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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.

Reading with Kitty

It's fun to see the kids reading in both English and German. We had a litter of kittens this winter. The kids love playing with all the kittens. She is excited to read her German cat book to her kitten. Even though the kids are speaking more English lately, they still speak a lot of German, too. We're trying to encourage them to read more German books so that they continue to learn new vocabulary. Here's a short cute video of Clarissa reading to her kitty in German.

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Working on Grammar! Still Loving our Part-time German Home School Experiment

We have an AMAZING local elementary school. We are so blessed that the principal and teachers have been so understanding and cooperative and willing to work with us as we try to raise biliterate kids.
The kids are now in in 3rd and 2nd grades. Ever since they started school, I have been "part-time" home schooling them, meaning that I pull them out of school at least once a week so that we can have German school at home. It has been such a perfect arrangement. Without our day at home, we would never find the time to really work on our German schoolwork.
In addition to our German schoolwork, we also do a lot of reading, both in German and English, The rest of our day at home is taken up with French lessons, practicing violin, chores and playtime. I ordered our German curriculum from Germany. I love that the kids are now a little more advanced and are working on grammar...which is something they really need.

In the video below, the kids are supposed to read a paragraph, find the verbs and then conjugate the verbs. It's fun to see them thinking about language, grammar and its usage. I'm hoping that as we continue to do German schoolwork, that the kids' language won't plateau. I realize that as they start communicating more in English with each other, that some plateauing is inevitable. However, as we read more and more advanced texts and are exposed to more unfamiliar words, hopefully, they will continue to improve their German.


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Disneyland Surprise!

I just watched this video from earlier this year. We had just arrived at a vacation condo in Anaheim, California and the three little kids still didn't know where we were or why we were there. They had no idea that they would get to go to Disneyland the next morning. We had kept the whole trip a complete surprise for them, only telling them that they might get to see their grandparents. The beginning of the video shows us telling them that we have a surprise and asking them if they can guess what it is.

It's an interesting video because it shows that we really do sometimes just mix up our languages quite blatantly. In the video you can see that even though we know the German word for surprise, we just simply use the English word. Not sure why, we just did. I've talked a lot about language boundaries in the blog. We still do mostly stay within our boundaries. Inserting English words in into our German conversation still counts as German for us (as long as we're using German sentence structure and syntax). Sometimes, it's just necessary to insert an English word here and there: See Post on Mixing Languages.  Most of the video is in German, but we do switch to English. At the end of this video, I'm speaking mostly English because I planned on sharing this video with family members who don't speak German. I usually wouldn't use that much English with the kids.

I also think it's cute to hear the older kids interacting with their younger siblings in German. This is just how our family rolls.

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And, by the way, Disneyland was SUPER fun and magical!!

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What a magical time for our whole family.
(We brought along a cutout of our son who is on a mission in Brazil
so that he could be a part of the fun.)


Bilingual Success? Yes, but imperfect and still a work in progress!

Now, let me just say that I never had a bilingual goal of raising children who speak perfect German. That would be quite unrealistic, since neither my husband nor I speak perfect German. The most we could hope for would be children who could speak our own level of German. But, even that would be asking a lot, since I actually lived in Germany for some time and studied it in college...and they never have. So, what were/are our goals and did we meet them?

Our goals were to give them the German language and culture. Personally, I wanted my children to be able to identify with my idyllic childhood in which I spent 5 years living on a German Bauernhof (farm) in Bavaria. I wanted them to love the German Christmas traditions. I wanted them to grow up knowing that the world was bigger than their backyard and to understand that there are different ways of doing things, different ways of thinking and different ways of speaking and that they are all good. I knew that their German would be imperfect. I knew that they would make grammar mistakes (many of which they would learn from me), but I also knew that I'd rather give them my imperfect German and everything that goes with that, than not give them any German at all.
Now, having already done the "bilingual parenting thing" once, I actually have set my sites just slightly higher for this second batch of kids. I am hoping to help the younger children reach a higher level of German literacy than we reached with the older children. I would like to actually teach them formal grammar and help them learn how to read and write in German.

So, have we been successful? According to my own definition: YES. Our older children, who have already been raised can actually speak German. They can understand almost anything. They can express ideas and make themselves understood. They each have different levels of German. Some of them are naturally more gifted in language than others. Their pronunciation ranges from decent to quite good. Their German is far from perfect. They make grammatical mistakes all the time. If they were to take German in college, they would struggle with the grammar, but they would be able to out-speak and out-comprehend many of their classmates. And I feel certain, that they would be able to learn the grammar quickly, given the opportunity. They will probably have to "unlearn" some incorrect things that they learned in our home, but that's OK.


