Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Live like a German! An interview with Bettina Kraft (Transcript)

Note: this is the transcript of an audio interview which you can listen to in MP3 format.

Sarah Mueller interviews Bettina Kraft, co-founder of Live Like a about how a unique kind of German vacation can further your family's German.

Sarah: Hi, this is Sarah Mueller from Alphabet Garten, and today I’m talking with Bettina Kraft of Hi Bettina, thanks for your time this morning.

Bettina: Thanks for your time, Sarah.

Sarah: Can you tell us a little bit about the “Live like a German” concept? Give us some background on what that means.

Bettina: Yes. Well, about two years ago my husband and I were sitting in our apartment in Germany and we were trying to figure out how to rent our apartment there. And at the time, we only used it once or twice a year, and we always had friends who were interested in going to Germany and we would always marvel and rave about what you could do. So we started building up this website. And the only apartment we had was our own, promoting our own apartment on the site. The site was pretty good, and sooner or later, we started having more inquiries through the site and because we only had that one apartment, people starting asking “Well, do you have things in Bavaria?” or in other destinations. So we started building these partnerships with owners in Germany who have apartments and slowly but surely added them onto our site. We’re constantly still growing. Our goal is to cover the entire area of Germany, every village, metropolitan area, or city so we can offer that onto our customers on the site.

Sarah: Oh, that’s so interesting! So you work, actually, directly with the owners of the individual apartments, then?

Bettina: Yes, we do. And we also added quite a few packages to our website that a lot of our owners actually put together for us. So we’re collaborating with a lot of owners on those packages as well.

Sarah: What kind of things belong to a package? How does that work?

Bettina: There are different packages that we offer. It could be a Christmas Market package or a castle tour and what we do is we use the expertise of our apartment owners for the area, and sometimes they do little tour guides, tour trips, they offer all kinds of different things, be it a trip on the Rhine river or something like that. So we use their expertise and put it into a package as well as, of course, their apartment.

Sarah: So people can actually get a personalized tour, or they can get to know the area?

Bettina: Exactly. We have these personalized tours and we have these customized tours so the customized tours are more or less pre-customized – pre-designed for the vacationer, there’s not a lot of give on these tours. But then we also offer these personalized tours that we pretty much put together to the needs of the person traveling to Germany. So we interview them, we ask, “What do you want to get out of this? How much time do you have? What do you want to do?” So I do a lot of those too, where it’s just put together with the customer, we tailor it to exactly their needs.

Sarah: Tell me, what does it mean to live like a German on vacation? How is that different from just going to Germany and I guess, you know, visiting the beer hall in Munich, things like that. How is this different?

Bettina: Well, it is different. First of all, it’s a more personal experience because you are going to live in an apartment that has been set up by a German family. There’s a lot of German culture, German designs in these apartments, German way of living. And we always encourage them to you know, visit the local markets, the local restaurants, the local bakeries, the butcher – you know, the typical things you would do in a village or in a smaller town. And to kind of mingle with the locals. That’s pretty much what that means, to “live like a German”. There are different things throughout the year, and other things you can do in order to get that German feel while you’re on vacation.

Sarah: That sounds like so much fun! That sounds like such a great way to go to Germany and get the whole language exposure and get way more out of it than you would if you were just going to a resort.

Bettina: We definitely encourage that, and there’s a lot of information on the website in regards to how you can do that.

Sarah: How can families who wish to improve their children’s German benefit from this kind of vacation? Do you find that they manage to speak a lot more German, interact with the other people around them?

Bettina: Yes, I mean, if you have kids that know some German or you want them to learn German, this is definitely the way to go. You can always find a play area or go to the city and just enjoy and interact in, I don’t know, an ice cream parlor or something, with local German-speaking families. And then, on top, as I can say from our own experience, we always put our children in German Kindergarten or a German school. It always has worked out so far, especially in the smaller villages where people are willing to help you out, you know, improve your German language skills, especially those of your children. So we’ve done a lot of that. I think that if you’re open to speak the language you can definitely get in touch with people and experience that.

Sarah: So your kids have actually gone to German Kindergarten when you’re over there?

Bettina: Yes.

Sarah: Oh, that’s fantastic! How does that work, is it like a half day thing that they go to in the morning?

Bettina: Well, it depends. So far we’ve had really great experiences with the locals, we’ve had the kids for five to six hours sometimes less, sometimes more, depending on your child of course. But they always had a blast, and it’s so different from your typical Kindergarten here. There are a lot of awesome things they do, different programs, a lot of holistic things and sensory things, and a lot of things that they do that I’ve never seen in American Kindergarten so far. On top of, of course, the language benefits. And then our oldest son has been regularly, every year, been going to school in Germany as well. He actually skips a grade there and goes to the upper grade. Of course, he has a friend there too, but he’s totally able to do that because we kept him on top of his German language skills. Of course, the improvement of the language while in school and in Kindergarten is so immense and within two or three days they speak dialect.

Sarah: Wow!

Bettina: But they do that. I mean, they’re such sponges and they pick up the language so fast again and all the special words the kids use there.

Sarah: That’s amazing! So your son was actually able to attend Grundschule? Is that where he went?

Bettina: Yes, exactly.

Sarah: Wow, and the school just let him attend for a couple of weeks?

Bettina: They did. They were very nice about that and I think that’s the thing. If you build this relationship with the apartment owners, be it in any village or city, they’re so willing to help you out with these kinds of things. We can definitely arrange something like that for your kids.

Sarah: That would be fantastic! That’s like a dream come true, I think, for a lot of people, to be able to completely immerse their children in that environment. That’s something that people try to recreate here a lot – with the German Saturday schools or maybe an immersion school. But to actually go over to Germany and do it, that’s like the real deal.

Bettina: It is, it is. It’s been a really good experience, I’d have to say.

Sarah: Let’s see… are most of your apartments in the smaller areas? What’s the best kind of environment to interact with the locals?

Bettina: That’s a hard one. I just think you have to be open and go out there and talk to people, the markets and festivities are definitely great. Just go and talk to people! I think people are very welcoming to Americans for sure. They just love Americans, and they’re always willing to talk. Just put yourself out there and start talking! There are definitely markets, and you know, I think there are a lot of ways to do that. Go out there and start speaking the language and you’ll see that people want to interact with you.

