my language goals for my son and me. I'm trying to raise him bilingually in German and English while not being a native German speaker.

And I feel like I keep trying to beat this into myself, but ... I really need to be intentional about it. Attending a German-immersion preschool two days a week is an excellent start for Mikko to become familiar with understanding German, but I really want both of us to improve at speaking German.

The latest update from the preschool teachers is that he's had a verbal explosion, something we've seen at home as well. Mikko is 2.75 years old, will be 3 in June, and he's really done everything at his own pace (read: slowly), including talking. I wasn't worried, because there was nothing wrong. His hearing had checked out (much better than mine, I'm afraid), and he was signing up a storm. I knew some kids just take longer than others to get their feet under them, verbally speaking. (What a terrible metaphor that just was. Now I'm picturing feet under a mouth.)

Anyway, when his teachers started raving about how much he's been talking at Schule lately, I made the mistaken assumption that some of these utterances were auf Deutsch. Ah, no, they informed me — it's all in English. But that's normal! they reassured me. And I know it is. I've seen even the older kids of the school (4 and 5 years old) who have native German parents speak only English and have to be reminded (constantly) to speak German by the teachers. (They do this only with the older kids.)

But just because it's normal doesn't make it ideal! I have felt self-conscious ever since first moving to Germany when I was 10 about how bad my German is. I hate speaking it with native speakers, fearing that they're silently criticizing me, that I'm murdering their beloved language before their eyes. I really, really want my son to be able to speak German confidently and boldly. Notice I didn't say "perfectly" or even "fluently." He can get to whatever skill level he wants to.

I just want him not to be afraid.

And I think the place to start? Well, duh, with myself, of course.

I need to get over this fear. I think if Mikko sees me speaking German myself, with abandon, that he will feel like he has a partner and can join in. I much prefer speaking German with other non-native learners, because I know we're all on the same team. I'm hoping to create my own mini-team of Mikko and me, but that means doing some things that (a) might scare me at first and (b) will inconvenience me a little.

And all this means: I need a plan.

I have been reading umpteen good articles by Sarah Mueller over at Alphabet Garten about making a language plan for your family. Her tips can work for your family no matter what language you're being intentional about, including sign language. Here are some resources she's put together to help (you, me, Mikko, everybody!):

  • If you sign up for the Alphabet Garten newsletter, Sarah will send you the free, downloadable book Creating Your German Immersion Plan: How to plan for bilingual success in your family. As I said, I think it works for any language. It will help you identify your starting point, your goals, and ways to get where you want to be. It's especially useful with older (school-age) children, because you can incorporate them into the decision-making process.
  • Create your concrete action plan at The Taking Action Forum and then update daily or weekly with your progress. This will give you public accountability. If your family doesn't speak German, maybe you can find a similar forum in your target language where you can start a thread like this.
  • Have you considered abandoning German because of a bully? (Hint: The bully is you.) Read this if you're feeling discouraged by your lack of skill or your lack of progress.

So? My plan:
  • I will continue to speak German on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, as well as to and from Schule (and whenever else I feel like it). I find that the more I speak, the more I find it comfortable. It's just the remembering that's the challenge. Well, that and the fact that my vocabulary is terrible. Which brings me to point #2:
  • I will practice improving my own German for 15 minutes each day. That sounds doable, right? I've found a site called Livemocha that offers free online lessons (in a variety of languages) using video and audio, as well as a community of native speakers willing to review other people's work. In other words, I review people's attempts at English, and someone else reviews my German. I haven't tried out that function yet, but it sounds rewarding. The lessons themselves are very basic, but you know? I can really use anything to reinforce my grammar and expand my vocabulary, so I'm going for it. I'll see how far I go with the free version and then figure out what I want to do from there.
  • On German-speaking days, I will play only German children's music (particularly in the car) or children's books-on-tape (exclusively in the car, since that's the only place we still have a tape deck!), and I will read only German books for bedtime stories and throughout the day. This means preparing my environment to have all the tools handy. Audiotapes stay in the car, but I should grab the iPod before I go and cue it to my German section. I have some German books by the bed, but I should get out others.
  • Don't believe I'm serious? Here's my public action plan on the forum! Now I'll have to admit it when I fail succeed gloriously!
  • Here's more of the scary part. I need to speak German to actual Germans, and I need Mikko to witness this fearlessness (ack ack ack — just writing this makes me nervous). I'll start with speaking only German to his teachers at school. Baby steps, right? Deep breath. Then I'll consider going to one of the Kinderstube playgroup events that have real Germans at them. Ack ack ack. If you live in Seattle and you speak German, let this be my advance plea not to laugh at me. Danke sehr in advance.
  • Don't tell Sam, but I'd really like to take a trip to a German-speaking country again. (Oh, crap, he reads my blog, doesn't he? The secret's out.) The problem is, it means money (eep) and flying a bazillion hours with a toddler (double eep). We're trying out a family plane trip this summer to the East Coast, so that will be my test on whether to even dream this, for the near or distant future. (Maybe, in addition to the English airport books, this would help?) I find it's a lot easier to immerse yourself in German when, um, you don't have a choice! And one thing that's really missing from my non-native German is the culture part of the language. I do what I can, but being within the actual culture would do so much more!
What are your language plans for your family? If you are a learner of another language, how do you inspire yourself to be comfortable using it with native speakers? (Give me tips here! I need 'em.)