So, if success is defined by having perfectly bilingual children who speak both languages equally well and native-like, then, no, we haven't been successful. But if success is defined as setting and reaching goals and giving your children a wonderful gift of culture and language that will forever be a part of them, then, YES, we have been successful. In fact, the first time around was so amazing and successful, that we decided to do the whole thing again. And if that's not a sign of success, then I don't know what is.

My Little German Babies are starting to become more American...

It happened this summer! I always knew it would happen. I didn't even expect it to last this long. In fact, I've been quite amazed that it has lasted as long as it has. What has happened? Well, my kids are starting to talk to each other in English! Yes, my babies are slowly switching from German to English. They still can and do speak German very often. The biggest change, and this is the same change I saw in my older kids, is that they are starting to use much more English with each other. They still speak to me in German and I still speak to them in German, but among themselves, they are speaking more English. To me, that is a very telling sign that their primary language is slowly switching from German to English.

I knew that their primary language would switch to English. Eventually, it just has to. These kids live in an English speaking society and all attend an English speaking school together. They also have siblings and parents whose native language is English and who speak English to each other. The fact, that the three little ones have been speaking only German to each other for this long is actually quite amazing.

My plan is to continue speaking to them in German.I will also continue to encourage them to use German with each other, although I won't get too bent out of shape when they use English. We will continue to watch German movies and read German books. We'll also continue with our part-time German homeschooling. We have many German routines which will not change, even as their primary language changes. I know this because when my older children switched from German to English, the German routines remained, such as bedtime stories in German, family prayers in German, etc.


Teaching Grammar! Starting with the basics: Der, Die, Das!

The one thing I've struggled with as I've raised my children in my non-native German is teaching them correct grammar. My own grammar is faulty and I often see them making the same mistakes that I make. One of the most difficult obstacles for us is learning the correct gender of nouns. Even I struggle with this on a regular basis. It's one of those things for which you develop a "feel." And when you don't live in a German speaking country, surrounded by German speaking people, it can be much more difficult to develop that "feel" for the language.
German has three genders: Masculine, feminine and neuter. And unless you know the correct gender for any given noun, you will never pull off a grammatically correct sentence in which that noun is used! So, before we learn much else, we need to work on genders!
I came up with a gender game for the kids. I have a bunch of small flash cards with pictures one side and the noun (along with the gender) on the other. For example: On one side of the card is a drawing of a cow and written on the opposite side is "Die Kuh." (the cow).




I laid all the cards on the floor with the picture side up. If one of the kids picked the picture of the cow and (without turning the card over and checking) guessed that it was "die" (feminine), then they got to sort the card with all the other feminine nouns. If they got it wrong, they put it back in the pile. I really enjoyed this game, because it really gave me a feel for what words they know and which they don't. I was glad to see that they got more right answers than wrong answers. I'm anxious to play this game with them on a regular basis. I think I'll change it up. Instead of putting the wrong answers back in the pile, I'll have them each keep their own pile of wrong answers. At the end of the game, we can review the cards that they got wrong.




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Finding Friends that speak the Target Language!

We stumbled across the sweetest family a few months ago. Both the mom and dad are from Germany and they have two darling kids. We invited them over at Christmas time for our annual Adventsingen and it was so fun to see my little Clarissa hit it off so well with their daughter, Zoey. Clarissa is always thrilled to have a girl to play with...since she is constantly surrounded by her two brothers.  And, the fact that this little girl speaks German, makes it even more special.


Just last week, we had our new German friends over again for a little Easter Egg hunt. All the kids were very eager for the hunt to start. Although my boys were a lot older than little Jon, they still helped him find some eggs. The kids loved hunting for their eggs and also seeing all of the animals.

Once again, the girls played so well together...and spoke only German! They boys spoke German to Zoey, too.  My kids have had very few interactions with other German speaking children. In fact, we only know of two families in our area where where the kids actually speak German. But this is the only family where both parents are actually German and where German is the primary language spoken in the home. It was fun to watch my kids interact with Zoey and little Jon and see them use their German language with someone besides each other.

In the video below, Clarissa and Zoey are sitting at the counter eating their Easter eggs and talking about the fun day they've had.

It's important for the kids to see that other children also speak German. I think that they sometimes get the feeling that they are the only German speaking kids around. Also, when they interact with other kids in the target language, they pick up more natural "kid language." But the best part of all of this, is just finding a new friend!