Sarah: So you find people can go to a big city if that’s what they tend to like, and they can find people to interact with.

Bettina: Absolutely.

Sarah: They can tailor it to their taste and it doesn’t really matter where they go.

Bettina: I think so, yes. There’s always people that like to chat and are interested in foreign people coming, and you know, I know a lot of Americans want to know about history and such things. What better way then to just grab a person who’s local in any area – be it a village or a big city – and just start talking and asking questions.

Sarah: Oh, it sounds like fun. Very cool. Do you have any ideas about what people could do to prepare beforehand to get the most out of this kind of vacation? Other than, of course, if they were going through you, they would arrange things and organize, and plan things out beforehand, but is there anything else that you find people like to do before they go to get ready?

Bettina: Well, I think it definitely helps to know a little bit about, you know, customs. A lot of things that I’ve sent my customers are this is how you tip, this is how you drive the autobahn, just small things like that, and then, on top, of course, just get as much information about the destination you’re going to as you can. Definitely, our site is really good when it comes to that. There are a lot of resources on that. Just start reading up a bit on the customs, and how you can immerse yourself in the best way. Of course, when it comes to flights and such, there’s high season and low season, and there are some good companies that sell cheaper flights to Germany than your typical or any other major airline. There’s definitely some research that can be done in terms of that, too, to stay on a certain budget.

Sarah: Oh, that’s another thing I wanted to mention. Somewhere on your site it says that your apartments actually end up costing quite a bit less than you might pay.

Bettina: They do. We actually calculated that they are 30-40% less than a hotel and you have way more amenities in an apartment. It’s basically, you know, living at home away from home, because you can pretty much do what you want in an apartment when it’s an adequate size. Especially when it comes to families with children, you have so much more freedom in an apartment.

Sarah: Oh, absolutely, instead of being in one little hotel room. So the apartments come with cooking things and sheets and all that kind of good stuff?

Bettina: Yes, most of them do have a full kitchen, some have a smaller kitchenette. That’s something we always add as information on our site, yes.

Sarah: So it’s like a better vacation for a better price, then?

Bettina: I think so. Yes, definitely, definitely a better vacation.

Sarah: Wow, well, we’re going to have to look into this for next year. This sounds like an excellent opportunity. Well, can you just end by telling us maybe some of the great experiences that some of your clients have had when they get back and talk with you?

Bettina: Yes. So far, knock on wood, we only have great, great feedback from our customers that went. I have to say, most of them were really – they loved how people interacted with them and were interested in what they are doing. Above and beyond to make them feel comfortable and explain where to go and what to do, so we have a lot of fun stuff when it comes to that. Most of our customers rave about the quality of our apartments as well. They are all really good quality, really nice places and locations. So we did get a lot of feedback on that. Actually, there are testimonials on our website if anyone wants to look up on that. We’ve had really good feedback.

Sarah: That’s great. And you’re also on Facebook, is that right?

Bettina: We are on Facebook, yes, we are on Facebook. We’re steadily growing on Facebook, which is just absolutely great. It’s an awesome way to stay in touch with all kinds of customers and just Germany followers and fans who crave foods or destinations or just want to chat about all kinds of things. It’s a great way to do that.

Sarah: Yeah, right. I’ve become one of your fans, and I love to get the updates – even daily, you have some kind of an update about a new recipe or something going on in Germany, so…

Bettina: Yeah, we’re trying to do that. It just constantly keeps the conversations going. There’s so much flow and ideas and we have so many Facebook fans that collaborate with us now – they write articles or just add really interesting information to our site, and we of course value that immensely. Facebook is the way to go; it’s a great resource.

Sarah: Yeah, I really like to get on there. We just started our own page there so we’re starting to build up a fan base.

Bettina: Well, I’m your fan.

Sarah: Well, I appreciate that.

Bettina: Sure. I think you have a great idea there too, with your Alphabet Garten, I have to say, it’s awesome.

Sarah: Thank you, thank you, yes. It’s been a lot of fun, a lot of interesting things going on on our site too. I think that there is a lot of overlap, so I think people will enjoy hearing about your side of things.

Bettina: Absolutely.

Sarah: You know, most people learning German are going to end up in Germany at some point so definitely a lot of synergies there.

Bettina: Yes, I agree.

Sarah: Let’s see, I think that’s all I have for now, but I really want to thank you for taking a little bit of time this morning to speak with me. I know that our listeners are going to be interested in the concept. Oh, and let’s see, once more, the URL for your site is, is that right?

Bettina: That’s it, yes.

Sarah: Okay, and you’ve got travel guides and recipes and tons of beautiful pictures and all this vacation planning.

Bettina: Right, to get you ready for your trip. Get you inspired.

Sarah: Right, exactly. Well, and I hope to chat more with you in the future. Maybe we can set up another interview.

Bettina: Yes, that would be great.

Sarah: I think that’s all I have for now.

Bettina: Great! Thank you Sarah!

Sarah: Thanks so much! Talk to you soon!

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

Live like a German! An interview with Bettina Kraft

I'm excited to bring you an audio interview with Bettina Kraft of Live Like a I talk with Bettina about how a unique kind of German vacation can further your family's German.

Happy listening!

P.S. if you'd prefer the transcript, you can find it here.

Note: I'm working on getting this to work as a podcast, but I'm not quite there yet... :)

Monday, October 05, 2009

Why won't my child speak German?

If your child has had some measure of German but still speaks very little, you are likely frustrated and discouraged. Your child may be frustrated as well, although he may not show it. If you spend some time identifying the reasons behind his reluctance, it will be easier for you to make a plan to help coax him out of his reluctance.

Some potential reasons for reluctance to speak German


Not enough exposure

Start using “German diet” approach

Make a plan to integrate more age-appropriate German

Keep offering input

Irrelevant topics not of interest to the child. Child isn’t motivated or interested in communicating.

Make a plan to integrate more age-appropriate German

All one-way exposure (only DVDs and audio; no conversation)

Find new sources of German

Playgroups, make a plan


Consider the confidence wave

Insecure in his abilities (“It’s too hard!”)

Start using “German diet” approach

Keep offering input

Thinks German is only for adults; doesn’t have any German-speaking peers or role models.

Find peers or role models (books); plan a trip to Germany

German used mainly for discipline and not for positive communication.