Anonymous said...

I completely understand your trepidation at speaking German with native German speakers. I have the same hang up only it's with Spanish. When I speak to native speakers I start to feel like a big fraud and turn into a ball of nerves. I especially have difficulty with understanding others when they speak to me. Right now I've started volunteering occasionally with an organization that assists many native Spanish speakers. I'm not expected to speak Spanish if I don't want to but I've found it helpful just to listen to others for the time being. I will check out that site you mentioned though.

Unknown said...

This is so inspirational to me. I want Aellyn to be comfortable with language but I live in such a mono-lingual place. I am definitely going to check out those resources and make a plan form my family too!

Unknown said...

Ok, I just spent the past hour using livemocha and WOW!! I can't believe that is free. I wonder what their pay content is like. Do you pay? I also realized that I'm better at spanish that I give myself credit for. I mean I'm not fluent but I understand a lot. I could (and should) totally be reading Aellyn books in spanish. I'm so going to start this! Thanks for inspiring me.

Anonymous said...

Hmm, now I am thinking about language where I hadn't been. Thank you!

And if you want more features than the free version, before you pay, check your local library. Ours has (free for cardholders!) online language programs....

Lauren Wayne said...

navelgazingbajan: I'm so glad I'm not the only one! I know so many people who are absolutely confident, and I wish I could be like them. I think I might try joining some German groups but being upfront about the fact that I only want to listen, or maybe suggesting that I'll listen to German but will respond in English. I'll see if that works. :)

Paige: Yea for getting back into Spanish! You're lucky, because there are a lot of good/cheap Spanish resources available (German's harder to find!) — I'm tempted to add Spanish in just to take advantage. :) I'm just doing the free livemocha — there really is quite a lot for free, and I'm impressed with it, too. I've gotten into (just after writing this article) trying out some of the community coaching/teaching aspects, both submitting my assignments for review and reviewing others, and I really like it. (Totally off topic, but how do you pronounce Aellyn? I want to be sure I'm reading it right! It looks so pretty.)

becoming-mother: I definitely will check that out. I was looking into Rosetta Stone software, since it's advertised everywhere, and our library didn't have that, but it was in researching reviews that I came across the recommendation for livemocha instead. Rosetta Stone is super expensive. I even looked into doing some actual language classes, but those are super expensive, too. I think I'll stick with as much free as I can find for now, so thanks for the suggestion! Off to check...

Hey, do you want to hear something funny? Mikko was watching a show today where the character asked, "What letter makes this sound: vvvvv?" (As in, V.) And Mikko shouted out, "W!" He shouted in English, but W in German is a V sound. We thought it was such hilarious bilingual mixing! He's definitely picking up something. :)

mrs.notouching said...

I speak Lithuanian to my daughter, my husband speaks Russian and we live in US. I am pretty sure she will speak all 3 languages - mostly because I personally know a few multilingual families and all of their kids speak all languages without any problems. The kids seem to distinguish very easily which language to use with which adult.
I just remember reading that - kids from multilingual families tend to start talking a bit later (but their vocab tends to be larger as well); at the beginning they will talk mix simply by choosing the easiest words and sounds from each language, but that's just a short phase; the best way kids learn the language is through play with their peers who speak that language.
You are right - if you want to teach another language you will have to speak it yourself. I remember my first years in US... it was horrifying and embarrassing, but I had to work and went to school here so slowly I got more and more comfortable.
Anyway, just wanted to say - I know it is hard, but gets easier with time. Good luck to us all :-)

Unknown said...

How did you come up with German? Seems like an odd choice. Thanks for tipping of the Carnival, I'm checking it out to see if I can enter.
We are pretty much a multilingual family. Well, we're Belgians, so we're born like that.

Anonymous said...

