Sarah Mueller chats with Claudia Gohler about her experiences growing up bilingual (English/German) and now speaking German with son, Damian, 2.5 years old.
Sarah: Thank you very much for taking a little time out to chat with me. You said that your parents raised you speaking German, is that right?
Claudia: Yes. My mom is from the Hannover area and my dad is from Leipzig. I grew up in California, so they spoke both English and German to me because they knew that we would never move to Germany, but they wanted me to be able to communicate with our relatives.
I didn’t go to German school or anything, but we had family stay with us a lot, and my grandmother would stay for two months at a time. We would fly to Germany every other summer, so I got a lot of practice.
Sarah: Okay, so are you fluent in German?
Sarah: Oh, cool. And you learned to write and read as well?
Claudia: I learned how to write and read, mainly I’d say, at college. Before that, I could write little things, like a birthday card or a Christmas card, small things like that. And I could read magazines but I hadn’t really learned the grammar or any of the formal spelling – I tried to take German in high school but I was stuck between classes. I was too advanced for the beginner because I understood everything but I couldn’t take the advanced because I didn’t know all the grammar. So I was kind of stuck between classes.
After that, in college, I took it my sophomore year, and then I spent my junior year in Göttingen studying at a university and that was kind of a sink-or-swim situation. I figured it out and practiced – some of my roommates would help correct my papers. That was basically how it clicked for me.
Sarah: Okay so the junior year sort of cemented for you and helped you get to the next level?
Claudia: Yes, even though I was always able to understand and say everything, in terms of becoming literate –to realize, there are different articles…because I never thought about that before.
Sarah: Right, right. It was probably instinctive.
Claudia: Then I started thinking of it in more of a literate way, so then I started thinking about how there are different articles – in English we just have the, and you know, I hadn’t really thought about it until I was writing a college paper.
Sarah: Yes, you probably didn’t need it, I mean, you’re not going to need it if you’re just chatting with friends and family, but if you’re going to be doing something more structured and it’s going to be graded, then it’s a different ball game.
Claudia: Right, and my parents didn’t want to correct me too much, because they didn’t want to discourage me.
Sarah: Does your husband speak German?
Claudia: He can speak it. He learned it in school as well.
Sarah: So does everyone in your house speak German now to your son? How are you working that out?
Claudia: It’s mainly me. We live in Connecticut and my parents are in California … so when we visit them they speak German to my son. And we go there I’d say every three months for a couple of weeks – and they only speak German with him. I was working the first year, and so I tried to speak German with him, but I stopped working when he turned one, and that’s when I really decided I just needed to really focus on it, and so I started just speaking in German to him.
Sarah: And how old is he now?
Claudia: He’s two. He turned two in June.
Sarah: And is he speaking back to you in German?
Claudia: Yes. And he’s beginning to understand it because he’ll say stuff to me in German. I also speak occasionally to him in English now that we’ve been having more play dates and classes where there’s other kids speaking English. But he kind of understands it. He doesn’t say German things to his friends here. He did in the beginning when we were outside over the summer and he pointed to the moon and said “Mond”, but he never really mixed it up other than that. He seemed to understand – talk one way to someone. I don’t know how he got it.
Sarah: Really? That’s pretty impressive.
Claudia: He never mixed it up. He was an early talker, and I did the baby sign language with him, I picked up a book and did the sign… for example, for dog you scratch behind your ear, so he thought that was really funny. In the beginning I would use that sign to say “Hund, dog”. I was trying to get him to understand it was the same thing.
Sarah: Oh, so you would use the sign language to bridge between German and English?
Claudia: Yeah, and I think it helped. And for the baby sign language, I don’t know if you ever did it, but the sign for milk, it’s like milking a cow. So he would say “milk” because we had a nanny the first year, so then I started saying “Milch, Milch” and I would do the same sign and then grab the milk. So I think it really helped him because now he has a babysitter here that only speaks Spanish, so he’ll make that sign and he’ll go “Milk, Milch, Leche.”
So I think that really helps that there was that connector.
Sarah: So he knew what was said because he saw the sign, and he understood the sign immediately and he would realize – okay, there’s just a different name for this.
Sarah: That’s so great. We did baby signs with Jack and he did a bunch of signs, but once he started talking it just sort of fell away, like he didn’t need them.
Claudia: For us, it was good in the beginning. I think it helps with the frustration if they were hungry – if they wanted food or milk or water.