Make a plan and reverse this pattern. Make German a positive aspect of life.

Doesn’t want to be embarrassed around peers

Emphasize positive aspects of bilingualism

Has been embarrassed by previous attempts to speak German, either by family or other kids.

Make a plan and reverse this pattern. Make German a positive aspect of life.

I encourage you to investigate the articles linked on this page for help in encouraging your child to start speaking German.

Friday, September 18, 2009

How labels can help your kids become readers

No, not the kind of labels that say your kid is smart or has ADHD or is below average. I’m talking about actual little signs with the names of things that you post around the house. If you go to a preschool classroom, you may see labels on the shelves and other areas – “Block Corner”, “Train”, “Dress-up”, etc. Perhaps there’s also a picture or stick figure drawing illustrating the label. These labels do help to keep the space organized (aren’t preschool classrooms wonderfully organized?), but they also help to encourage beginning reading. Kids see the sign, they see what toys are there, and if they know a few letter sounds, they can associate the word with whatever is in that area.

If you’re encouraging a beginning reader in German, or in English, you can use labels around the house as part of your strategy to teach your kids.

What should I label?
You can label anything around the house – toy areas, dresser drawers, categories on the book shelf, the contents of kitchen cabinets. Of course if you’re encouraging bilingualism, you’ll write them in German. You probably don’t want to label the entire house for fear of driving your spouse crazy. Instead, keep it a bit lighter, perhaps putting up a few labels in the kitchen, playroom or your children’s rooms. You can do it very simply with some scratch paper and tape or you can get fancy and print up colorful labels on cardstock. Your kids may even want to help you make the labels, thereby offering more practice with reading and writing!

Why do labels help beginning readers?
1. Labels offer reading opportunities in bite-size chunks.
Reading one or two words is very non-threatening and not overwhelming. It’s approachable. A colorful label calls out to a child “Read me!” If you make the print large enough, it will be easier for young eyes to make out the letters.

2. With labels, kids are learning from context.
They’ll know if they got it right. It’s easy to tell what the word should say. A child can correct himself if he reads it incorrectly. Learning from context is so much more effective than someone else telling him he’s wrong – if he discovers an error himself, he’ll be likely to try and figure out where he went wrong and fix it. “Oh, that’s a B, not a D so this is the Doll Corner.”

3. Labels are low pressure.
A child doesn’t have to worry about getting something wrong. It’s not like a story where they will be frustrated if they can’t read a word. Plus, if they’re not interested, they can simply ignore the labels and life goes on.

4. Labels offer the factor of repetition.
When your child sees and reads a word several times a day for a few weeks, that word will gradually become a “sight” word for him and he’ll be able to read it instantly when he encounters it in other places.

Don’t make the mistake of over-emphasizing the labels…
If your kids don’t want to read them with you, don’t push it. If the baby rips them down, try again in another spot. Labels are just another tool in your toolkit to bring your kids to a knowledge of written German. Some kids may never even glance at them twice while others may go through the house working to read every one of them.

Once your kids are reading individual words, you can progress to notes and signs.
You can post “Bitte wasche Deine Hände!” (please wash your hands) in the bathroom, “Rucksack nicht vergessen” (Don’t forget your backpack) on the house door or put little notes in your kids’ lunches. When kids are learning to read, it’s almost like it’s a secret code for them and they’re thrilled to join the club. They will love to play this game with you. This practice is an excellent way to connect with your kids and offer them a little extra reading practice.

Actually labels aren’t just for beginning readers...
When you label a drawer or a cabinet, it’s likely it will be properly used by all family members (notice, I didn’t say it’s guaranteed!) You can train your children to put things away in the correct place and labels are an easy way to keep drawers and cabinets organized. You may decide labels aren’t just a temporary phase for your home and their usefulness will carry on long after your children are skilled readers.

1. Use labels to help beginning readers.
2. Labels offer bite-size learning opportunitites.
3. Labels are low pressure and offer repetition.
4. Don’t overemphasize labels.
5. Progress to longer notes and signs.

So borrow a technique from the preschool classroom and put up some labels around the house. Your new readers will benefit from it and you all may have a little fun in the process.

This post is part of our Learn-to-Read in German series.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Toddler triplets are bilingual from the start. An interview with Jessica Gearing

Sarah interviews Jessica Gearing, native German speaker and mom to 2 year old triplet boys.

Sarah: You have three little boys, triplets, is that right?

Jessica: I do, three boys, they’ll be two next month.

Sarah: That’s fantastic. It sounds like you have your hands full!

Jessica: Yes, it’s a lot of work, but it’s a lot of fun too. It’s a really great time for them.

Sarah: Yes, I can imagine, they must be getting more independent and moving through the baby stage.

Jessica: Absolutely, changes are really happening quickly and it’s a lot of fun to watch.

Sarah: Can you tell me a little bit about your family?

Jessica: I was born in Berlin, and I came to the States when I was a little girl with my parents and we spoke mostly English in the home. So I forgot a lot of my German for a while. And I picked it back up, and I speak German to the boys, and my mother does. She spends a lot of time with us. And my husband speaks English to the boys. He does understand German and is picking up more and more, but primarily he speaks English and our family language is English. My husband and I speak English together. But I am only speaking German and my mother’s only speaking German.

Sarah: And how are the boys reacting? Are they speaking at all yet, actually? It’s kind of early, I guess.

Jessica: Yes, yes, they are speaking. It seems like every day they speak more and more words. You know, in the beginning, when they started talking, it seems like the words that they picked up first and the words they were the most confident with are words that are the same in English and German. Like “ball” and “baby” and “teddy” and things like that. Those were the words they really took to at first. But now they’re speaking German words to me and English words to my husband. It seems like there are some words that they only say in German and there are some words that they only say in English. And I’m not quite sure why. Like they always say “Baum” instead of “tree” and they always say “turtle” in English – maybe it’s too hard to say it in German, I’m not sure what the connection is, but it’s exciting!

Sarah: So do you find that they are already differentiating between English and German? That they know they should favor English with your husband and German with you? Do you think they make that distinction?
Jessica: Yes, I do.

Sarah: Wow, that’s fantastic!

Jessica: Maybe not to some degree, maybe they’re not, but the early words they picked up. Like the word “no”, they would say “no” to my husband and “nein” to me. They always say “Bauch” to me and “belly” to my husband. I think they know. I really do, I think they know.

