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About This Blog

This blog is for anyone interested in raising their children in a foreign language--meaning a language which neither of the parents speak natively.
We have used the approach where both parents speak the target foreign language (in our case, German) to the children. Neither of us is a native German speaker, yet we have spoken German in our home for the past 20 years and have 8 German speaking children. In this blog, we hope to share our successes, our lessons learned and a few of the insights that we've gained along the way.

Switching from school language to home language

I have been quite intrigued with my younger batch of kids. What intrigues me, is that they continue to communicate with each other in German--even though they all attend an English speaking school together. They even all go to ESL class together while at school. My older kids had switched to speaking English to each other by the time they were in school. Yet, these younger ones are simply more comfortable communicating in German. It's fascinating that as soon as they step off the bus, they switch from their English world to their German world. A few months ago, I videoed our after school conversations at the bus stop and on our walk home (see video below). It was fun to see how they refer to things at school by the English term: "gym" and "library". But they still describe and discuss the day in German. They often walk home with English speaking friends. And I've noticed that when all the kids are together that they will speak English. But when they are just with a sibling or with me, the conversation is all in German. I've noticed that even when I am not a part of the conversation, that they get off the bus and immediately speak German to each other. I'm anxious to know what language they use to communicate with each other while they are at school. I don't see them at recess and I'm not even sure if they play that much together. I think Simon plays with the boys and Clarissa plays with the girls. But if Simon needs to ask Clarissa a question during class (they are in the same Kindergarten class), what language does he use? I think it's time to do some sleuthing so that I can get some linguistic answers. I'm curious to know if they're using their German at school...


My American Kids in ESL: Improving English without giving up on German

It's always such a funny discussion when I try to explain to people that my kids struggle a little with English. Last year, when Jonathan started school, I had to explain the situation quite a few times. The conversation usually goes a little bit like this:
"So, if my kids don't understand everything you say, it's because they don't speak English very well. They've spoken mostly German since birth." 
"Oh, are you from Germany?"
"No, the kids have never been to Germany. We live here."
"Oh, are you German?" 
"No, I'm American." 
"Oh, is your husband German?" 
"No, he's also American. We're both Americans."
(Here I usually get a pause and a puzzled look, so I quickly just continue)
"We just decided to raise them German speaking...just because. It was sort of an experiment that actually worked."
At this point, I usually get congratulated or applauded for raising bilingual children and there's always several remarks about what a wonderful gift it will be for the kids. And I'm reminded of what a unique situation we've created for our children. 

My older batch of children spoke much better English by the time they entered school than my younger batch. That's because we've been much more consistent in our German with our younger children than we were with the older ones. I consider it a success that we've been able to stick with our German as much as we have. However, the increased German has come at a cost. The cost is that the three younger children's English is lagging behind a bit. I'm sure that it will catch up with their peers in time. My older kids have absolutely no problems with English. In fact, they are quite verbal and are great students. 

Jonathan starts 1st Grade
This year, Jonathan entered first grade and Clarissa and Simon entered Kindergarten. I asked that they all be tested for ESL. And all three of them qualified for ESL instruction. I was actually a little surprised since I thought that their English had been improving quite a bit this past year. And it has been improving. Jonathan's English is better than his younger twin siblings, as should be expected. His year in Kindergarten obviously helped his English. However, the twins' test results showed that they both had quite limited English skills. My little Clarissa, who is naturally much more verbal than her twin brother, tested slightly higher. In fact, her "reading-writing" and "listening" skills were "fluent" and in the 46th percentile. However, her "oral expression" was "limited" and was in the 1st percentile of a national percentile rank. Simon also ranked "fluent" in "listening." However, his "language comprehension" was "very limited." 

Based on a comparison to others of their age, the children tested well below average in their "Broad English Ability-Total. " This is a comprehensive measure of language ability, including language comprehension abilities.
Jonathan tested in the 16th percentile
Clarissa tested in the 21st percentile
Simon tested in the 10th percentile

Part of me got a little concerned when I saw the test results. I worried for a second (but only a second) that maybe we have pushed the German too much. But, when I really thought about it, my gut told me that their English will be just fine. The community language is extremely powerful. It will usually take care of itself just fine. I am not so worried about it that I'm willing to stop speaking German at home. But I'm concerned enough that I have made a few changes. We have substantially increased the amount of time we spend at home reading English books. I blogged about reading in English HERE. Their need to improve their English has also given me second thoughts when it comes to my homeschooling plans. I haven't given up completely on my homeschooling dreams. However, I think I am going to modify my plans a little to make sure that the kids get sufficient English instruction. But, with those modifications in place, we will continue to speak German at home. The kids continue to converse with each in German. 

I'm convinced that we don't need to give up our German in order to have our English. The English will come with time. I'm sure of that. We will help it along by reading English books at home and by going to church and sending the children to public school and by having them in the ESL program. And we will continue all of our German efforts. We will continue to speak only German to the kids at home. We will continue to watch German movies and TV shows (along with English ones). We will continue to teach them to read and write in German. We will continue to have a German speaking home because, in the end, I know that this incredible experiment is worth it. My older children have expressed how grateful they are for the gift of having a second language. I have seen how much it has enriched and blessed our family life. I have seen how speaking German has shaped and defined our family in so many positive ways. And, really, as I consider the ramifications of the ESL test results, what it has really shown me is that our funny language experiment of raising German speaking children has actually worked. We have indeed raised German speaking children. And that is no small thing!

The Read-Aloud Handbook: A Game Changer

A week ago, a very dear friend handed me a gift at church. It turned out to be a book that I had overheard her talking about in previous conversations. It was The Read-Aloud Handbook by Jim Trelease. This friend is an avid reader (one of the most avid readers I know) and I was a little surprised when she told me that this book inspired her to read to her kids even more. So, the minute I had some time, I opened the book and started reading.

