11 August 2014

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. 


  1. This is a GREAT post, I love how you add a video to illustrate your point! The beautiful blog and children go without saying, but because I know how great it feels to have compliments on our blogs (and otherwise, right?!), beautiful job, I'm so glad you're here. How great that you are so close to us in Portland...maybe we could have a playdate sometime? While I no longer struggle so much with this whole non-native thing, it would certainly be fun to connect, and have the kids know each other. I also wanted to mention that for us, it's the same with reading. I used to be so closed to the idea of reading in English, and now, it's the same as it is with you, where our conversation about the book is in German, but the words from the text in English, if that's the book. We just started reading Narnia in German, which is AWEsome, but also reading Little House on the Prairie and Wildwood. It's great to be able to read Dr.Suess, which was my favorite as a kid. Thanks again! Look forward to reading more...(so sorry for the delay, finally digging out my inbox!)

  2. Tamara, I'd love to get together. It looks like we are doing very similar things. I also saw that you are adding Spanish this coming year. I'm hoping to add French. Sounds like interesting adventures ahead for both of us. Can't wait to hear how things turn out.

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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.