Sarah: That’s amazing! That they’ve already differentiated. And do they speak German to each other?

Jessica: You know, I think they have another language going on with each other. (laughs) I’m not quite sure. I have heard them say German to each other but I’ve also heard them talking to each other in English. I’ve heard them say to each other “Don’t touch”; I’ve heard them say “nein” to each other in German. But I still think that they’ve kind of got their own little language going on.

Sarah: Yes, I’ve heard that’s common with multiples. They have that kind of a bond. That must be fun. Tell me why did you want them to learn to speak German?

Jessica: Well, I think there are lots of benefits to being bilingual of course. But I can tell you that for a personal reason, my grandmother died last year and it came very quickly and when she died, I felt like the German inside of me died. I don’t know if that makes sense.

Sarah: Oh, absolutely.

Jessica: When this happened, it became very important to me that I keep our language alive and that I keep the culture alive and I really grabbed a hold of it and made it a very strong priority and that it’s an important part of our family. Of course, my mother was very supportive and my husband too. So I think that’s probably the most important thing. I want to keep that cultural connection there with the heritage.

Sarah: That’s a really nice way to honor your grandmother, too.

Jessica: Thank you.

Sarah: I’m sure your kids will have that understanding as they grow up that it’s a connection they have to the past. It’s beautiful.

Jessica: I hope so. Of course, we still have family and friends there and I would like them to be able to communicate when we travel and be comfortable, but I think it was her death that really made it so important to me.

Sarah: That makes sense. Kind of like the spark for you, I guess.

Jessica: Yeah, absolutely. Absolutely.

Sarah: What have you found to be the biggest challenge in speaking German with your kids so far?

Jessica: I think resources are always a problem. We’re very dependant on your store and wherever else we can get books and things like that. My children don’t watch television, and so we’re really dependant on books and materials like that. Besides my mother, we don’t have anyone nearby that speaks German. And so far it’s not really a challenge but I believe it will be in the future, as they start becoming more of the, being a bigger part of the culture of the United States and the English influences will be pretty strong I’m sure.

Sarah: That’s a recurring theme. Trying to find enough. You struggle to keep up and try to maintain a little bit of a balance, especially when they’re young. You want to give them a good foundation.

Jessica: Right. I think that’s why it’s important that we’ve been speaking German to them since they were born. I hope that I can get the best foundation possible before they start school and keep it at as alive as possible.

Sarah: Absolutely. What were you hoping for them in terms of their future and speaking German? Have you thought about how far you would like to see them come? In terms of their fluency?

Jessica: Well, I hope that they will be very fluent. I hope for complete fluency. I hope that when we travel they will be comfortable and be able to communicate themselves well. Absolutely, yes, I definitely want them to be fluent.

Sarah: Sounds like with your mother there you have a really good support system even though it’s just the two of you, but you at least have her so they know it’s not just you that speaks German.

Jessica: Yes, absolutely. I think that’s very good for them to hear that. She spends so much time with them, speaking and singing and playing with them. I don’t think they’ve ever heard her speak anything except German.

Sarah: I have another customer who does that. She says “I’ve spoken German to my grandchildren from the minute they were born” and they speak German back to her. They totally do. They might know that she speaks English, but it’s certainly not something that they would ever dream of doing with her because that’s just the way it is.

Jessica: And she has such a special and different relationship with them, being a grandparent as opposed to being a parent. Her time with them is all about love and bonding and talking. For us, we are disciplining as well and we’ve got rules that need to be followed all the time. But when she’s there it’s such a warm atmosphere for them. I think that they love that about her.

Sarah: That sounds excellent, that’s so special. Is she close by to you?

Jessica: Yes, she lives nearby. Oh, and listen to this, they were born on her birthday. Isn’t that fantastic?

Sarah: Oh, really? That’s really neat! Lots of connections with their Oma.

Jessica: They call her Omi, but… it’s been great.

Sarah: Oh, that’s very sweet. Let’s see, what else would I like to ask – you mentioned that you’ve shopped before with us. Did you find what you were looking for? Were you pleased with what you found?

Jessica: We’re very pleased with your store. We like the selection. Of course, my sons are very big fans of picture books, they love reading, and the picture books are very important to us right now. We also purchased the flashcards off your website and they are really great flashcards. (Note: the flashcards have gone out of print. We are looking for a replacement.) The pictures are fun and bright and they are very good words you would use often. We’re very pleased with them. We buy all of our books – except for the books that family and friends send to us or that my mother gets when she is in Germany – from you. We buy everything from your store and we’ve always been happy.

Sarah: I’m so glad to hear that. What’s their favorite book or CD?

Jessica: Their favorite books are definitely the Max books. They love Max books. They just think they’re so funny.

Sarah: They are, aren’t they?

Jessica: They just love them! And they just crack up. It’s wonderful.

Sarah: It’s easy to identify with him because he’s a typical two-year-old.

Jessica: Yes, and a two-year-old boy! They love him. My favorite book that we’ve bought from you is actually the Fingerspiele book. I know it’s common to play time and time again and find things to do for different seasons and times of the year. It’s a lot of fun. They love it!

Sarah: So you’ve taught them the Fingerspiele too.

Jessica: Yep.

Sarah: Oh, fun. Excellent. They’re too young for school, so I won’t ask you about that.

Jessica: They will go to Samstagschule when they are three.

Sarah: Oh, really, do you have one nearby?

Jessica: Yes, we do. We have the German school just a few blocks down the road. We’re very fortunate to have that there.

Sarah: Oh, excellent. That will be perfect for them!

Jessica: We’re looking forward to it. And it will be nice for them to be with other German children as well.

Sarah: Absolutely. How long have you known about Alphabet Garten? How did you discover us?

Jessica: I think we discovered you during my pregnancy on the computer. A few years, I guess.

Sarah: I’m so glad to hear that. Well, do you have anything else that you would like to add? Our interview series has been really popular. I’ve gotten tons of interest, and each time I do an interview, I love talking to people because I get this new perspective. You know, everyone has some of the same things in common but it’s really fun to hear how each particular family is doing this and what their situation is. So I’m wondering if you have any comments for people in a similar situation as you.