My first reaction: I have not been reading enough to my kids!

Yes, I read them books. We read a little before they go to bed, but usually only about 10 minutes or so (I'm usually anxious to put them down for the night so I can get things done). Sometimes, I'll sit and read books to them during the day, but not every single day. One of my problems is that I'm often so tired that the minute I sit down on the sofa to read a book to the kids, I fall asleep. I've been a casual read-aloud mom, at best. However, after reading The Read-Aloud Handbook, I realized that I wanted to read to them much, much more. The book is packed with encouraging statistics about the benefits of early exposure to books. It explains that those children who are immersed in more books receive some amazing benefits. They outperform those children with limited reading exposure in many areas, including vocabulary, reading comprehension, attention span, grammar, writing and spelling. The list goes on and on. The more I read, the more excited I got about increasing the reading in our home. It also got me thinking differently about some of my long-held ideas and philosophies about my bilingual parenting methods and inspired me to make some changes.

Here are some of the changes that I'm about to implement (and I've already started some of them):

  1. We're going to read a LOT more English books.
  2. We're going to read more German books.
  3. We're going to spend more time discussing English and German books in both English and German.
So why would we want to read more English (majority language) books, when I'm trying so hard to push German (minority language)?
Well, there are several compelling reasons. The first being that my children live in an English speaking country and will need to have a good grasp of the English language. They will go to school in English. They will take their college entrance exams in English. And, yes, even though we are teaching them German, they will live most of their lives in English. My philosophy, up to this point, was to just let the "English" happen on its own....which it did (to a certain degree), while we pushed German at home. I tried very hard to limit our reading to German books so that we could foster the children's German language development amid the pervasive English influence. I knew that unless we kept our home a German-speaking refuge, that the English would infiltrate and eventually overpower our German bilingual efforts. And, I know from experience, that once the majority language (English) becomes a comfortable conversational language among family members, that the minority language (German) will be spoken less and less until it's hardly used at all. 

However, as mentioned in a previous post:  Books Are Boundaries , I have discovered that reading English books does not affect our conversational use of German at home. Because a book is a clear language boundary, we are able to open the book, read (and even discuss) a book in English, close the book and then we naturally switch right back into German. It's a fascinating phenomenon. And because of this, I figure that we can spend much more time reading English books and reaping the benefits of improving the children's English language skills without it affecting our goal to have a German-speaking home.

What about German Books?
Of course, I want to continue to read a lot in German. And as we increase the amount of overall time we spend reading books, we will read more German books than we did previously. My goal is to have the children be literate in both English and German. I want their vocabularies to grow. I want them to understand more complex German sentence structures than what we usually use at home. I want them to be able to read and write in German and I feel like exposing them to lots German books will aide this process tremendously. So, yes, we will continue to read lots of German books. However, that said, the kids' English language skills will most likely play a much larger role in their lives than their German language skills, which is why we will no longer be reading exclusively German books.

Why discussing books is crucial in both languages
Because the children are more comfortable communicating in German, most of our book discussion tends to be in German--even when reading English books. It's crucial to spend time discussing books, especially when you're raising children to speak more than one language. As we read books, I'm able to ask questions about the story in either language. This way, I can check the kids' comprehension of the story in both languages. Sometimes, I ask in English and they answer in German. Other times, when discussing an English book, the discussion is all in English, and other times, it is all in German. The nice thing is that the book allows us to "break" our regular language rules and use whatever language we choose. As we read books in both languages and discuss them in both languages, we are able to translate words, talk about the different syntax in each language and even discuss cultural differences that come up in some books. 

I've always loved books. And, like I said before, I have been reading to my children their whole lives. But until recently, I feel like I've been underestimating and under-appreciating the power of books in helping my children to become truly literate in both languages. It took a book (The Read-Aloud Handbook), to really light the fire and to help me take reading to the next level. It took a recent discovery--that books are language boundaries--to open up my mind to the idea of reading to my children in English (the majority language). And both of these ideas together have been a positive "game changer" in our non-native bilingual parenting methods. I'm anxious to see where these new ideas will take us.
I've ordered a huge pile of books from our local library, all taken from the excellent anthology of great read-aloud books, which is included in The Read-Aloud Handbook. I recognize many of them from my childhood, but I had not thought to check them out for my own (German speaking) children until now. It's been fun to rediscover old books and enjoy new books. As much as I love our German books, it's been liberating to open our home to the world of English books...because, really, there is just no other way to read Dr. Suess!

Thanks, Stacey, for the book and your inspirational example!

Cousins and Firemen

I took this little video last summer while we were visiting extended family. I had been resting on the sofa while the kids were playing with their cousins. It was fun to listen to them picking up on English phrases and slang while they played. At the beginning of the video, Simon approaches me and wants to know the English word for fireman. After I give it to him, he and his cousin start playing that they are firemen and that they have a fire to put out down in the stairwell. Simon asks his cousin where the fire is. He struggles a little bit with English prepositions: "Is the fire with your house?" He then corrects himself to "in" the house. Then Jonathan joins the game. Simon and Jonathan are speaking English as they talk about the fire that they need to put out. Jonathan then makes believe that he has a button that automatically sprays water on the imaginary fire. He uses German syntax in English to explain his make-believe button: "Water is coming alone out." This makes Simon mad. He doesn't like the imaginary button. As soon as Simon gets mad, he switches to German. I'm always fascinated when I observe the kids switching between languages. They have always been able to play in English, but they almost always use German to deal with relationship issues. When they are angry, they switch to German. However, at the very end, Simon yells at Jonathan using Jonathan's English name "Jonathan" (rather than the German pronuciation Yonahtahn). It was probably his way of letting his cousin know that he was frustrated with his brother. The language boundaries are sometimes not as clear. The kids were fighting in German in my presence and in the presence of their English speaking cousin, so it was not completely apparent which language to use.


Chester, the dog, speaks German!!

