27 February 2014

Enjoying the fruits of success

As I sit here at my computer and listen to the German chatter of my 3 youngest children (ages 6, 5 & 5), I am truly grateful that we decided to teach them German. I am amazed that German continues to be their primary language. At this same age, their older siblings had switched to speaking mostly English to each other. Jonathan is already in his second semester of Kindergarten. He goes to Kindergarten 3 times a week, where he is completely immersed in English. In fact, today when I was helping in class, I asked him something in German and he responded with: "Mom, speak English." He knows that school is an English-speaking environment and he wants to fit in while at school...and I respect that. When he gets off the bus with his buddy, Max, he still wants to speak English as long as Max is around. But when he walks through the door, he switches completely back to German.
There are times, when the kids speak English to each other at home, but it's only during pretend play. When they "discuss" their pretend play, they do it in German. Today, I let them play some educational computer games that were in English. I don't usually let them play any English computer games. I try to always use our multimedia resources to reinforce the target language (German). That means that almost all movies, TV shows, computer games, books, and children's songs are in German. Anyways, today I let them play an English computer program. The program went over the English alphabet and numbers, taught them English songs, had them solve puzzles in English, etc. I was pretty sure that they would switch to English while playing the game, but they didn't. They played the game together, but they continued to converse in German...even while they were playing the English game. I don't know why that made me so happy. It just did. I guess, it made me happy because I could see that we're actually succeeding at this bilingual experiment. And not only are we succeeding, but we're improving on what we've accomplished in the past and it makes me excited about the future.

Learning from the past!

This blog has given me the opportunity to really compare and analyze the methods and habits that we've used in raising both sets of kids. As I look back on my bilingual successes and failures in raising my first 5 children, I am able to decide what methods will be most effective to use in raising my younger children. It's a very unique situation. Since there are over 8 years between the two sets of children, we are able to start fresh with this new batch. The language habits from the older kids did not carry over to the younger ones, so I have the wonderful opportunity to really learn from the past and implement my best bilingual parenting ideas and avoid my former bilingual pitfalls as I raise my youngest three children.
We worked very hard to raise our older children bilingually and I am very aware that we didn't do everything perfectly. Yet, I don't have regrets. We did the best that we could with the knowledge and experience that we had at the time...and we did a good job: We have 5 older children who can understand and speak German. But I know that we can do better. Because of our past experience, we know how to help our younger children reach a higher proficiency in their minority language (German) than their older siblings reached. It has been fun and rewarding to observe the bilingual successes that we are having as a family. And as I write this, I am smiling, because I am listening to my three younger ones chatter away in German and that makes me happy.

23 February 2014

German Preschool or Spielgruppe

Let's face it, it is just plain hard to maintain a minority language when you're trying to raise bilingual kids. Even before my oldest child started school, I noticed that the kids were speaking more and more English (majority language). As I was trying to figure out more ways to encourage the kids' German, I realized that my kids had never spoken German to other children. The only people who had ever spoken German to them were their parents and a handful of other adults. I was pretty sure that if they heard other children speaking German, that they would be motivated to speak more German themselves. I needed to find other German-speaking children for them to interact with. I looked into our local German American School, but it was a private school and was financially out of our reach. Much to my surprise, I found a German preschool run by a local community center. It was a 30 minute drive for me, but I signed up my oldest for the preschool. Twice a week, we drove to the preschool. It was a wonderful opportunity for my son to hear German spoken by people other than his parents. However, I noticed that most of the kids in the preschool didn't actually communicate in German. In most cases, they had at least one German parent and many of them could understand German, but very few of them really spoke German. When I observed them on the playground, they were almost always speaking English to each other. Still, it was a great program and my son really enjoyed the experience. The teacher was amazing. I volunteered to help and so was able to have my younger children in the class with me. It helped my children to see that German was spoken by more people than just mom and dad. We also enjoyed celebrating some of the traditional German holidays, like Faschings (see photo). We participated with the preschool for a year and it definitely had a positive influence on the kids' German.