Jessica: I think consistency is very important, and trying to keep it fun. I think the boys are just sponges right now, so it’s very easy for them to learn and to repeat words. When I was pregnant, I read a book called The Bilingual Edge and I’ve since passed it on to another family so I’m not sure who wrote it, but it was very encouraging, very supportive. You know, I was very worried about making mistakes, you know, my grammar is poor – it was very supportive and very encouraging. It said not to worry about making mistakes. It gave a list of all the benefits and, you know, pointers. It was great.

Sarah: So that kind of gave you the extra motivation.

Jessica: Absolutely. I think it’s very important to raise children bilingually and I want my children to be compassionate and empathetic and it’s important for them to understand there’s more to the world than just our little area that we live in. We can’t afford to take them all over the world to see it, but I think that language is a good way to do it. You know, so that they can be cultured children as much as possible.

Sarah: Excellent. Sounds wonderful. Sounds like you have a wonderful, fun house. Lots of laughter and love.

Jessica: Thank you! We do! It’s a good time right now. It really is. It’s a lot of fun. They haven’t entered any terrible twos, so…

Sarah: Oh, when that happens you might have a different tune (laughs)

Jessica: (laughs) It’s wonderful, it is. Things are going very well. We’re very fortunate.

Sarah: That’s excellent. Gosh, to hear that from someone who has triplets, that’s saying a lot!

Jessica: Thank you, but you know, I have a great support system, too. My husband is very involved and of course, my mother is a very big part of our lives, so it definitely helps.

Sarah: That helps a lot. I’m sure it must be challenging.

Jessica: Oh, at times, definitely, definitely. But they are happy and healthy and you try to keep that in there. And they’re fun.

Sarah: Fantastic, that’s excellent. That just sounds wonderful.

Jessica: Thank you!

Sarah: You’re welcome. I just really appreciate your time this afternoon. I know that my customers are going to be really interested to hear a little bit about your story.

Jessica: Thank you. I’m definitely honored and flattered that you wanted to talk to me.

Sarah: Maybe we could follow up in a year or so, we could hear what’s going on with the triplets at three.

Jessica: Oh, I would love that! Absolutely. I’m sure they’ll be talking a lot more by then. Oh, and congratulations on your business. It’s really a wonderful store for all of us.

Sarah: Thank you so much!
Jessica: Congratulations and best wishes to you!

Sarah: Thank you, it’s definitely a labor of love. Like I said, after doing all these interviews over the past few months it’s gotten me really excited about just working with people and going a little bit further and seeing, you know, how can we help. How can I help you and what kinds of things can I do to support the work that you’re doing. We’ve got some big plans underway and we’ll see how it goes.

Jessica: That’s great. And it’s great for us to see that we have that support out there. It always seems like you’re – you know, when I visit Alphabet Garten, it’s not just about selling books, there always seems to be tools, and phrases, and the interviews, it’s very exciting. It’s very nice.

Sarah: That’s what we’re trying to accomplish. We’re just parents like you are, so that’s the goal. I’m glad you picked up on that.

Jessica: Absolutely.

Sarah: Well, it was a pleasure chatting with you! I really appreciate it.

Jessica: Thank you.

Have you started your Trip to Germany yet?

We started using our very own Trip to Germany unit study today. Unit 1 was actually released several weeks ago but we've just now started school work so it seemed like a good fit to coincide with our fall activities. I thought it might be fun to share how we're using this study in our own home.

I'm reminded all over again what a great job author, Sarah Menkin, has done on this unit. We had so much fun! All three of my kids (ages 2, 5, and 9) participated and were excited to be "studying" German as a subject. Up until now we've just lived it (and not nearly enough, but that's the subject for another post...). So now we'll include it as a school subject and hope to get started reading and writing in German as well.

Sarah has it so well organized - I was able to grab the books, open my binder with the lesson plan and go. We reviewed some common phrases, tried to teach Jack some colors and numbers, and talked about the Kölner Dom and Brandenburger Tor. The kids thought it was very cool that I have actually been to the Tor. Oh, to be 18 again!

I'm not super-crafty but as you can see below from our very serious model, we were able to manage the flag-making activity and we now have 3 very nicely done German flags for our notebooks.

Are you doing the Trip to Germany study? Tell us in the comments how it's going or leave a link to your blog if you have one.

Monday, September 14, 2009

When teaching reading, DON'T teach the letter names.

How do you say “B”? You probably said “Bee”, right? Of course – that’s the name of that letter. And how do you make the sound of B? Every reader knows its “buh.” It’s easy for you, as an adult to automatically remember both of these details about the letter B. It’s not so easy for a child learning to read, it’s this second piece of information, the letter sound, that he needs to learn. Teaching him the letter name, “Bee,” just adds confusion and should be postponed until later.

If you are teaching reading to young children, whether in English or German, you should always start with letter sounds, not names.

How do I teach reading using letter sounds?
When you teach letter sounds, you simply refer to a letter by it's sound, not it's alphabetical name. So for B, say “there’s a buh”. For K, say “here’s a kuh”. For children ages 2-5, you never need to say a letter's "name." Put letter names completely out of your vocabulary for the time being. I would even go so far as to suggest that you do NOT teach the alphabet song, unless you're going to sing it using sounds, not names.

Letter names only confuse the learning to read process
It may sound a little counter-intuitive, but that's just because most people were taught to read by learning letter names first. When a child learns a letter name, then he has to "translate" from the name to the sound in order to sound out a word. It's a very inefficient process for the brain to perform. He sees the word hat, has to recognize the letters by their names, then has to remember that H says "huh", A says "a" and T says "t" and finally recognizes the words as "hat." Of course it happens faster and faster as he gains experience but if he has any trouble at all making these associations, he'll be tripped up and his learning may stall.

When a child learns letter sounds directly, he doesn't have to take the intermediate step of associating letter name to sound.
He sees hat, and can immediately think "huh a t", then blend the sounds together into "hat." It's a much more direct process for him. His brain only has to remember 1 thing for each letter, not both a name and a sound.

The bonus to this method is that many letter sounds are the same in English and German!
So once your child can read in one of these two languages, he'll have a head start on reading in the other. Most of the consonants sound the same in German and English (B, H, D, P, K, R, C, F, M, N, L, T, X). The same is not true of the letter names - they are all different.