I took this little video as the little twins were riding our horse down to the bus stop to meet their 1st grade brother, Jonathan, when he got off the bus. I have to apologize for the noise (horse hooves on gravel is loud) and for the terrible bounciness of the video (I was walking backwards while leading the horse and holding the camera in my left hand). Anyways, the reason for posting this video (besides it being so cute), is that I thought it was funny how up to this point, the kids had been addressing the dog, Chester, in English. All the big people addressed Chester in English, so it was just natural that they also addressed him in English. I'm sure they just figured that the dog only knew English. Anyways, as we're riding along, Simon keeps calling to the dog (who never obeys anyone--ever) in English, and of course, the dog was not coming. So, I told Simon that Chester only spoke German. And, just my luck, the minute Simon calls out to him in German, Chester pops out of the bushes. The kids are delighted with the new discovery that their dog speaks German. And the rest of the ride, they continue to call out to him in German. Since then (and this was about a week ago), I have noticed them addressing Chester in German much more frequently.


More Homeschool Thoughts--Splitting it Up and Getting the Best of Both Worlds?

For the past year or so, I've been mulling a bunch of thoughts around in my head regarding home school, alternative school, private school, public school, etc. (home school thoughts). And I've been having a hard time making up my mind because what I want doesn't exist in our area. What I really want is the same type of schooling I had growing up. I wish that the school day was shorter...much shorter. The small school that I attended in Germany started at 8 am and got out at noon. That gave us time to come home, eat lunch with our families, do our homework and still have time to play. I would love to have an option like that for my kids, but I don't. I can't find anything like that around. So, I've been trying hard to come up with a best alternative.

So excited for 1st grade
There are a few things that I'm considering as I've been mulling this over. First off, I want to say that I don't dislike public school. In fact, there are a lot of things that I like about having my kids attend our local school. I like the sense of community. I like that they get to know the local kids and families. I like that they meet new friends. I like that they learn kid social rules and that they learn to get along with children from different backgrounds. I like that they are exposed to different kinds of teachers and teaching styles. And, in our particular case, I like that school helps them to learn English (real "kid-English"). It helps them to learn to pick up on social cues and kid-appropriate language. School helps them become a little bit more "socially savvy" in a kid sort of way. And my kids actually need that more than other kids, because we don't get any "kid-English" at home. It's all German.

So, why not just be happy sending them to school. Well, besides the problem of them being gone ALL day (which is a big deal to me), I also have some other issues. One is that I want to teach them to become literate in German (I already wrote all about this in another post). And I need WAY more time than the few hours after school and before bedtime. Not only do I want to work on reading and writing in German, but we are playing with the idea of teaching them French, too. I'd also love for them to have some more time to learn piano, do sports and dance and still have time to play. The "play" part is also a big deal to me.

Two cute Kinders ready to
meet their teacher.
So, how am I going to solve this dilemma? Well, since I can't have my ideal situation: 1/2 day school, I've decided on what I think is the best alternative: 1/2 year school. So, for now (and this plan could change depending on how I feel in a few months), I have decided that I will send the 3 Littles (my younger batch of kids) to school through December. And after Christmas break, we'll start our homeschooling adventure. And next fall, I'll probably send them back to school again and then maybe pull them out again the following December. That is the plan I've come up with...no promises or guarantees that we'll stick to it. But, at least it's a plan. 

Why does this crazy plan appeal to me. Well, for starters, they get the excitement of the first day and weeks of school. It's been so fun seeing the anticipation of my little people as they've been preparing for school. They loved getting their backpacks ready. They loved their meet and greet with their Kindergarten teacher and finding their cubbies. Jonathan loved finding out which friends were in his first grade class and seeing them again after the long summer. They also love the excitement of riding on the bus. They especially love feeling grown up and having the "school" experience.  

Initially, I thought about sending them to public school for a few years and then pulling them out in 2nd or 3rd grade to focus on German for a year or two. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that by waiting that long, I might miss the (language) boat. I don't want to pass up that amazing language acquisition window (it starts closing around age 8-10). Right now they are at an age where they are literally little language sponges. If I wait a few years, I run the risk that learning new languages might not come as naturally. Plus, they might start rejecting German (after going to school for a few years) and choose to speak mostly English at home. That would make it much more difficult to try and pull off homeschooling in German--at the very least, it would make our time less effective. This is the same reason why I don't want to pull them out of school completely. That same language window helps them to acquire better English, as well. So, I've got to use the "window" while it's open, which is why I'm so anxious to use this time to soak up as much language learning as possible. 

Christmas break seems like a great time to pull them out. Once January hits, there really isn't that much going on at school---so, they'll miss the class Valentines party (I can live with that)! It'll be much easier to do school work at home in the winter when the sunshine isn't tempting them to go play outside. The winter months are cold, dark and rainy where we live and that seems like the perfect time to sit and read books in front of the fire with mom. No one really likes leaving the house on winter mornings to go to school. Even my teenagers look longingly at the roaring fire and the cozy family room and wish they could just stay home. It'll be a good time to get some serious homeschooling accomplished...and still give the kids time to build cushion forts, do crafts, and just enjoy cuddling together in front of the fire.

So, that's the plan. And I'm getting pretty excited about it. I've already started collecting teaching materials. I'm excited to try homeschooling and I'm especially excited about doing it in German (and adding some more French)! I'm excited about all the possibilities and about spending time with my kiddos! I'm just so excited to see where this new adventure will take us. Did I mention that I was excited???

Bilingual Bedtime Stories - Books are Boundaries

At night, we gather the little ones for their nighttime routine of bedtime stories. We always read a scripture story first. My favorite scripture stories are from the Kinderbibel by Anne DeVries. 
The children are enthralled by these bible stories and they are perfect for reading aloud. Even the older siblings enjoy reading the stories to the kids. The older kids love them because I read the very same stories to them when they were little.