07 February 2014

Toggling Between Languages

Sometimes it's hard to remember what our bilingual situation was WAY back in the 1990's. I was under the impression that my kids were speaking mostly German to each other until my oldest started school. But after paying closer attention to some of our home videos, it seems like the kids started speaking English to each other well before before Ben started Kindergarten, even though most of our family communication was still in German. At the time, Karl and I mostly spoke German to the kids and they usually spoke German to us. And when we were together as a family, the kids usually spoke German to each other. But when the kids were playing on their own, they spoke English to each other.

I found a great video that shows how the kids toggled between languages in our home. At the time of this video, Ben is 4 years old and Michaela and Kiana are 3.  In the first scene, Karl is reading the kids their nightly story in German. This is our family time and you can hear that everyone is conversing in German. Kiana shows of her "Ariel" sweater in German.  Ben and Karl talk about the book in German. Michaela complains in German about not being able to see the book. Everyone is speaking German.

The next scene is filmed the very next day. Here I caught the kids playing with each other in English. They don't even know I'm filming. (I thought it was so cute how the girls are playing with their graham crackers. Kiana's cracker is named "Better" and Michaela's cracker is named "Broken"). The video shows how the children's language boundaries for German and English was "German with Family" and "English with siblings" well before Ben entered Kindergarten.

One of the reasons, I believe, that my older children switched to speaking English earlier than my younger children, was that I started introducing English at home at much earlier age. I started getting worried about their English development. I listened to an "expert" tell me that they wouldn't develop any language natively. So for a short while, we used more English at home with the kids. I realize now that this was a mistake. I should have stuck to my guns with the German. Once you introduce the community language, there really is no going back. With our second batch of children, I have been much more confident and consistent with German and the result has been that we've been able to keep them speaking mostly German for a much longer time. Even though my younger children often "pretend play" in English, all of their real communication is still in German. I'm curious whether their German as teenagers will be better than that of their older siblings. I guess only time will tell.

04 February 2014

Starting School and ESL (Second Batch of kids)

Starting school has been a little bit different with my second batch of kids than it had been with the first batch, although there are a few similarities.

My little Jonathan is currently in Kindergarten. Just like his oldest brother, Ben, we also put Jonathan into the ESL (English as a Second Language) program. The difference between the older 5 and the younger 3 kids, is that the younger ones have spoken almost exclusively German and their English is not nearly as fluent as the older kids at the same age. The younger ones still communicate with each other in German to this day, where my older kids had switched to English by this age. About a year ago, I was starting to get concerned that Jonathan would just not be ready for Kindergarten. We had already held him back one year, since his birthday is the end of August (right before the cut-off), but we were still concerned that he would really struggle with English in school. I had been observing him in his church Sunday school class and saw that he really didn't participate much. When the Sunday school teacher asked him to do something, he would usually smile and nod whether or not he understood. I also noticed that the other children could tell that he didn't understand everything. They were all very nice to him, they just didn't interact with him as much. The thought crossed my mind about introducing more English at home, but I quickly dismissed that thought. I knew from experience (with my older batch of kids), that once you introduce the majority language (English) at home that there is no going back. I decided that his English exposure needed to come from a source that was outside the home.

So, I enrolled him in a preschool. It was a good experience for him. It was fun to watch his English and his social skills improve. Having two siblings only a year younger than him, he really didn't have much of a need to have lots of play dates. Most of his playing was with his siblings in German. So, in preschool, it was fun to not only see his English improve in leaps and bounds, but to also see his social skills expand. He is naturally a very social and well adjusted little guy, but without being able to communicate in English, he was limited with how much he could interact with friends.