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Almost Home!!!

This post isn't so much about language...but then again, maybe it is. I just wanted to share a letter I received from my daughter, Michaela, who has been serving an 18 month mission in Germany for our church. She has less than two weeks left before she returns home. We haven't seen her since she left in August 2014. And we've only been able to talk to her on the phone 3 times since she's been gone. (what do LDS missionaries do) But we receive weekly emails and letters and we know she is in good hands and that she is learning and growing and serving. She has shared with us my many, many times just how grateful she is that we decided to raise her (and the rest of our kids) in our non-native German (Bilingualism Blessing my Grown Babies). Because she was already fluent in German (because of our decision to raise our children German-speaking), she was able to hit the ground running (so to speak) and she has been able to truly connect with the people on her mission.

In her most recent letter--written only days before she comes home, she shared some beautiful insights about connections. She has been spending lots of time connecting with refugees. Some of this connecting has come because of her language abilities, however, the most meaningful connections have come from her ability to love, to be transparent and honest and accepting. Her bilingualism has opened many doors, but it is by opening her heart and bearing her soul that she has been able to truly touch and change lives.

Here is the link to her beautiful letter:
We All Connect on our Broken Edges

This mama is getting pretty excited to have her bilingual baby home in her arms!

Mixing Languages: Borrowing Loan Words

OK, since my last post was about the fears of passing our mistakes on to our children, I thought I'd blog a little more about imperfect language...or in this case impure language:
One of the phenomenons I'd like to discuss and one that happens frequently when raising children in a language that is not spoken in the community, is that you often get a little bit of language mixing. By this, I mean that when we are speaking the target (or minority) language, we  often end up using "loan words" that we "borrow" from the community (or majority) language. This is a very common phenomenon and is not necessarily bad. For those interested in this, there is an excellent article found on Multilingual Living.com: Loan Words and Borrowing: A Kind of  Code-Swtiching?

I've been noticing a lot of this borrowing in our family. The sentence below is a prime example of borrowing. My little 6 year old Simon said this to me the other day (all covered in water). I immediately wrote it down--because it was so cute, and because it was such a good example of what happens so often in our home.

Mama, schau! Ich tue Wasser auf mich, weil ich will pretenden dass ich sweaty bin.
Translation: "Mom, look! I'm putting water on me because I want to pretenden that I'm sweaty."

In this instance, Simon couldn't think of the German word for pretend, so he just inserted the English word into the German syntax and "germanized" the word by adding an "en." It's quite an amazing feat for a 7-year old, if you think about it. The German word that actually belongs in that sentence is spielen and has an "en" ending, which is why Simon added the "en" onto the word pretend.

After giving it some more thought, I realized, that very likely Simon does know that the German word for pretend is spielen. However, spielen is a much more general word than pretend. Spielen can also mean simply to play. And it is possible to play with out pretending. So perhaps he used the word pretend in an attempt to communicate more precisely. Maybe, he wanted me to understand that he wasn't just merely playing, but was pretending to be something he wasn't.

There are many reasons why we often use loan words from different languages. Sometimes, we simply don't know a specific word, so we replace it with it's translation in a more familiar language. Other times, it just takes too many words to words to communicate a thought that in a different language might only take a single word. However, like with Simon's example, sometimes one language simply has a better word for a given situation.

We use language to communicate. It is a tool. And because it is a tool, we almost always use the the most efficient and the most readily available words. Sometimes, we just can't think of the word in the target language and we're simply too lazy to figure out what that word is. It's much easier to just insert the word using a more familiar language. Call it laziness or call it brilliance. I tend towards the latter.

Yes, sometimes, I worry that my kids use a little too many English words in their German. And if I know the correct German word, I will often correct them and have them repeat the German word back to me to help them remember. Other times, I just let it go and I say to myself: Imperfect German is better than no German at all!


Thoughts on Raising Children in a Non-Native (and therefore imperfect) Language

There are regular bilingual parenting issues and then there are non-native bilingual parenting issues. Those of us who are attempting to raise our children in a language which we do not speak natively will naturally have additional questions, fears and feelings of inadequacy. One of the most common fears, and one that I remember facing when I first started out on our bilingual parenting journey, comes from our imperfect knowledge of the target language. And, no wonder! How can we even think of teaching our children a language which we ourselves haven’t yet mastered perfectly?  It’s a valid concern and it’s one that many parents, who wish to raise children in a foreign language, share. It may seem like an insurmountable barrier to some. 