What I find linguistically interesting is how the children have drawn their language boundaries when it comes to books. We have mostly German children's books, but we also own quite a few English books. At first, I didn't want to read the English books to them, for fear that it would "contaminate" our German speaking home (ML@H). I worried that if I started reading English books, that the kids would then start communicating with each other in English. They would hear me reading in English and would assume that English is an OK language use at home. And I know from experience, that once they switch to English as their main communication language, the German becomes more and more obsolete.

Well, it turns out that books are in and of themselves a language boundary. They are a controlled exception to the rule. The book is a boundary or barrier which contains the English and prevents the English from seeping out and contaminating our German speaking home. The book gives us the license to use English and still makes it natural to switch (code switch) back to German when we close the book. It's quite amazing. 

In the video, I start out by reading a German bible story. The children ask questions and make comments about the story in German. I then pick up an English children's book. As I read in English, the kids participate in the "wishy washy weeeee" (English) part of the book. But they tend to make their comments and ask their questions in German. There is even a point, when I ask a question about the book in English and Jonathan answers in German. The kids understand where the language boundaries are and they understand when it's acceptable or "normal" to speak English and when it's acceptable or "normal" to speak German. 

I am amazed at the effectiveness of establishing language boundaries and rules and then sticking to them. The children will always use the language that feels more natural to them. If they have always used the target language (in our case, German) in a given situation, then it would feel unnatural for them to use the community language (English) in that same situation. But if you break the rule for them, then they will naturally follow and that will open the proverbial floodgates of the community language that you have been trying so hard to keep in check while you focus on the target language. 


Is French Feasible or Futile? Thoughts of Trilingualism

With our older children, we tried introducing French a few times. I checked out some French audio tapes from the library and I had a few French children's books that we would read now and then. Why French? Well, my sweet husband speaks French. He served a two year mission in France for our church when he was 19. I took two years of French in high school. I also took a few semesters in college. I am NOT fluent. I can understand basic words and grammar. I can say things like "Je m'apelle Nina." I think if I studied it again that a lot would come back to me. But since I haven't tried to keep it up, I have forgotten almost all of my French.

Anyways, so why am I blogging about French? Well, I am somehow convinced that I could give my kids the equivalent of two or three years of high school French. I don't expect them to become fluent or to speak native-like. However, I do believe that they have the potential to acquire much better pronunciation if we start at a young age than they would if we waited to introduce the language until they were teenagers. What are other reasons why I might want to introduce French? Well, why not?? I can speak some French, so why not pass what I know on to my kids. In fact, I can learn right along with them.

How do plan on doing this? Well, I'm not exactly sure yet. I've been showing them French children's videos since they were little. I have French apps on our phones and tablets, which the kids love to play. We have some French books and a daddy that speaks some French. I think that is enough to get started.

I have been mulling the whole French thing over in my head for a year or two. I realized that if I really want to push French, that I will probably end up pulling my kids out of school part time, because there just isn't enough time after school to really learn a language. I have some awesome ideas about that, but that will have to wait for a later blog post. All I know, is that I want start soon. They are at an age where they are just soaking so much up. I don't want to miss this precious developmental stage in their lives.

I find myself searching the internet often for any French material I can find. I'm also looking for a fun children's French curriculum that we can use. I'd prefer one designed for native German speakers who are learning French. If anyone has any ideas or recommendations, please share them in the comment section below.

As you can see in the video below, the kids already are enjoying French. They are fascinated by it. Being bilingual, they understand the concept of different languages and that there are different ways to express yourself. So, I think their little minds are very open to the idea of a third language. Maybe we'll start something like "French Fridays" and use that day to really focus on French. I'm getting super excited about the whole French thing. There is so much technology available to help me out. See my Technology Post.

The video shows the kids watching a cute French YouTube video. They had been playing outside in the pool. When they came in, I had it playing. They were sucked into it and didn't go back outside. I loved that they immediately started imitating the words and sounds. They thought it was neat that the French alphabet sounded more like the German alphabet. As I watched them, I realized that I need to continue to feed them French. I'm excited to find out where we'll end up on this new linguistic venture.


German Language Boundaries at the County Fair

Jonathan and Simon help with grooming
I have written quite a few posts on this topic, but I am continually amazed at how ingrained our unwritten language rules/boundaries are. This past week, we put those boundaries to the test a few times and it was interesting to see the kids' response.

Watching the steer show with friends
Each year, we spend a week at the county fair. Our older kids are in 4-H and I'm a leader of a 4-H club. In the past we've had market lambs, market pigs, market goats and market steers, as well as chickens and dairy goats at the fair. The kids also enter many static exhibits, such as artwork, photography, baking, creative writing, etc.

Kandra shows her market lamb
They love their big brother
Dallin with his market steer
Because we're at the fair all day, every day, we are, of course, surrounded by English. One of our unspoken rules is that it's OK to speak English when we're in the company of English speakers. So, needless to say, we spoke a lot of English with the kids this past week. We still often speak German when around other English speakers, but, the kids know that it's acceptable to speak English as well.

One of the days, Karl (husband) and I were walking through the fairgrounds with just our family members. We had the three young ones and one or two of the older kids with us. Usually, this would be a time when we would only speak German, because there were no one else with us. As we headed over to the ice cream booth, I asked the kids in English if they wanted ice cream. Right away, Simon objected, and said "Du sollst nur Deutsch sprechen" (You should only speak German). I was amazed, that with all the English that we had been speaking, at how aware he was that we had broken our unwritten language rule. He was very aware that we were not in the company of other English speakers. Yes, they were all around us; but he could tell that this conversation was a private family conversation. My question was not intended to include anyone outside the family. Even though he's only 5 years old, he very well understood that a language boundary had been breached and he called me on it.