On a side note, let me just add that we did get together with friends during those preschool years (when they were between 3-5 years old). I don't feel like my kids suffered that much by not being able to speak English. They couldn't communicate complex ideas in English, but at that age, they really didn't need to. I was always amazed at their ability to communicate with friends despite their language differences. If you've ever seen kids from different cultures and language backgrounds play together on a playground, you can get a good feel for how my kids interacted with others. They used sign language, laughter, simple words that they had learned and lots of active play. I guess, having been thrown into a foreign language environment myself at age 6, I knew that the social setbacks of not speaking their peers' language would be temporary.

So, back to Jonathan's school situation: Preschool definitely helped Jonathan prepare for Kindergarten. It also put me at ease, because I observed him interacting and playing with multiple children. I saw that, even though he couldn't speak English at the same level as his peers,  he would be able to manage just fine.

Before school started, I talked to Jonathan's teacher and to the ESL teacher. I explained Jonathan's situation. They agreed to have him participate in the ESL program. Everyone at school was very supportive of Jonathan's bilingual situation. The principal just "loved" what we were doing with our children. The first few weeks of school, Jonathan struggled a little to understand everything. His teacher noticed that he sometimes didn't understand what she was asking, but she noticed him taking cues from the other children's actions.

Jonathan was tested just a few weeks into the school year. Here are his results:

I found it interesting, looking at the National Percentile Rank on the right of the chart, that Jonathan scored above average in everything except "Oral Language-Total" (29th % ile) and "Oral Expression" (11th % ile). His reading-writing, broad English ability, applied language proficiency and his language comprehension were all above average. I think this an amazingly accurate reflection of his early language exposure. He was exposed to lots of English growing up. He constantly heard English spoken by the adults and teenagers in his household. He also heard lots of English in the community. He was understanding much more than we gave him credit for. However, he had not been speaking (using) much English, so his ability to produce language was below average, because, of course, he hadn't been producing much English at home...he was only hearing it.

At the time of this post, Jonathan has just started the second half of his Kindergarten year. He tested out of the ESL program in November...meaning that he had already improved so much that he no longer qualified for ESL help. His oral ability is close to that of his peers. He interacts, plays, talks and jokes with his classmates. He still has his cute German accent and still struggles expressing more complex thoughts in English, but his progress has been amazing. I have no doubt that by 2nd grade, his English ability will be indistinguishable from that of his peers.

Starting School and ESL (First Batch of Kids)

I think it's kind of funny, that when I'm filling out all the school registration forms, that I get to put down that my children's first language is German and that their second language is English...and it's true. They each spoke German before they learned English. And I'm pretty proud of that.

Well, when Ben, my oldest, started started Kindergarten, I decided to put him in the ESL (English as a Second Language) program. I didn't really feel that he needed it. He could speak English, although his German was better. By the time he was 5, he was already speaking a lot of English to his siblings. So, he could communicate in English just fine. The biggest reason I wanted him in ESL, was to have his English evaluated. I was just curious about our whole German language experiment and thought it would be nice to get some feedback from an "expert". They evaluated him and kept him in the program for a couple months. He had a couple syntactic, vocab, and pronunciation issues. But they were quickly resolved. A few months into his Kindergarten year, I was informed that they were moving him out of the program because he no longer needed the extra help. I didn't put any of the other older kids into the ESL program. By the time they reached Kindergarten age, their English was better than Ben's had been at the same age, so there was really no justification for putting them into the ESL program.

My 5 older kids did just fine in school, despite English being their second language. If any of them had any issues with school, it was because of problems that were unrelated to their bilingualism--like inattention or difficulty with math concepts, etc. All of them were able to quickly overcome any issues that were related to English being their second language. Their peers and teachers were fascinated by their ability to understand and speak German. Their friends often asked them to talk in German, to which they'd usually reply with something like "Hallo, wie geht's" (Hello, how are you?). I thought that they might sometimes use German with their siblings at school. I especially thought that my twin girls would use German as a private language. It's cool enough to have a twin in your class, but a twin who speaks the same foreign language is even cooler. I was sure that they'd enjoy having their own twin language. But, to my surprise, they almost never communicated in German at school or among friends. They only used English among friends.