Sarah: Right, right. That’s interesting that that would be a connection, kind of help them see the similarities, know that they’d have more than one way to say something.
Claudia: Yeah, it seemed to click with him. I would try to focus on like one word, like Hund for example and I would say it all day, like “Hast du den Hund gehört? Er hat gebellt.” “Willst du den Hund streicheln?” “Der Hund hat ein langer Schwanz” “Der Hund hat Hunger” you know, whatever, I would just try to stick with one thing until he got it.
Sarah: Consciously introducing him to different words?
Claudia: Yeah, I felt so bad that I didn’t do it the first year, so I really stepped it up the second year.
Sarah: So was it hard to make the switch, then?
Claudia: Yeah, it was. The first year I would say things in English and in German. Then one of my friends said just to say it in German because he’ll learn English. It was a little awkward for me at first, to talk in German with him because he wasn’t really talking back yet. It was a little weird at first, but I got used to it.
Sarah: How long do you think it took for you to feel comfortable with speaking to him only in German to him?
Claudia: I’d say probably a month. And before, I had spoken a little bit to him anyway. And then I noticed I wasn’t reading books to him, which is how I found your website – to get some German books. Because I’d be talking to him and then we’d sit down and read an English book. I was tired of just pointing to the pictures in German, I wanted to actually read a story.
Sarah: So what are his favorite books?
Claudia: He likes Die Maus, it’s a book my mother brought. He likes those a lot, and then we were just in Germany and I got him a couple of books there. He likes Der kleine Eisbär. And a series from you – Guck mal, wer da schlummert… He likes those a lot too.
Sarah: I like those because they’re so simple. Little kids really like that they can understand what’s going on.
Claudia: And then I bought Unterwegs… he likes that too.
Sarah: The Mini Lesemaus.
Claudia: The little tiny ones where they’re going for a hike, a car ride…
Sarah: Yeah, those are really fun. So what were your biggest reasons behind getting him to speak German?
Claudia: For me it was so that he can communicate with the rest of my side of the family that’s in Germany. And also, I felt like it was something I could give him that will help him if he wants to learn anything else, because I think it’s really helped me. I learned Spanish in school and I think I really had an advantage that I had grown up with German. Because I felt like it opens your mind to thinking in different ways. I wanted him to have that as well.
Sarah: To have a different perspective on things?
Claudia: A different perspective, some connections to his German roots. We went to visit my grandmother, his great-grandmother, this past August. We were only there for three days, and she was able to talk with him so that was worth it, because, she’s not doing that well and it was nice to be there…
Sarah: Right, they could have a nice relationship.
Claudia: Right, and I didn’t have to translate, they were just able to communicate together. And he’s come back saying “Mensch Meier was kosten die Eier?” and all these little things that she was saying. Just seeing that was worth it.
Sarah: Well, did you run into any problems when you were growing up? Did you ever rebel? Was it hard for your parents to get you to speak German?
Claudia: They said it was fine when I was little, my mom said I was okay until I started learning Spanish. And then I didn’t really use German anymore because it was confusing. I remember there was also a time I didn’t want to speak it because no one else did. I thought, oh, no, I want to speak Spanish like everyone else did. And that was about 7th grade – then we had visitors come and they didn’t speak English, and so I got over it and would speak German with them.
Sarah: How did your parents do it? Were they pretty strict about speaking only German or did they speak English with you?
Claudia: They used English as well. They said they emphasized a little more German when I was little, when I was learning how to talk, and then when my relatives would come they would then only speak German. And like I said, my grandmother would come every other year for a few months.
Sarah: That must have made a big difference. That’s such a key, if you can have that type of experience, it really helps so much. You don’t have any choice, you just do it!
Claudia: I guess that’s what I want my son to have, to not be afraid to speak. Sometimes I’m afraid to speak in Spanish because I don’t know what to say, I’m not a native speaker… and with German, I never had that feeling – no fear, I just would speak whatever I thought and most of the time I was right. Sometimes I wasn’t. Like I remember, this is a family story, I’ll never forget it. I was trying to show my grandmother the butterfly and I didn’t know the word in German so I said, “Guck mal! Da ist eine Butterfliege!”
Sarah: [laughing] They got a big kick out of it.
Claudia: [laughing] Yes, so I made mistakes like that, my parents thought that was funny so it became part of our vocabulary.
So then I didn’t really know what was right or what was wrong. They were pretty easy on me. Sometimes I wish they had corrected me a little more, but they didn’t want to discourage me. So now I ask them if they hear grammatical errors, if they would please correct me. I also read German books, and pay attention to the grammar, so I can have a better idea of how to properly say things.