Now with my older kids, I started breaching that rule way too often (addressing the kids in English when we were in a family setting), and because of that, our family language switched to mostly English much earlier than it has with our younger kids. In fact, with the younger set, our German has remained so strong because we have made such a concerted effort to really stick to our rules. We're trying very hard to keep the boundaries in tact, so that the childrens' German will continue to develop to a higher level than the older kids achieved. I guess, we'll just have to wait and see what our linguistic future holds, but for now, we'll just stay on our present course. It seems to be working.

Countdown to Goodbye! Life is Good.

I can't believe, we'll sending our Michaela off to Europe in just over 30 days. Michaela's Mission Call Video We won't see her for 18 months. That's a long time to say goodbye to one of your babies. Will we miss her? Yes, we will. Do we still want her to go? Yes, we do! Why? Because this is a dream come true for her. She has wanted to serve a mission for the LDS Church her entire life. Is she prepared? YES! She has been preparing for this since she was small. She is so excited to serve her Savior and to help others to feel His love. She has spent the last few months, since she's been home from college, studying her scriptures, the missionary manuals, and taking care of all the travel logistics (passport, visa, etc). She's been studying the German language her entire life, but these last few months, she has really upped her intensity. She has been studying grammar like never before...and it's slowly starting to make more sense to her. It's fun to see the grammar finally start to click. Just today, she pointed out that "Wir gehen ins (in das) Haus hinein" and that we use "das" because it's accusative! Yay!! I think she's getting it!! She constantly comes to me with grammar questions and it's so fun to see her intense desire to really learn.

Apparently, her German is good enough that she tested out of the language training in the Missionary Training Center (MTC). They had her call in and do a phone interview, after which they told her that she would be training with the other native German sisters and that she would only be in the MTC for 2 weeks instead of the usual 6 weeks (required when you're learning a foreign language).

We started a blog for her and she did her first post today: Miss Michaela On A Misson! It's hard to think that we only have just over a month left. Her little Simon is already missing her so much. He and Michaela have such a special bond. It will be very hard for him and for Clarissa and Jonathan, as well. But they  understand that serving a mission is a good thing. They are so proud of their oldest sibling, Ben, who is currently serving a mission in Wisconsin: While in Wisconsin. They pray for him every single night; they talk about him and they draw him LOTS of pictures, which we mail to him regularly.

We are so excited for all the fun adventures that Michaela will have in Germany. We're happy that she gets to make some wonderful memories in a country that is dear to our hearts. It will be fun for her to learn more about the local culture and to get to know the wonderful people. It makes me excited just thinking about it. There is just so much to be grateful for! Yes, life is good!!

Chickens, Swings, and Summer! Big kids and little kids speaking German together.

I absolutely LOVE summer time. I love having all my kids home from school. This summer is particularly fun, because my college freshmen twin girls are home for the summer, too. We sure missed them while they were gone this past year. The little kids are so happy to have their big sisters home. Michaela and Kiana have been like "other mothers" to them. In fact, the little ones usually run to one of their sisters when they need something, instead of coming to me. They ADORE their sisters. It is so much fun having both older and younger children and seeing the love and joy that exists in their relationships with each other. I can honestly say that nothing brings me more joy than witnessing the sweet love that the kids have for each other. 

Another fun bonus that has come with having a later set of children (there's almost a 9 year gap between the older kids and the younger ones), is that the younger kids have inspired the older ones to really work on their German again. Before the younger ones were born, the older kids had pretty much stopped using their German at home. We had a few German routines, but most of our home language had switched to English. When the younger ones came along, we all decided we would speak only German to the little ones. It's been fun to observe the improvement in the older kids' German ability. They don't speak perfect German, but they get lots and lots of practice at home. In fact, often, my little 6 year old Jonathan, will teach his 17 year old brother, Dallin, a few words. 

I came across this video the other day. Michaela and Kiana had taken the video camera out to the pasture swing. Jonathan, had just caught one of his chickens and brought it up the hill to show his sisters. The reason I like this video so much is because I'm not in it. This video shows how the big and little kids interact when I'm not around. Michaela is taking the video, and because she is out playing with the little kids, she is only speaking in German. If we hadn't had our second batch of kids, Michaela and Kiana would not have been sitting out in the pasture having German conversations. All that wonderful German speaking would never have happened!! Anyways, I'm just feeling grateful for my children today and grateful that we decided to raise them in our non-native German language. 


Rock Paper Sissors!

I think it's fascinating how the kids will pick up games, words and songs in the dominant  (community) language...yet they still continue to communicate in the minority (target) language. This video shows Clarissa and Simon in the back of the car. We're on our way home from church, which is an English speaking environment. At some point at church, they must have picked up the game "Rock, Paper, Sissors." Maybe one of the other children in their Sunday school class taught it to them. I don't know how they learned it, but I was intrigued by the fact that they played the game in English, but still continued to use German when communicating. When Clarissa gets frustrated with Simon, she talks to him in German...but then immediately goes back to playing the game in English. It's a lot like the post Language Boundaries where the kids were also playing an English game and communicated with each other in German. I just find this so fascinating. I'm amazed that they continue to stick to German with all this English surrounding them. I attribute this phenomenon to solid, habitual language boundaries. Children will choose to communicate in the language that feels most natural to them. Rarely, can you make them continue to speak in a language that feels unnatural or forced. The key is to raise them from birth in the target language so that it feels as natural as possible. And, hopefully, they'll prefer to speak the target language for many years to come.