03 February 2014

German Homework with the First Batch

When my oldest was about 5, I started looking into trying to find some German school work. I wanted the kids to learn how to read and write. It wasn't easy to find materials. In Germany, homeschooling is illegal, so you have to get a hold of the actual school books that are used in the schools. Well, after lots of research, I ordered my German "primer" or Fibel. It came with a teacher's guide and a workbook. I made each of the kids a binder and made copies of the workbook for the three oldest. We tried pretty hard to do our German homework regularly. But I found that once they started school that we had a hard time getting around to it because they had their regular school homework to do. Once the kids were in school, I had them work on their German homework during the summers. We didn't get to it as often as I would have liked. They learned how to read in German. We basically got through the first grade book. I started the second grade book, but we didn't get very far into it. It was just too hard to find the time to really focus on German schooling with all the other activities that were going on.

I had much more time with my preschoolers, since they were at home with me while the older ones were in school. I tried to work with them as much as possible. But my school books were first grade level and my preschoolers were still preschoolers, so the material was a little difficult for them. We did what we could.

Now, I was often asked if teaching the kids to read in German before they started school would affect their ability to learn to read in English. I didn't really do any research on this. My gut instinct told me that reading skills are very similar in any language. I figured that learning to read in German would only help their reading in English. I assumed they might have a few spelling issues, just like I had when I moved back to the States from Germany, but I figured that they could overcome those issues. It took me a few years to spell music with a c instead of a k. But eventually, I caught on and it wasn't an issue. I assumed it would be the same with my children...and it was. They had a few German/English spelling mix-ups, but other than that, they learned to read and write in English just fine. In fact, I believe their German helped them to grasp the English language better. So, in the end, their German "schooling" ended up helping them way more than it hurt them.

My only regret with our German "schooling", was that we didn't keep it up. There was so much more I wish I had been able to teach them. I wanted them to be able to write letters in German. I wanted them to understand German grammar. I wanted them to feel as comfortable reading German books as English books. Having a secondary German teaching degree, I was sort of hoping to "give" them everything they would/could have learned in a high school German class, so that they could test out of high school German. But we never got to that point. Like I've said before, they can probably out-speak and out-comprehend most high school German students. I guess, if any of them really want to pursue German, they can always take it in college or move to Germany!

So, at first I wasn't going to include this video because it's so dated. But it does show what German-homework-time was like for us back in the 90's (along with my awesome 90's hair, clothes and house). This video is actually a family favorite. We watch it over and over and laugh so hard when Michaela comes zooming around the corner and hits the ground. The kids think it's hilarious that I don't even blink an eye--you can tell I'm a tired mom that day. Then Michaela sits back down, mumbling "Aua" (ouch) and shows me the "Lineal" (ruler) that she just got and I don't even acknowledge all the effort she just went to in order to bring me the ruler. (The kids think that's funny, too.) Anyways, despite all that, this video shows that we did indeed work on German homework. At the time of this video, the twins are almost 5 and still at home with me. Ben is at school. I often did "Hausaufgaben" (homework) with the girls during the day. We worked on German worksheets and learned to identify sounds and letters. You can also hear little Dallin (almost 3 yrs old) in the background, addressing me in German.  And you can hear 6 month old Kandra crying (in German, I'm sure). Anyways, with five kids 6 and under, life was hectic, looking back, I'm amazed we even worked on our German homework at all.

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Bilingual Baby Dream Team

Going on 20+ years of raising our bilingual babies...
I'm so grateful for a sweet husband who was willing to give this whole experiment a try and and that he was willing to speak German to our kids, even though his German exposure had been limited to a few semesters of college German. It's been one of the most fun and rewarding things we've done. The fact that our family speaks German has given us our own identity and helps the kids feel like they are a part of something special. And anything that helps your family feel special and connected is a good thing.