But most schools start teaching letter names!
That may be the case, but it doesn't mean it's pedagogically the best method. The reading program we use in our homeschool teaches using this method and is in use in thousands of schools and homes around the country. While using this method with my oldest child, my middle son picked up the letter sounds and was easily able to sound out short words by the age of 4. He received very little instruction - he just was around as I was teaching letter sounds to his brother. He put the rest together by himself.

How will my child learn the letter names? At what point should I teach names?
Once your child is reading easily, you can teach letter names, in English and in German, probably in the course of a few days. Children do need to know letter names if they are spelling something out loud or reading abbreviations, for instance.

This method won't turn your child into a reader overnight.
Learning to read is a complicated process. Your child still needs to learn the letter sounds, be able to remember the first sound by the time he reaches the last letter, and understand how to blend them together. It's a pretty complicated task for a 5 year old, if you think about it. But at least with this method, you're using the most direct path to reading for your child. Why introduce additional confusing factors if you don't have to?

Your quick takeaways:
For a direct path to reading, teach sounds, not letter names.
This method works for English and German.
Learning to read is complicated. Some kids need more time than others.

So try and retrain your instinct when talking about letters with your little one. Leave the letter names for later. He needs to learn his letter sounds and let them become automatic before spending time learning letter names.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

When should you teach your child to read in German?

Do you remember when you first learned to read? I don’t, but I have enjoyed watching my children learn. When a person learns to read, something magical happens. It’s like a whole new world is opened up to them; a world that was always there but that they never noticed. All of a sudden, they are reading street signs and cereal boxes, perhaps picking up books and taking a new interest in magazines and the mail. There is information all around them and they see it with new eyes, wanting to take it all in and make it theirs just by reading. It’s an exciting time for a child.

If you want your child to be fully bilingual and biliterate, you will want him to be able to read in German.
Basic reading skills are a necessity if one wishes to travel comfortably in a German-speaking country and if your child wishes to communicate with German relatives and friends or read fun and exciting German literature, he’ll need to go beyond a basic comprehension.

Reading in German can interest and motivate your child to further his German study.
Literary works are usually best enjoyed in their original language. Once you’ve started Tintenherz (Inkheart) in German, you’ll find it just isn’t the same in English. There are many wonderful German authors and when your child can read them on his own, a whole world will be opened up to him. There’s only so much time in the day for read-aloud, don’t you think?

At what age should I start teaching my child to read?
That depends on the child. The most important thing to look for is signs of reading readiness. These signs are the same for English or German. Some children are ready to read at age 4 while some are not truly ready until age 8 (although unfortunately the school system will likely not let them wait that long).

Here’s what to look for:
Your child asking.
This is the most obvious sign. If your child is asking to learn to read, go for it! But be aware that his interest may wax and wane. If he wants to practice reading one day but is not interested the next, don’t take it personally. Many young children express interest, but aren’t ready to put in the effort it takes. You don’t want to squash his enthusiasm by making him work too hard if he’s young and not quite ready. It’s better to stop a lesson early rather than have a frustrated kid on your hands.

Another sign of reading readiness is your child recognizing letters and sounding out words, either in English or in German.
Many children pick up letter sounds through play or pre-reading lessons at preschool. My 5 year old has learned to read in English this way – he’s received almost no instruction – he just absorbed it. If your child is sounding out words in English, he’s ready for German! Go for it! (Just make sure to not overdo it and frustrate him as noted above.)

Your child recognizes his own name.
His name will probably be the first thing he can truly read. It's very exciting for a child to gain this initial recognition. He has cracked the code! He finally understands that those letters actually mean something and he knows what to do with them!

Your child pretends to read books and shows an understanding that we read from left to right.

Should I start before my child can read in English?
If your child has been speaking some German (not necessarily fluent) for 6 months or longer, I highly recommend teaching reading in German before reading in English where possible, as long as he’s showing signs of readiness. If he’s not ready until he’s learning English reading in school, that’s OK too, but you may find a bit more confusion until he gets things sorted out. Again, this will happen differently for each child but some may need several months to a year to get the two languages straight.

Why teach reading in German first?
German, as the second language, will always be a bit disadvantaged, due to the overwhelming influence of English. If you can give German a bit of a headstart, that will help to even things out as opposed to allowing English to dominate even more. I’m not saying that your child has a finite capacity for languages but there are only so many hours in the day. English and German are competing for your child’s attention. Give German a boost wherever possible.

In addition, your child will certainly learn to read in English in school so you won’t have to worry about that. This leaves you free to pursue German with your child. If you homeschool, you can choose the order yourself to best suit your child’s needs.

How can I teach my child?
How to teach reading is a very large topic and one for a future article. Stay tuned for more information on ways to teach reading to your child.

Look for signs of reading readiness.
Go at your child’s pace. Stop a lesson before fatigue sets in.
Start with German if possible.

The world of the written word is an exciting place for a child. When you teach him to read in German, you’ll give him the keys to a new kingdom, one that he can enter for the rest of his life whenever he pleases.

Here are some materials you can use to teach reading in German:
Anlaut-Memo (Card game)
Erstes Lesen (workbook/ stickers)
Das große Vorschul-Paket

Saturday, September 05, 2009

Why the perfect time to begin speaking German with your child is on the day she is born.

A study by the University of Ottawa reports that even newborns prefer listening to speech over non-speech sounds. Language acquisition begins months before birth and babies are born preferring the language they heard in the womb. Of course you probably knew that your baby can recognize the sound of your voice over others and that she is listening to you. But did you know just how closely she listens? This study finds that young infants can even distinguish the sound of native vs. non-native consonants that adults may have difficulty with. Babies are wired to learn language!

It may seem cliché but babies are truly miraculous in how they change and develop over the course of the first year. This is why the day your baby is born is the perfect time to start a lifetime of bilingualism with her.

When you begin bilingualism during babyhood, you have many advantages over people who start later.

You will build good habits early.
You’ll figure out how you’re going to use German in your home and around your family. This is a big adjustment if you’ve spoken mostly English up to this point. Most importantly, you’ll get in the habit of speaking German to your child. I’ve spoken exclusively German with all three of my children up to about age 2 and a half. In fact, I frequently speak to strange babies in German – it’s just my instinct to speak German to small people! Luckily they don’t seem to mind. It’s a lot harder to start speaking German with an older child.