Language Learning During Everyday Living

So, the other day, my little 6 year old Jonathan was working on emptying the dishwasher. It was his job that morning. He's my little analytical engineer. He loves to figure out how things work. Anyways, as he was emptying the dishwasher, I noticed that he kept stacking the clean dishes in ascending or descending towers. He would take the items out of the dishwasher, line them up in order of size and then he would analyze his work. Then I  noticed that he was working on comparative and superlative adjectives in German. He would start on one end and say: "Biggest, bigger, big..." I pulled out my phone camera because he was just being so cute about it.
I was impressed with his desire to really learn the correct words. He got them a little mixed up at first, but I could tell that he really wanted to get it right. It was fun to see the little gears turning in his head as he put the words together with the meanings.
As I watched him, it occurred to me that this kind of learning is "real" learning. Of course, it's something that you could also learn from a textbook in German class, but this was just a little more "real". I thought about how I had at one time considered sending the kids to the local German/American private school. I didn't send them because, firstly, it was way too expensive and, secondly, I felt like I could give them just as much or even more German at home with me. These kinds of experiences also continue to persuade me to consider some sort of homeschooling. I get glimpses of the fun learning environment that we can create in our home and I also get excited about having my sweet babies with me all day long and watching them learn, grow and develop. I'm still not sure what I'm going to do as far as schooling goes, but we will, for sure, continue to speak, teach and learn German at home--for as long as we can.


Home Language Boundaries: How our family uses German and English side-by-side

I came across the following video and thought that it did a great job of portraying the typical language use in our bilingual family. It really shows how both English and German are usually used in our family. In the video, the big and little kids are decorating our Easter egg tree together.


It's very apparent in the video that the little kids speak almost only German to us and to each other. The little kids hardly ever use English in a family setting. They are much more comfortable with German. It's their "family language". The big kids (including me) speak English to each other and German to the little ones. The little kids are not phased at all that we speak English to each other. Surprisingly, our English usage has not, in the least, affected their choice to speak only German. I've often wondered about this. I've always been amazed that they have heard English spoken their whole lives, yet, until last year (when Jonathan started Kindergarten), the three little ones could hardly speak any English. They hear English in the community, when we're shopping, at church, when friends come over, etc....yet, they still speak only German to each other and to us. This amazes me. I think that this attests to the importance of having boundaries and really sticking to them. When the boundaries are well defined and when you rarely break the "rules", it is so much easier to foster bilingualism. I know this, because with my first batch of kids, I broke the rules much more often. I had been told by a "professional" that because I was not native German, that if I spoke only German to my children that they would have problems learning either language well. This "professional" told me that they would not have "any" native language. That made me nervous, so I started speaking more English to my older children when they were still young. I still continued with the German, but I often switched to English. Because of that, they started speaking mostly English years ahead of my second batch of kids. With our second batch of kids, I came into this whole bilingual parenting adventure with much more experience and confidence. I knew that the kids would learn English just fine on their own. Their English would not suffer (in the long run). Knowing this has helped me to stick with our rules and has given me the confidence to plow ahead with our non-native bilingual parenting adventure.

Buße Bank (Repentance Bench)

Today, we had a little argument. Jonathan had a laser toy and wouldn't share it with Simon. So Simon spit at Jonathan and called him "gemein" (mean). This accusation caused Jonathan to burst into tears: "Ich bin nicht gemein". Funny how the house can go from peaceful to a wailing frenzy in a matter of seconds. So, what's my favorite way of handling these situations? Well, I'm not a spanker and I'm not good at enforcing time out. So, over the years, I've adapted an idea I came across, and I call it the "Buße Bank" or, in other words, the repentance bench (it sounds so much better in German). Here's how it works: As soon as I hear screaming, crying, tattling, or any type of fighting, I immediately send (sometimes drag) all involved parties to the repentance bench. In our house the "bench" is the raised fireplace hearth.
They cannot move their little bums from the hearth until the conflict has been resolved in the following manner: Each of them has to tell me how the other is feeling (and the other person has to concur with their diagnosis). And then they have to figure out what they might have done that caused the other person to feel hurt or angry (of course we know that no one can "make" another person angry...but I'm mostly asking them to look back on their past actions in order to identify something they said or did that was unkind, selfish or thoughtless.) No one is allowed to accuse or talk about what the other person did or didn't do to them. If they start with "But he..." then I just shush them and ask again "You need to explain to me why you think Simon feels angry." All of this is done in German, of course. Simon then has to explain what he might have done that hurt Jonathan's feelings. Sometimes it takes a while to figure out exactly what caused the contention. Once they both figure out why the other person feels hurt, they then have to apologize for whatever they did that was unkind or thoughtless. Sometimes they didn't mean to hurt the other's feelings, but they still need to figure out what they did and why it was misconstrued to be hurtful. Even if they didn't purposely hurt the other person, they still can apologize, by saying something like "I'm sorry that you got angry when I said that the purple cat you drew was not a real cat color. I didn't know that would make you feel dumb. Because you're not dumb, you're smart and your purple cat is cool." Almost always, by the time they get to the apologizing stage, they start giggling and end up hugging each other so much that they fall off the bench in a heap of laughter. It's been a great way for the kids to learn how to talk about feelings and to understand that other people have real feelings, too.

 So here are the Buße Bank rules summed up:

1. All parties sit on bench
2. Each child has to identify the other person's feelings
3. They each have to explain how their own actions were hurtful, unkind or thoughtless
4. They have to (sincerely) apologize for their selfishness, thoughtlessness or hurtfulness.
5. They can't leave the bench until their sibling is happy. They also have to hug each other and express their love for each other. When all parties are happy, THEN and only then, can they leave the bench.

By the way that weird character "ß" is a double "s" in German. So, it's pronounced Boosseh Bahnk. :)

Morning and Evening Routines!

About a year ago, I realized that we needed to set some expectations for morning and evening routines for our three youngest. They were 4, 4 & 5 at the time and I wanted them to do their routines without help from me. At first I tried to use my big job chart, but then I realized that they needed their own chart in their room.
Since I wanted tabs that could be turned over and used every day, I came up with the following chart.

