Friday, November 21, 2008

Bilingual Parenting from the Start - an Interview with Melissa Bohn

Sarah Mueller of Alphabet Garten chats with Melissa Bohn about the Bohn family’s experiences learning German together and teaching it to son, Erich, 22 months.


Sarah: Hi Melissa! Thank you for offering to be interviewed for Alphabet Garten. I’m really excited to talk to you about how you’re bringing up your son bilingually.

Melissa: Thanks for having me.

Sarah: Can you tell me a little about your family and how you speak German together at home?

Melissa: Sure! My husband’s mother is from Switzerland. My husband’s family spoke French until my husband’s grandfather moved in and then they started speaking English. Their French gradually faded away. My husband regretted not keeping his fluency in French. Then he took German in college. My sisters-in-law are speaking French with their kids, and it was going really well, so we decided to give it a try with our son. I just started taking German courses a year and a half ago, and my husband and I are now taking classes together. We are currently taking German 201 and another in German literature and writing. I also tried using Rosetta Stone but it didn’t help me as much because I like being able to converse with somebody and have someone explain the rules of grammar – Rosetta Stone doesn’t do that, although it did help with my accent. We’re putting all of our free time into learning German. Our son is speaking more and more in German and we feel like our efforts are really paying off now.

Although we’re doing well in our classes, we are frustrated because we aren’t where we want to be yet.

Sarah: What’s most frustrating to you? Is it because you are fairly new to the language?

Melissa: I want to be able to explain everything to him in German without having to think about it. I’m constantly looking up words, and sometimes I’m not sure if what I’m saying is the right thing. I have trouble with prepositions and vocabulary. Luckily Erich doesn’t notice the mistakes I make yet, although he is starting to. For instance the other day I used the word “putzen” to talk about putting away toys and when I found out it should really be aufräumen and switched, Erich still said “putzen.”

Sarah: Oh, so the original word stuck with Erich. Do you find he’s talking a lot in German for a 2 year old?

Melissa: Yes! He’s talking a lot. He is starting to put words together. The other day he said “Bibis Haus” (his aunt) and “Tür zu,” and he says a lot of vocabulary words, pointing and naming things. He’s starting to get concepts like hot and cold, too. He’s like a little parrot – repeating everything you say. I think he speaks more than a lot of other kids his age.

Sarah: He must be strong verbally. So how much German are you speaking with him?

Melissa: We speak in German all the time. If we don’t know how to say something, we just go around it. I don’t know how he responds to English, when people come over, we speak English to them and he mostly ignores it. He acts fine with babysitters so I know he is picking it up. He knows cookie, no, and some other English words. Plus some words are the same in English and German. But I do worry a little about when he gets older, that there might be some kind of shock when he realizes that other kids speak a different language.

Sarah: Well, he will start to realize that there is another language. Usually people just let it happen naturally and the child isn’t confused about it for very long.

Melissa: Yes, I agree – I think we’ll just let it happen – he will discover and learn English from friends and relatives. Our German professor shared this with us after we told him about our son. He said that he was babysitting the son of one of his German colleagues, and they were reading a book together. A word came up that for some reason or another had to be said in English, and the boy was confused. Our professor explained to him that that was an English word, and the boy said, "Oh, aber was ist das in Wirklichkeit?" As in, “What is that in reality?”. I thought it was so cute (and made it a goal to teach Erich what "Wirklichkeit" means)!

Sarah: What language do you speak with your husband?

Melissa: When Erich is around, we try to speak German to each other but it’s hard because neither of us are fluent or native speakers. Although we feel that it’s really important for him to get as much exposure early on as possible. I was a really worried initially because I didn’t know how to relate to my child in this foreign language, but things have been going great for the past 6 months. Our goal is complete fluency. I hope for that. What about your kids?

Sarah: I did start out with a goal of total fluency as well. Right now my two older boys’ German is mostly passive, although they do speak German to our toddler and they can have a conversation with Oma and Opa. It’s been challenging for us with all the outside influence of English to keep up.

Melissa: Our greatest help is we have tons of books that we bought from you and some other places. We have almost all of the Disney DVDs, although Erich doesn’t like to watch those as much. My husband and I watch them because we know the stories and it’s easy to pick up new words. Erich really likes die Kleine Einsteins and Teletubbies. Sometimes he picks up words from the DVDs that we don’t even know.

Sarah: Why do you want Erich to speak German?

Melissa: I wanted to learn a language and my husband wanted to improve on his German. His relatives live in the German part of Switzerland, so it would be helpful to be able to communicate with them in their language when we visit. We decided if we’re going to do it, we might as well do it now while our kids were young and we can do it together. We are all learning the language together.

Like I said, my sister-in-law’s family is doing really well with their French and it was an inspiration to us. I feel like this is a gift we can give Erich. We have a lot of support. Our neighbors are Pakistani, and they are supportive, too. Their kids want to learn German so they can speak to Erich! Our school system has a half day program where kids can learn certain subjects in German. We may enroll Erich there when he’s old enough for 1st grade. There’s also the Deutsche Schule in Maryland for preschool as an option. It seems really possible that we can actually accomplish our goal.

We have also had great support from German playgroups. They have been really great for Erich and for us as a place to speak to other parents. has some local German playgroups. Yahoo Groups is another place to go. German has a lot of rules that don’t really make sense, at least to me, and it helps if I can hear people use it.

Sarah: Do you find that the people at the playgroups are native speakers?

Melissa: Yes, I believe all of them are, or at least one parent of each child. My husband and I are the oddballs, but they are very accepting of us.

Sarah: What is your biggest challenge in teaching Erich German?

Melissa: Outside influences. It’s like a race to get him fluent in German first. I don’t always know if I’m saying the right thing. For instance with disciplining, you need to think fast, talk firmly. I need the confidence that what I’m saying is correct. Sometimes it’s hard to tell if he doesn’t understand something because he’s young or because I’m not saying it right.
It’s really challenging learning the language while teaching the language. My husband works a lot so I know if we’re going to do this, I feel that it has to be me because I’m the one who’s with him all day. And I have had less exposure to German than my husband has. We read a lot of books together and that helps.

Sarah: Do you find that you pick up words from children’s books you read with him?

Melissa: Yes. I buy books that relate to things that we do – like the Mini Lesemaus series – going to the doctor, going to the playground. I can point to the words and pick up vocabulary and that was really helpful for me to know the right words for things in those specific situations. Also the German Picture Dictionary is very helpful.

We’re planning on spending a month in Germany next year. Mulitilingual Living Magazine had an article that said that at around age 2 or 3 children notice what language others are speaking and they will want to speak it too. So when we go to Germany, Eric will be 2.5 and he will hear other kids and adults speaking German all around us. Hopefully things will just click.

Sarah: Well, it sounds like you are really well set up to achieve your goal. You have really put a huge amount of effort into the language. Thank you for taking the time to talk to me. I know my customers will be very interested in your story! Maybe we can follow up in 6 months J

Melissa: You’re welcome and thank you! It was really great to talk to you today. Hopefully in six months I’ll have some really great things to share!


OmaMary said...

Way to go Missy. Now Carly needs to start speaking spanish to Jace (and Tom).

Anonymous said...

Encouraging to read there are others out there. I applaud you for sticking to German even though it's not your native language. You are amazing parents.