Babies love to learn.
A baby’s brain doesn’t know what’s important, so it tries to make sense of everything. This results in lightning fast learning. At no other point in her life will she master so many skills and make such enormous strides in development. Once she gets older, she’ll learn to distinguish between things that are important to her and those that are not. At that point, she may be much more resistant to learning the “hard” stuff.

Speaking German with your baby will give you time to establish a good support system.
If you spend a little time setting goals, you’ll see the areas where you may need extra help. Do you have a local German-speaking community? Can you plan regular trips to Germany? Will German relatives come to visit often? Do you have enough German exposure to accomplish the goals you’re planning for? These are all extremely useful components of a bilingual family plan and it’s helpful to have them in place early in your child’s life.

Plus, when you start speaking German with a baby, you have that much more time to reach your language goals.
You may get sidetracked along the way and things may not always go according to plan but if you start with an infant, you have many years available to bring your child to the level of fluency you hope for.

So how is this done?
With babies, it’s super simple. You don’t have to worry about them understanding you or any translating which you might have to do with older children. Just use German whenever you speak to them. As you immerse your baby in German, you may find that your own German improves. If you can’t do it all the time, pick a few times of the day to use German and try and increase from there.

You may find it helpful to spend some time setting goals and consider how you’ll get a monolingual spouse involved.

Playing German music at playtime and reading German books at bedtime is a great way to make things fun and also get you in a German mindset. You may also learn some new words in the process.

You may even find that others around you start to pick up a few German words here and there.

Doesn’t it seem strange to speak to tiny baby in German, especially if no other German speakers are around?
Well, yes, it may feel weird at first. If you’ve committed to raising your child bilingually and you’re not a native German speaker, it may be a little hard to get the habit established. You’ll have a whole new vocabulary to learn. How do you say “How’s my sweet little munchkin?” in German anyway? :) You’ll need to learn some new lullabies and terms of endearment. You probably didn’t learn this stuff in German class or on a trip to Europe! Even if you grew up in a bilingual household, you may have forgotten the German “baby-ese” that is so necessary for little ones.

But babies need to be spoken to, even when they’re too little to understand.
They need to hear language, language directed at them, to help them make sense of the world around them. And if you’re raising a bilingual baby, then you might as well start as soon as possible.

A bilingual example
Jessica Giering has spoken German with her triplets since they were born. They are now interacting at an age-appropriate level in German and English. She says, “it was challenging at first to remember to speak German to them but after a few weeks, it just came naturally.”

The sooner the better.
So don’t put it off until she’s older and has “established” the English language in her brain. A baby’s is biologically wired for languages and you can take advantage of that when you immerse her in German from the start.

What’s the best thing about speaking German with your baby?
She’ll think that everything you say is brilliant! An appreciative audience is always a good thing.

Friday, September 04, 2009

Catch us on Facebook

I've just created our own Facebook page. Please stop by and drop us a line. I'd be honored if you'd add yourselves as Fans.

Now back to your regular programming...

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Deutsch mit Papa (part 2)

This is part 2 of an interview I did with Christoph Oettinger on his experiences raising his children bilingually in English and German. You can read part 1 here.

Sarah: So what’s been the biggest challenge for you in speaking German to your kids?

Christoph: The challenge again is it sticks with me. I’m the one with the occasional grandma and aunt visit and such and there’s only one other place that I can think of really where they could get some immersion, and that’s really more of a class. That’s great and wonderful but the kids are learning all the time and to be in a more structured environment isn’t exactly what they want. The challenge for me is finding other opportunities. I had friends that were German-speaking and those that were English-speaking so I picked up those languages and I had to use them more because of that. You know, I had both parents speaking German to me and there was much more conversation. My language at home was German. Done, end of story. Where here, it’s both. And when children realize, “Hey, wait a second, Dadddy speaks it too, so I can answer him,” it’s the path of least resistance. So the challenge is finding more opportunities and some peers of theirs that speak German. And I haven’t found any around here. I find parents that may speak German but they don’t speak it at home, and it’s a little bit of the attitude, well, we’re in the United States now, we’re going to speak English. And I agree with that. My kids speak English and I want them to learn the language but I also believe that multiple languages are a huge advantage and if they do something with it, great. So the challenge is just finding other avenues to keep the language going. And that’s not easy.

Sarah: Absolutely, that’s a definite challenge, especially with German. With a different language, you might have more community resources at your disposal.

Christoph: Absolutely, and around here, Spanish would be obviously a much easier way to go about it. I mean, we have a lot of Hispanic families around and that would be a lot easier. And you don’t even have to go very far in suburban Chicago, you can find some Russian, some Polish, you name it, you find a lot more of those communities. But even the German community in Chicago is nowhere near what it was when we first moved here. The German community has gotten smaller. And that’s really because I think the younger – the importance of tradition and heritage isn’t there with my generation as it were. I think that’s kind of going away and that’s a shame, but I was kind of brought up very old school, to me it is very important.

Sarah: You know that’s like you said earlier, letting your kids know where they came from. That’s a big part of your motivation. What are you hoping for them? What are your goals for them to eventually do in German? Have you thought about that a bit? Where would you like them to be in 10 or 15 years?

Christoph: I do hope that by the time they get to be in those teen years, early college years and so on that they’ll have the ability to not only speak but to read and write. Would I be completely disappointed if that wasn’t there? No, I am very realistic. As long as they can understand me and don’t have the hang-up of gee, I’m going to sound funny so I’m not going to use it, that type of thing, I’ll be happy. In an ideal world, hey, great, go off to Germany or Switzerland or Austria or wherever you’d like where they speak German and you function. You just do and it’s very second nature. I want there just to be a certain amount of pride in being German and a pride in having at least a second language under their belts that just comes very second nature. I didn’t realize what I had until I came back to the States. And that was, gosh, it took me probably about another half a year, and I was a freshman in High School to realize, Wait a second, I’ve got something here. I grew up with my friends and their families at least having two and three languages if not four, five or six. My father spoke eight, so multiple languages as such wasn’t a big deal. It wasn’t anything where you go, “Hey, look at me, I speak three languages, four languages.” Where everybody else would be going “Yeah, so do we.” And that didn’t sink in for me until high school. So I’m kind of hoping that the kids realize “Hey, wow, yeah, I’ve got something special here.” That they won’t have the hang up if they do travel to a German-speaking country or someone speaks German to them that they can function. I feel perfectly comfortable traveling and going to a German-speaking or Spanish-speaking country and just functioning. I mean, I can do everything I would need to do – I can read, I can write, I can communicate. And that’s really what I hope for the kids. You know, that they just feel comfortable with it, realize that they have something special and just have an understanding of who they are. Because it is part of who they are.

