26 October 2014

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!

If you are raising your children in your non-native foreign language, PLEASE take the survey. Click on the top right tab. Thank you!!

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.