Oh my God. Wie du ja weißt, wohne ich in Deutschland. Aber meine Muttersprache ist Französisch. Niemand in meiner Familie kann Deutsch. Deswegen ist es mir wichtig, dass meine Tochter Deutsch und Französisch gleichermaßen sprechen kann. Es ist so was in ein Wettkampf. Am Anfang lag Französisch vorne, mittlerweile hat Deutsch überholt. Mal sehen, wei es sich weiternetwickelt. Ah ja, Englisch sollte sie auch irgenwann dazu lernen aber jetzt wäre es wohl zuviel des guten...
Dadurch, dass ich tagtäglich mit Deutschen arbeiten, mache ich mir mittlerweile keine Gedanken mehr über meine Fehler, ich würde ja durchdrehen (un ja, ich wohne seit 7 Jahren in Deutschland und mein Deutsch ist nicht perfekt)! Eins ist mir klar. Viele Deutschen ist rden Schwieriegkeitsgrad deren Sprache bewusst, so dass sie meisten einfach froh sind, dass man sich überhaupt bemüht, sie zu lernen.

Lindsay said...

Does your hubby speak German? I sing and read to Baby in French sometimes, but I'm afraid Hubby is going to feel really left out, since he doesn't speak a word of French (and since he's in grad school, doesn't have time to learn).

Unknown said...

Aellyn - long A lynn. Rhymes with Palin, as in Sarah Palin, IMO an unfortunate parallel but it works! Before Sarah Palin came on the scene I explained it as Ellen with an A.

trish said...

As a family of expats in Costa Rica, many other expat parents were telling me to "put your kids in public school" to "get them to learn the language". I felt very personally uncomfortable with that idea because I don't think it's right to make decisions on what my kids choose to learn. I've chosen to let my kids learn Spanish at their own pace, or not at all, if they choose. I'm curious if choice will ever play a role with your kids? I'm a little surprised how invested you are in what you want them to learn. Why not keep the language goal for yourself, & let your son make his own decisions?

Alexandra said...

how very cool! I wish there was a school like that near here.

I think our kids are growing up in a generation where they will need to know a second language and the earlier you start them the better. I keep saying I am going to find a spanish class for us, but I never do. I think you have given me the push! :)

Lauren Wayne said...

mrs.notouching: Thank you for the encouragement! You're right that the kids really do seem to know from early on which language is which. And you're right that I just have to get speaking. Thanks for being an example!

mamapoekie: I used to live in Berlin so German is my next-strongest language after English. And that's about it. I took Spanish in high school but really don't know enough to attempt anything ambitious. I think I might have given more background in this older post, but I can't be bothered to go back and check. Ha ha! You're right that Belgians (as so many others) are much more organic at the multilingualism than Americans! I wish it were the norm here.

lin3arossa: Yea! I understand you! "Wettkampf" is exactly right. It's fun to see the multilingual kids at Mikko's school go back and forth with which language is "winning" at any particular point. "Ich würde ja durchdrehen" — genau! Danke für Dein Erlebnis und die Ermutigung! I'd try to write more in German, but it's 3:30 a.m. and I don't trust myself to make any sense...

Maman A Droit: No, my husband doesn't speak German, and that kind of held me back for awhile for the reason you mention. But he's actually picked up some easy words and phrases as he's heard them spoken — just the way we expect a child to. Imagine that! :) It shouldn't have come as a surprise to me, but it somehow did. He's become really supportive, so I didn't need to worry as it turns out.

Paige: Love that name! Glad to know I'm pronouncing it right.

Lauren Wayne said...

Trish: I think it would be not giving him a choice to learn another language if I didn't make some investment in providing the opportunity. In the U.S., at least when I was in school, children don't start intensive (as in, one hour a day at most) language learning until junior high or high school. I took three years of Spanish, which was the norm, and was a good student, and I don't speak it at all. Same with my husband and French. I want my son to have the possibility to make a decision about speaking another language. As Mamapoekie brought up and as you are living, in many places in the world, it's natural and organic to learn multiple languages. I'm trying to provide the same experience here. When I talk about "being intentional" and making goals, it is all for me. I don't have a checklist for my son, in the sense that I'll be disappointed if he doesn't reach such and such a level of fluency. I don't expect him to be fluent at all, and if he doesn't have an aptitude or affection for language, he's free to stop at any time. My goal is just to give him the opportunity not to be as stifled and self-conscious in language use as I am, and to do that, it helps to start young, when it's natural. Again, my initial article on the subject maybe explained better where I'm coming from and what my own experiences and regrets are concerning language. But I own them as mine and am not trying to project them on my son. He's not "learning" language right now; he's just experiencing life in two languages. It's not a classroom/flashcard setting. He's absorbing both languages as he plays and is taken care of and goes about his day, so it's just normal to him. It's just not normal to me, so I have to think harder about how I incorporate my weaker language into his days. I've done a lot of research into the benefits of bilingualism, and I especially like the idea that learning a language opens our perspectives to other cultures and alternate ideas; it's a broadening experience. I love that in particular and think it's worthy to pass on if I can. Sorry for this rambling encyclopedia of a comment. One of the problems with any blog post is that it's just one angle on a subject, and this in particular is written for a bilingual carnival so of course seems very slanted toward encouraging bilingualism! But I hope that gives you some idea of what my perspective is. I'd love to hear more about yours and how your children are being exposed to Spanish in Costa Rica. How much do you want your children to be part of their new culture? I think of language as the first entry point into any culture.