So often we think that we have to be an expert at something before we can teach that skill to others. But that is just not the case! Just think about real life. If I want to teach my child manners, do I need to have a certificate from a leading etiquette school? Or can I assume that I know enough about manners to teach my children the basics. Granted, I may even teach my children some incorrect manners. For instance, I may teach them to use the salad fork when they should have used the dessert fork…BUT should I let my imperfect knowledge of manners stop me from teaching any manners at all? Of course not. Won’t my children be far better off by learning a few manners, even if some of them might not be exactly perfect, than if I threw in the towel and decided to just not teach them any manners? This same reasoning can be made for most skills and habits that we teach our children. I may want to teach my children to do housework. Does that mean that I need to be perfect at keeping my house clean? Do I need to know all the ins and outs of custodial cleanliness? Or can I suffice with just teaching them what I know? One amazing fact remains when it comes to raising children. Not only can I teach my children something that I know, but I can even help them to become better at something than I am. With the right training, my children can develop even better manners and be even better housekeepers than myself. Yes, of course, we should teach by example. But once our children surpass us, we can still help them learn things, even things that are outside of our own ability. We do this through our encouragement, our efforts in making sure they have the right materials and our finding and placing experts in their path. The bottom line is that you absolutely do not have to be the expert in everything that you teach your children. 

How wonderful that parenting usually starts out with a small, helpless infant, whose knowledge of the world is extremely limited. Surely, we know a little more about the world than our tiny little baby. And that should give any parent a little boost of confidence. The main factor to remember is that we don’t need to have a perfect knowledge of something, we just need to know a little more than the person we are teaching and as that person learns, it’s up to us to learn right along with them and to be the wind beneath their wings. 

Yes, I make LOTS of mistakes in German. And, yes, my children also make LOTS of mistakes in German. But, not once have my kids chastised me for attempting to teach them a language that I didn't speak perfectly. On the contrary! Rather, every single one of my eight beautiful children continues to express gratitude for their ability to speak German, even if that German is flawed and imperfect. My motto has always been: An imperfect second language is better than no second language!


My sweet missionary daughter and her companion, at a Christmas market near Frankfurt.
 Even though I taught her imperfect German,she has still been able to communicate just fine--from the minute she arrived.
In fact, she is often mistaken for a native German.  She'll be the first to admit that an imperfect second language is better than none at all. 

Starting Early is Key!

We always tend drift towards the language that comes more naturally and feels most comfortable. Because of this, it’s crucial establish your target language as early as possible.
It’s hard to imagine that speaking your foreign language will ever feel comfortable, but it definitely can. Be patient.
The concept of starting early actually benefits the parent more than the child. It’s all about establishing habits. By speaking to your newborn in the target language, you are training yourself and familiarizing yourself with the language. It can feel strange to speak to a 3 month old baby in a foreign language, especially, since that baby does not understand what you are saying and is not able to respond. But, by using the target language, you are establishing a relationship in that particular language. The more you use the language when talking and interacting with your baby, the more comfortable you will start to feel in the target language. And by the time your baby reaches the age where he or she can understand and even respond to your words, your new language will feel quite natural. In fact, it will soon feel so comfortable, that the thought of speaking your native language to your child will feel awkward and uncomfortable.

I remember being astounded by this concept with own children. How could speaking my own native language to my children feel uncomfortable? And how did my non-native language become the more natural and familiar mode of communication? It was at this point, that I realized that we had succeeded in truly implementing our target language. Speaking the target language was no longer something on our long list of things we were trying to accomplish. It was just the way we did things. Once we got the ball rolling, we didn’t really even think about it.  Speaking German was how we rolled. It was and is our normal way of communicating. 
The sooner you establish your target language as the “natural” mode of communication, the better. The longer you wait, the harder it will get. This is because relationships are partly defined by language. The language you use in a particular relationship become a powerful habit. To change that language habit takes extra work. For instance, if you’ve been speaking your native language with your daughter until age 5 and then you try to get her to switch to a different language, she will probably resist. Even if she wants to learn the target language, it will require so much effort and feel so strange that she will likely give up and resort to the easier language. That’s why it’s so important to start early. Establishing your target language as the “normal” mode of communication from the get-go is way easier than trying to switch languages later on. Kids (and adults) don’t want to think about language. It’s a tool used to communicate. We don’t want to think about our tools, we just want to use the one that gets the job done with the least amount of effort. This is the reason we tend to always revert to the language that feels more natural. To do anything else requires extra work and effort. 


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