Wednesday, March 29, 2006

When do kids start speaking German in an immersion environment?

Dear Sarah,

I am an "Oma" taking care of her grandson since his birth. I have him 12 to 13 hour per day-his parents are doctors in a residency program and work horrendous hours.

I always speak German to him. His receptive language is the same in both English and German but he says more English words. He is now 21 mo. old. Sometimes I say something in German and he says it in English. Ex. I said "was tust Du" and he said "What doing?" "Siehst Du den Voge?" He says "Bird". He is too young to decide to only speak English, I think. What has been your experience with your bilingual children. Did they start out speaking English?


Dear Inge,

Thank you for your message! How wonderful that you're able to care for your grandson. It really varies with the child as to what they start speaking. It's quite common for a child to respond in English even though he's getting so much German input. In fact, it's interesting that he is translating what you're saying - a lot of kids have a hard time doing this even if they are fluent bilinguals. I would say that it's not so much a case of him consciously choosing German over English but rather he's just saying what comes naturally to him. At this age, I don't think kids can really differentiate between the two languages. My two-year old often tries to speak German with my English-speaking mother. I think you'll start to see more and more German words come from your grandson, especially since you do spend so much time with him. My two-year old also mixes languages quite a bit, i.e. he'll say "I'm krank" and "I mach' das". This is also quite normal for this stage. Please see for more information on toddler language development.

Please let me know if you have any questions or comments. I'm enjoying the responses from my latest newsletter.

Viele Gruesse,

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Will two languages confuse my toddler?

Liebe Sarah,
My mom is from Germany and watches my daughter, Gabriele, while I work. She speaks only German to her, but then when I come home, all she hears is English. (my husband and I don't speak German - I can a little, but not very well.)
What is your opinion about this situation? Do you think Gabriele will become confused?
Vielen Dank,

Hallo Ingrid,

Thanks for your message. Honestly, I think your daughter is in an ideal situation! She has a very clear deliniation between German and English - Oma speaks German and Mom and Dad speak English. Lots of bilingual kids grow up with much more complicated arrangements, like the one we strive for in my house - my husband and I speak German to the kids and sometimes to each other but frequently switch to English. When my mother's around (she only speaks a few words of German), we'll switch to English except with my younger son with whom I always speak German regardless. Of course, as I mentioned in my newsletter, we speak far more English at home than I'd like so there's less consistency with our language pattern. But I hear time and again that kids just sort it out. My older son (almost 6) very clearly understands the difference between the two languages and never mixes unless it's intentional. The little one mixes all the time but he's still sorting things out and I'm truly not worried. I believe if the child does speak in the second language (as opposed to just understanding it) age 3 is about when she can distinguish and choose between the two consciously.

How old is your daughter? I assume she's not speaking yet? I guess some confusion might arise from you wondering if she's said something in the other language or was it just something in English you didn't understand. My mom has this problem with my toddler right now - "Was he speaking German or was I supposed to understand him just now?"

I think your daughter is very lucky to have your mom to teach her German from the start. I'd love to hear how it's going. I hope you don't have any well-meaning busybodies telling you your daughter is going to be disadvantaged by learning German in this manner. :) See for some myths about bilingualism.

Viele Gruesse,