To make it, I simply used some Dollar Tree Document frames ($1 each). (You could also use 8x10 frames, you'd just have to cut down your paper.) Then I created and printed the back ground of the chart on colored card stock. Here's the file I used (it's a Publisher file, so you'd have to have Microsoft Publisher on your computer. I don't think you can preview or open the file without it):
Morning and Evening Routines
Yes, I realize that this is in German. Since we speak only German to our little people, the job chart is in German. So, for those who don't know German, the morning jobs are: Prayer, Get Dressed, Brush Teeth, Make Bed and Clean Room. The evening jobs are: Put on PJs, Brush Teeth, Clean Room, Read Scriptures (I read to them), and Prayer.
So, now for the CLEVER part: In order to make hooks, I took the little round head brass paper fasteners and stuck them through the paper from the back, so that the pointy part stuck out the front side (I made a little slit with the tip of a sharp knife to help them push through the paper). Once I stuck all the fasteners through the paper, I secured them on the back with clear packing tape. Then, on the front of the paper, I bent the ends upwards to make little hooks! (I KNOW, IT'S SO CLEVER, I CAN HARDLY STAND IT). Anyways, after that, I made little job tabs with pictures. On the back of each tab, I drew a smiley face. Then I laminated the tabs and punched holes in the top. Lastly, I took the glass out of the frame and put my chart into the frame, securing it on the back with tape and hung it in the kids room.

Immediately, our morning and evening routines were transformed. Now, when they come out of their room in the morning, I ask them if they've turned over all their jobs. If not, they run right back in their room and do it. At night, I can send them upstairs ahead of me and tell them to do their jobs and if they get them all turned over before I come up, then they get an extra story. They love having a routine. They love knowing what's expected. It helps the whole family, since often an older sibling or my husband is putting the kids to bed. The chart has really helped our mornings and evenings run so smoothly.

Love my charts!!!

Thank Goodness for Technology (when you're parenting in your non-native language)

The boys play a German computer game. Love how the stuffed kitty
is hanging by its tail and watching. 
Having had the experience of raising bilingual kids in the 1990's as well as in the 2010's, I must say that I've been very grateful for the help of technology in both eras. In the 1990's I was very grateful for anything German that I could get my hands on. It was a LOT harder to get the things that I wanted than it is today. For example, in order to be able to watch German children's videos. First, I had to find someone who was going to Germany who could buy a video cassette for me. Of course, that video (being in PAL format, used in Europe) wouldn't play on my American (NTSC) video player. So, I would have to find someone who owned a (very expensive) PAL/NTSC conversion video player. Thankfully, the university I was attending owned such a player, so I was able to convert a few videos. And, boy, was I grateful for each and every one of my German videos. The first movie we had was Dumbo. My little Ben watched his German Dumbo every afternoon before he took a nap. Later, I found friends who had NTSC/PAL video players/converters and our small German video library slowly grew. Eventually, the price came down enough that we got our own machine. Our little library become much bigger. We acquired  a whole slew of Disney videos. We also picked up traditional German children's shows along the way, like Loewenzahn, Petzi, and Sendung mit der Maus.

With our younger batch of kids we've had so, so much more technology available to us. With the internet, it's so much easier to order videos.  And the PAL video players are very cheap now. I have found that Abe Books carries lots of German materials and their shipping to the US is very reasonable. But, lately, I have almost stopped buying videos altogether, because we can find so many shows on YouTube. We can also watch a whole bunch of children's shows, including our all time favorite, Sendung mit dem Elefanten, on Kika. (KiKA Link). KiKA is a German children's TV network.

We have found lots of fun computer sites that help the kids to develop their German. Many of these resources are pinned on my Pinterest board (see right column). One of our favorites is Toggolino. You pay a yearly subscription, but that gets you access to tons of different educational software games. My kids absolutely love it. They never get tired of it because there are so many different games and new ones are constantly being added. I love all the educational software available to help the kids learn to read and write in German. 

Another source of German, which technology has made much easier to acquire, is music and audio books. I used to order cassette tapes through catalogs. Now, I can download just about anything I want. We love our German children's music. We have it playing all the time. Our favorite artist is Rolf Zukowski. The kids love to sing along to his songs. We also love to listen to audio books in the car. I was so pleased to find that I could open a German Audible account and order just about any audio book I wanted. I don't know if you younger moms appreciate all this as much as us older moms. But, just imagine trying to get your hands on material in your target language without the internet. Having access to so much information is just so helpful when you're parenting in your non-native language!!

So, how has access to all this technology helped us to raise children in our non-native language? Well, most of all, it has exposed our kids to lots and lots of (natively) spoken German, which is something they desperately need since our German is far from perfect. Through the many forms of media, they are exposed to complex sentence structures, syntax, different dialects, fixed expressions, and many other linguistic nuances that they can’t pick up from us, their parents, because we are not native speakers. On numerous occasions, I’ve heard my kids use phrases that they picked up from a German TV show or a German song…phrases that neither Karl nor I have ever used. And whenever that happens, I am reminded of just how much technology has helped my children understand and speak better German.

Not only does all this exposure help their language, it also makes them feel like they are part of a bigger group. My kids have very few friends who speak German. We just don’t come in contact with many Germans on a day to day basis. For this reason, it really helps them to see other kids speaking German on TV. When they watch a German show and see all the characters speaking German, it helps them to realize that they are not the only ones speaking this funny language. It also helps with the “cool factor” of the language. If your favorite cartoon character speaks German, then maybe German is a cool language!

And on top of helping their language AND helping them to love the language, the other benefit that I’ve seen from exposing our kids to lots of German videos, is that they are learning about German culture. This culture learning comes especially from shows with “real” actors (rather than cartoons). One culturally educational series that our young kids enjoy are the “Sachgeschichten” on Sendung mit der Maus. These are excerpts that can be compared to the How It’s Made series, except it’s geared towards little kids. My older girls adore the Sissi movie about Empress of Austria. It’s packed with history and culture. And what girl doesn’t love the beautiful flouncy dresses and elaborate hairstyles of the Georgian era?