Alexandra: There might be a school near you. I was very surprised to find more than one near me! I did a Google search for "German school Seattle" or similar and up they popped. With Spanish, you might also be able to find library story times and bilingual playgroups in your area — some nonthreatening first steps and generally free.

trish said...

Thanks for explaining more, Lauren. I think I understand your perspective much better now. Providing opportunities for language is wonderful.

As for your question: "How much do you want your children to be part of their new culture?"

I want my kids to be as much a part of any culture, whether native or new, as *they* want to be. I try not to make educational goals for my kids, & try to keep that mindset of wanting them to *be...* out of my mind. I want them to be happy and to pursue anything that interests them along the way. I see my role as an assistant & facilitator of their interests.

trish said...

Another thing I've also noticed is that there is an assumption that you must "start your kids early" with language in order for them to be successful at it. I don't really feel that is true. I think it's just an assumption that schools have put forth. John Holt, in his book "Never Too Late", proves that learning a musical instrument is possible at any age (he started the cello when he was quite old). I'd agree that learning a new language may happen faster at a really young age, but that isn't necessarily better if the interest isn't there.

Dagmar said...

Oh, my, what a great, timely article! I just spilled my thoughts on this very subject on my latest post for the NYC Moms Blog:

I am a native speaker, but my German is so bad by now that I really struggle to speak it to L. I much prefer English. I just signed up for the Alphabet Garden and can't wait to read about the plan! I am so glad you compiled all this information. I'm going to add a link to this post on my blog about this subject since I can't add it to the NYC Moms Blog post :)

Falls ich irgendwie aushelfen kann, lass' mich das wissen :)

Liebe Grusse,

Lauren Wayne said...

trish: Based on the research I've done, I absolutely agree there's no "magic window" of learning language well. What I do find, however, is less self-consciousness at learning language at a young age, and that's what's burdened me the most. Very little kids don't worry about their mistakes (or at least, I've yet to notice any embarrassment of that sort in Mikko). Anyway, it's worth a try! I actually want to write a post about how we as parents unavoidably influence our kids' opportunities and interests, because it's an interesting unschooling topic to me — thanks for making me think of it again!

Dagmar: Thank you for the link love! I will check out your NYC Moms post, too. Best wishes in your own bilingual parenting struggles. I bet if you took your son to Germany he'd pick it all right back up (and so would you!).

TEFL Ninja said...

" and he's really done everything at his own pace (read: slowly), including talking"

Ditto Son of Thor, he was quite non verbal in both languages until about 4.

Love you ideas for improving your own language skills, my Italian could use some work so I'm bookmarking the page for future reference.

Unknown said...

Look at me, so late to this post -- I saw it on another with, "You may also like..."

Being intentionally bilingual is hard, I think! I'm not good with any language but English, period, but our good friend has this amazing talent for languages; speaks 4 fluently, knows another 6 or 8 brokenly -- was once complimented by a native speaker on his pronounciation when he had learned it from a book. (I hate him just a little.) And he does all this unabashed.

When his daughter was born he talked about speaking nothing but Spanish to her, but between the dedication it would take and his wife not being fluent, it never really got off the ground. By the time they were really talking, it was English and LOLcat.

I hope you guys have made good progress on your goals! I think that you're making an effort at all is really cool; we talk about bilingual preschool some day (my husband can speak broken French, so he leans that direction), but I'm pretty sure we'll never be able to follow it up with any concrete learning.

Artsyfartsy said...

Damn, you live in Seattle? We should have totally met. I am a German native speaker currently on vacation in the Seattle area and I am raising my son bilingual in English/ German. So pretty much the same thing, just the other way around :).

You can follow my blog

Do it! And don't be scared to talk to Germans. I get so excited when people learn my language! Especially Americans who are not quite known for their love of foreign languages! You'll be fine :).

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