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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.

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.