When you're raising your kids in a language that is foreign to you, you are going to make mistakes--lots of them! You will sound awkward at times and you'll be just plain wrong at other times. It just makes sense to make sure that you are not the only source of the target language. You're going to want to surround your children with as many native speakers as possible. When you're facing a huge project (and I think raising your kids in a foreign language counts as a huge project), you want as much help as you can get. Thank goodness for the many foreign language resources that technology has put at our fingertips!


A Day Like This Makes it All Worth It!!

As I look back on all the years and all the effort we put into raising our children bilingually, there are quite a few instances when I've been especially grateful for our decision to speak German to our kids. One of those special times was when we traveled to Europe. I loved seeing my children play and interact with my German friends' children. I had even arranged for my children to spend a few days at the German school that I attended as a child. I remember feeling so incredibly grateful that my kids were able to have that experience. It was an experience that they never would have had, if we hadn't taught them German. Well, we recently had another wonderful experience which tops them all.
In order to understand the significance of this experience, you have to understand a little about our religious culture. We are LDS (Latter Day Saints or "Mormons"). Ever since our children were very young, we have talked to them about serving missions. Many of the youth in our church, start saving their money early so that they can someday serve a mission. Young men are able to serve once they're 18 years old and serve for 2 years. Young women can serve once they're 19 years old and serve for 18 months. (About Mormon Missionaries) In order to serve a mission, the young people need to be living up to certain moral standards and they need to have a strong desire to serve others. They also are willing to serve where ever they are sent, meaning that the mission applicants don't get to choose where they will be serving. They are assigned to a certain mission. It could be anywhere in the whole world. There is a section in the application which asks about which languages are spoken by the applicant. However, just because an applicant speaks a given language does not at all guarantee that he or she will be called to a country where that language is spoken. Case in point: my son, who speaks German, is currently serving his mission in the state of Wisconsin (English speaking). (Ben's Mission Blog) We are thrilled for him and he is having amazing and wonderful experiences. He loves Wisconsin and he loves the people of Wisconsin. So, how does his bilingualism help  him now? Well, one of the most wonderful benefits of bilingualism is the "biculturalism" that usually goes hand in hand with learning another language. This means that Ben grew up learning about different cultures and different ways of thinking about things. This ability to be open-minded has helped him to connect with people who are very different from himself. So, he may not be using his German language on his mission so much, but his exposure to a foreign culture has still helped him to be a better and more effective missionary.
So, recently, our daughter, Michaela, submitted her mission application. She, of course, was also willing to serve anywhere in the world that she might be sent. There is always a lot of anticipation preceding a mission call. We gathered friends and family (many through video conferencing) to witness the opening of the mission call letter. When she finally opened it and read that she would be serving in the Germany Frankfurt Mission, we were all so thrilled. Of course, we'd be thrilled no matter where she ended up serving, but the fact that we've been speaking German to her since she was born, made it one of those very special "bilingual parenting moments". I thought back on all the German lullabies I memorized and sang to her when she was little, the German stories I read her, the German traditions we incorporated, and the love that she has developed over the years for all things German. And, now, she gets to take all that knowledge and all that love and will have the opportunity to serve the people in Germany for a year and a half. Yes, at times like this, I am so, so grateful that we took the bilingual plunge and that we stuck with it as best we could.  Indeed, a day like this makes it all worth it!

German Storytime at the Library

Last week I got an email from the German American School of Portland about a German Storytime at a local library as part of their international storytime week. I must have given the school my email when I was attending a Christmas Market event last December. I have been trying to find other German speaking children with whom my kids can interact. So, now and then, when I hear of German events, I will attend them to see if we can find some other German speaking children in the area. 

The kids were excited for German Storytime. They thought it was neat that we were going to hear German stories at the library. The lady who told the stories did an excellent job. She was extremely engaging and had the kids on the edge of their carpet squares. She didn't read books, she told (and acted out) the stories. Even my little Simon, who tends to be very bashful in public settings, was excited and blurted out responses to her questions. While she was telling the story, my kids would often look back at me with a "knowing nod". It was their way of saying: "Hey, mom, this is our language and I understand this. How cool is that?" Our fun German experience was over too soon. Afterwards, I found a couple of the moms to see if anyone was interested in forming an informal playgroup. 

Still Speaking German after a week of English Immersion!

So, what effect did our "English Immersion" week with our English-speaking cousins have on our German household??? English All Week

Well, I'm pleased to announce that we literally bounced right back. It was actually quite interesting. My brother and his sweet wife got home after the kids were all in bed. In the morning, as the cousins came storming down the stairs to greet their parents, I realized that there was a noticeable shift in dynamics. Now that my brother and wife were here, their children were no longer under my charge. They now belonged to their own (English speaking) family again. That meant that our family went back to being a German speaking family. In fact, as we were eating breakfast, I noticed Simon and Jonathan having a squabble on the floor (that's nothing new), but the interesting part was that it was in German. They hadn't spoken German to each other all week. Even they felt the change. They understood that our "family" was back to it's normal size and that things were getting closer to normal.

I whipped out my phone and recorded the boys arguing in German while the rest of us were all visiting in English and eating breakfast. I guess, it surprised me to suddenly hear German again. They hadn't spoken German all week. But now that the dynamics had shifted, they immediately reverted back to "normal."


While we visited with my brother's family, we went back to our regular "guest" language routine, where we speak English to our guests and often speak German to each other. After we said our goodbyes and my brother left, little Simon came running up the stairs and exclaimed: "Jetzt koennen wir nur Deutsch sprechen!" (Now we can speak only German!) And with that, we all naturally switched back to German. It was as simple as that.

The reason that we're able to continue to keep our German so strong is that we are following our unwritten language rules and boundaries. The kids understand that their choice of language is governed by these rules. They speak English under certain circumstances and within certain boundaries, but all other times, we revert to German. Boundaries are what make it all work!!!