Sarah: Are you able to get German language materials through your library, or is there a Spielgruppe or something like that in your area?
Claudia: They don’t have it at the local library here, but this fall I joined a German school in Stamford. I started going with my son on Saturday mornings. We go there every Saturday. We’re in the group called the Flummis – kids under 3, kind of like a Krabbelgruppe. I’d say most of them are 18 months or so, which is a big difference at this age, so I think he’s getting a little bit bored. They just play for the first 45 minutes and then the last half hour we’ll sing songs, so I’ve learned things like the Itsy Bitsy Spider in German and it’s fun and he likes that. I just inquired about the next semester, which starts in January and I might try the PreK class with him – for kids starting when they are three – I think he might be ready for it. They do a little more structure but not too much, so I’m going to try doing that with him.
Sarah: Oh, that’s nice. That’s a pretty big school, isn’t it? I’m trying to remember how many – 100 kids?
Claudia: It’s pretty big, I think it goes through high school. I doubt I’ll do it once he’s in elementary school, so he can have his Saturdays off. I want him to be able to play soccer or baseball or whatever.
Sarah: Yeah, that’s the problem. That’s the real challenge, when they start school, then they’ve got the English influence, and it’s just so much more restrictive, you have so many more demands on your time.
Claudia: I want to try and get a Germany trip in, but I don’t have a very big family, so I don’t have that many relatives to visit. That’s why I’m trying as much as I can right now to really saturate him with the language and hope it sticks. My husband learned German in college, but he speaks it very well and he lived in Trier for a year. He can speak it well, but he doesn’t really do it, he usually speaks English at home. Sometimes I’ll ask him to speak in German. He’ll make an effort but it’s kind of harder for him, he’s more comfortable speaking English. But he can read our son the books, so that’s helpful.
Sarah: Well, what’s been the biggest challenge so far for you in speaking German with him?
Claudia: I would say not having someone else with me to do it, because it’s been me talking to myself in German, and even though I grew up with it, it was as a second language, so that was a bit of a challenge. I think not having other little friends for him that speak German, that’s hard. He’s noticing now also the TV, and that’s English. I’m going to have to get one of the DVD players and some of those DVDs because…
Sarah: One of the multi-region players. Well, you might be able to play the DVDs on your computer, if you have a DVD player on your computer that usually works out, without having to get anything new. We had Caillou on a little while ago for the first time with Jack. It was so cool because he was totally interested in it, he hasn’t really watched TV up until now – he just didn’t care for it for some reason, but he’s really into Caillou and we were watching it in German on the computer. It’s not the same as watching TV (on a computer), but at least it’s in German.
Claudia: I’ve thought of getting some other DVDs but it’s hard to know if it will be a hit with him or not, so it’s hard to make the investment. I think I should try it because he likes watching Cars, he’s watched that like 100 times. You can switch the languages, on a lot of them, to Spanish but not to German.
Sarah: That’s true. A lot of the German DVDs have English on them too, though, so, for some reason, if he didn’t want to watch it in German that’s always an option to change it back to English, at least most of them. All the Pixar ones, and the Thomas ones, Little Einsteins, that kind of thing. Those are pretty fun.
Claudia: Do you have Caillou on your website? I heard someone else mention it.
Sarah: Let’s see, we have Weihnachten mit Caillou, I know that one’s there. And I have Caillou und der Bagger, and maybe one other one. The Caillou’s are really fun. I like it because Caillou’s supposed to be about three, and it’s really simple. There’s not a lot of stuff in the background, the graphics are very simple and clear and I think that the speaking is very clear, too. Not complicated. That’s a very good choice for beginners, or 2-year-olds. Good option. Little Einsteins is really cute too. Those are probably the best ones for the youngest kids – there’s also Dora, If your son likes Dora, that’s pretty cute and pretty straightforward to understand. There’s also the Augsburger Puppenkiste that’s really popular, authentic German. It’s really neat, because it’s a traditional German kind of thing.
Is there anything else you want to add?
Claudia: It’s just so rewarding to see your child say things in different languages, it’s definitely worth any effort you put into it.
Sarah: I agree.
Claudia: It’s so nice to see him being able to communicate with his relatives. I think anyone who can do it, should. It’s a good idea.
Sarah: Well, again, thank you so much for your time. I really appreciate it.
Claudia: No problem.