Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Is it too late to start German again?

I received this message through my Squidoo lens:
Ich habe zwei Kinder, P wird 6 im October und G. wird 3 im July. Ich habe nur Deutsch gesprochen mit P bis sie fast 3 Jahre alt war. Sie hat alles verstanden. Dann wurde es schwieriger mit Preschool, mein Mann ist Amerikaner, etc. G hat nur letztes Jahr in Deutschland deutsch gehoert. Ist es zu spaet wieder mit Deutsch reden anzufangen. Ich halte mich zurueck damit, weil ich angst habe dass sie mich nicht verstehen und es zu viel fuer sie wird!!?? Ich haette nie gedacht, dass ich NICHT Deutsch mit meinen Kindern reden wuerde. Aber es scheint einfach einfacher zu sein. Help :-(
(translation)
I have 2 children - P will be 6 in October and G will be 3 in July. I spoke only German with P until she was about 3 years old. She understood everything. Then it became harder with preschool and my husband is American, etc. G has only heard German in Germany last year. Is it too late to start speaking German again? I hesitate because I am worried that they won't understand me and that it will be too much for them!!?? I never thought that I would NOT speak German with my children. But it just seemed like it would be easier. Help :(
I can totally relate to your question. It is really hard to resist the forces of English! Speaking a foreign language comes naturally to some people, but I still find it a huge challenge to keep up given all the other things we have going on in life (school, sports, activities, etc.) But you have a huge advantage - your daughter has already had 3 years of German from you! That German knowledge is still with her and she will catch on very quickly. Your son is young and will probably pick things up quickly as well, especially if his sister is enthusiastic.

I spoke German with my oldest, NJ, until he was about 3, then stopped almost completely for about a year for similar reasons. When his little brother, ML, was born, I started speaking German again - I have this thing that I always speak German to babies, even babies that aren't mine :) It's a habit. So I spoke German to ML and English with NJ. This went on for about 2 years and then the German faded into the background until baby #3, JP, arrived. Now I've been speaking German with JP and a mix of English and German with the two older boys. But guess what? Everyone understands what I'm saying to JP since they've heard bits and pieces of it and because they had it themselves for a couple years.

Say things twice
In the beginning, they won't understand you; that's ok. You can say things in English and repeat yourself in German. After a while, the kids will get used to it and it won't seem odd to be constantly repeating yourself (trust me - I do this a lot!). Then you can switch to using German first and repeating in English where they need you to. With kids this age, I spend little to no time formally teaching. I just let them absorb throughout the day. This method is a lot easier - no preparation needed! - and mimics natural language acquisition. You can even do this with books - translate German books into English where needed as you read and English books into German.

Keep it fun
I think the key for you will be to offer German in a non-threatening and low-stress way. It should be light and fun. Music is a great ice-breaker for this kind of thing. We play CDs in the car and the kids hear them over and over. They don't expect to understand everything but they recognize the songs and now they are starting to ask me what specific words mean. Sometimes we stop a song and I'll tell them the words and tell them what they mean. I always keep my explanations ultra-short so they don't feel like it's an actual lesson. Teach them a few nursery rhymes (Alle meine Entchen) and then sing them wrong (schwimmen in dem Wohnzimmer) - the kids will think it's hilarious.

Pick a "German" time
Instead of going cold-turkey and trying to speak German all day long, pick a specific time of the day and try and use German then. You can have German breakfast or German bathtime or speak German when you're baking cookies (lecker!). Your kids will have focused exposure to a subset of vocabulary instead of having to deal with the entire language all at once. You won't get burned out if you can commit to just a small amount of time each day.

Is it too much?
I think if it's incorporated into the day in a relaxed way, it's not too much for kids. They are absorbing things all day long; they are learning machines! I'm not saying it won't be challenging - it certainly will; but if you can make a plan and start slow, you will see results.

I hope this helps a bit. In a future post, I'll talk about complaints and objections ("Mom, I don't know what you're saying!") Please let us know how it goes!

- Sarah

2 comments:

Turbo V said...

I really appreciate your suggestions. I was born in Amercia to German parents and find myself vassiclating between German & English but not being consistent. DVDs really help since my oldest sees that her favorite characters speak German, also I point out how some of friends speak Japanese or Spanish, and that she is special because she can speak English and German, this helped her motivation to learn and stopped her from saying "don't speak that way". Also she gets a kick out of teaching my husband German words and is especially proud ow she is a big girl and can teach him.

Sarah Mueller said...

Ah, yes - I love that strategy! It's fun for kids to teach others what they know. It must be fun for her to know something that Dad doesn't :)