Friday, June 01, 2007

And baby makes three. Even if you're not a native German speaker, you can raise a bilingual!

When NJ was born 7 years ago, I had lots of time to prepare and think about how I wanted to incorporate German into his life. We wanted him to have a strong connection to Juergen's family roots in Germany. Even though we chose to live in the U.S., we hoped to maintain strong cultural and language ties "back home." In addition, Oma and Opa don't speak English so practically speaking, NJ would have to be bilingual in order to have a real relationship with his grandparents.

If you, like me, are not a native speaker, it will be a little harder but it can be done, and the rewards are great. Seven years into this adventure, I'm still learning and changing my strategy as needed. Here are a few things I've learned along the way.

1. Get educated.
Read up on bilingual children. Find out about the different language patterns you may use. You may decide OPOL (one parent one language) is right for you. Or maybe mlah (minority language at home) makes more sense. Informing yourself is important for two reasons - first, you can think through how you'll make it work in your family, and second, you'll be prepared with facts when the nosy neighbor tells you a second language can cause speech delays (it doesn't) or a relative complains she feels excluded when you speak to your child in German. Just tell her you're increasing your child's potential! If people see you're confident and educated about speaking German to your child, they are less likely to question your motives. It's critical to be prepared with research and facts, especially for a non-native speaker since you might not see much progress for the first couple years and it's easy to get discouraged.
Suggested resources:
- A Parents' & Teachers' Guide to Bilingualism

2. Build a support system
If you're lucky enough to have German-speaking relatives and friends, let them know you'll be speaking to your child in German. If they are close by, ask them to speak only German to your child. It's a huge help to have other sources of German for your child. If they are not close by, at least they can provide moral support and perhaps letters, phone calls and visits.

If you don't know any German speakers, seek them out! Find a German-speaking playgroup or start your own. Consider attending a German school, either on Saturdays or during the week. German immersion schools are available all over the country and you may be surprised to find one nearby.

Still haven't found German speakers in your area? Turn to the internet! Discussion groups and blogs are wonderful for inspiration and invaluable when you need advice and motivation.

Consider subscribing to magazines for bilingual parents. A regular read on bilingualism will be helpful in keeping up your motivation.

3. Prepare the environment
Get some German books and music for your little one. This is an easy one! :) German music especially is a favorite of mine to help me remember to speak German and it's great for tired new mommies and daddies.

4. Start at the beginning
You may feel a little strange chatting away to a baby who does little more than sleep, eat, and pee, but getting into the habit of speaking German to your new baby right away is easier than starting up later. I have always sp0ken German to my babies and to this day find it difficult to speak to any baby in English! I do speak English with my children now, but that's another post :)


Anonymous said...

thank you for this post! energy for this task has been flagging lately. I'm 21 months into the process and it's showing some results...which is amazing, but sometimes my resolve wavers when I dont' know the words or can't express myself as fully or clearly as I could in English.

Anonymous said...

I am 4.5 years into my experiment. It has been amazing to watch my two children be able to understand German. They have no language delays, in fact, I would say they have superior language skills They can seamlessly move from English to German and vice versa. They are like sponges and absorb everything! My most challenging aspects now are to always answer the "why" questions that my daughter asks. Thanks!

Holly said...

Thank you so much for the encouragement. As a non-native speaker with no German speaking family to turn to (all those have passed), it's been a daunting task. But as my son turns 2 next week, I realize that he gets it. He is becoming a biligual boy and that's the legacy that I can leave him with.