Sarah: That’s beautiful. Tell me a little bit about their favorite books and CDs and DVDs. I know you’ve ordered from us a couple of times. Tell me about what they like to hear and listen to.

Christoph: Well, it’s changing a little bit. And I need to update a little bit. Where we’ve gone from Meine Sachen – you know the little flipbooks that they get when they’re you know, three months. There’s one my son I think has literally gnawed on. But learning simple words or now moving on to some of my old kids books that my mom when she came over brought with her, which are Du bist sehr lieb Charlie Brown. There’s a connection though because my kids, and my daughter in particular, goes, “Oh, Charlie Brown. I’ve seen the Christmas special, the Easter special.” You know, all those that they see on TV. There’s a connection there to a little bit more of a story now, not just pictures, for my daughter in particular. My son’s still says, “Hey, show me the plane,” but the other one that they seem to like right now at least book-wise is Die Bremer Stadtmusikanten.

Christoph: That’s one of the ones I remember getting from you. I think it’s Meine ersten Märchen or something. My son’s really getting into that, those animals, so that I think has a huge impact for him. We haven’t actually done much with movies and DVDs. We don’t do that much TV anyway, but I’ll be really honest with you – a lot of the dubbed stuff that’s out there that are a little more from US-based movies, I don’t particularly like the dubbing. A lot of the German that’s dubbed – and this sounds so awful, me being German – but German can sound very hoity-toity, almost elitist. The “hoch Deutsch” in particular. And that’s where the dubbing comes from. And I don’t particularly care for it. There are words actually that I don’t use in German because it sounds too funny to me. “Funny” being one of them – “Ach, das ist lustig.” Don’t ask me why, it’s something that’s always been with us, it’s been in our family, but my father never used it and trust me, my father was very old school. There are just – don’t ask me why – some words that we know them, they just don’t enter in our sentences at all. You’ll hear German German German German English word German. So we do a lot with just the books that we’ve got and I’m trying to think of one that we had that was a step above a magazine but it was definitely not a book. It was black and white, and we use it as a coloring book, actually, for both kids now. It’s everything from city to farm to animals to planes, trains, you name it and all the words are there and it’s just in black and white. We’ve used it as a coloring book to kind of, you know, go “Hey, let’s find the cow. What color should the cow be?” Again, you know, my son’s like, “Purple.” And my daughter’s going, “No, it should be black and white.” It’s the age difference. And so the argument ensues of which color we’re going to use. That type of thing works really well for us. And the nighttime stories. That’s kind of quiet time where I have one-on-one with my kids and my wife has her time with them and we kind of do the reading and cuddling and that’s when I take the opportunity to read the German books to them.

Christoph: That’s really kind of where we go with it. It’s the everyday. It’s just everyday conversation and even the English language books that we read to them, I’ll just translate them. The sentences – it’s not like I’m reading War and Peace – so we’re talking Curious George or anything like that where we don’t have it in German, I’ll just translate it. Being fluent in the language makes it obviously much easier than perhaps if you’ve learned and you really have to think about it. For me, it’s not a conscious thought process. For me it comes very naturally. And that’s just an advantage of having learned languages young. It sounds kind of funny to me but it’s not a thought process. My daughter right now loves Fancy Nancy. So I’ll just take the Fancy Nancy book and just read it, I may have to think about, give me another word for this that or the other you know, fuchsia. Fuchsia’s pink. And that’s just stuff that comes from being a guy. I’m not going to differentiate between pink one, two and three. It’s pink, okay. Things like that, there I have to think but other than that, the English language books that my children are reading, they’re so simple for me to kind of just go along and translate as I’m reading is not hard and it does make it easier access. Because they get gifts, and most people won’t think to get a German-language book because again, they’re not as easy to get.

You’re one of the few resources and it takes some Google searches to find somebody that has them. German isn’t the top ten, you know what I mean? So that’s kind of what we do. We have some of the books that we’ve gotten from you and then some of my kid books and my sister has hers so when they go visit her, she has some books there that she can read to them. But a lot of what we do also is the English ones and we just kind of have to translate as we go.

Sarah: I love it. It’s just everyday life and you just go with the flow and you’re just ready whenever the opportunity strikes to have an extra chat in German or to mention a color but it’s all just very natural.

Christoph: You nailed it. As an opportunity presents itself you just have to be aware and say, “you know, I could do that” and that’s it. I’m sure when you’ve been talking with the other parents that you’ve come across this. You know, you just take your opportunities where they are. It’s not like I do anything different than what most parents do in English to teach their children. With them, I’m lucky that I don’t have to split between English and German I just do it in German because that’s the way it is. My wife will do it in English. So why would I be doing it any different than any other parent would, I just have to do it in German.

Sarah: Mm hmm, great. I love that, that’s such a great outlook. Frank and straightforward – I guess if you don’t get enough of it today you don’t worry about it and start over again tomorrow.

Christoph: I’m not going to stress out about it. “Gee, I didn’t get my requirement of German in – gotta read two German books today” because they weren’t interested in them that day. That to me would be counterproductive to teaching them. You know, I want them to just kind of go with it, not “Oh, criminy, here’s Dad, he wants to read to me that book again. Ugh, this is so old, I don’t want to do this anymore.” It would be so counterproductive. Kids are the way they are and when it seems like a task, they’re not going to want to do it. “Oh, okay, that’s not the book I want, it doesn’t sound like when Mommy reads it, oh well, I get what he’s saying, he’s saying the same stuff Mommy does, okay.” That’s the nice part. If you start fretting over it, are the kids getting enough of it, the kids will pick up on that.

Sarah: So just be.

Christoph: Yeah, that’s kind of my philosophy “just be” (laughs).

Sarah: I love it! Well, I just have one more question for you. I was just wondering if you have any other comments. I think you touched upon some really exciting ideas. I know my customers are going to love to read everything that you’ve said.

Christoph: That or they’ll never come back to you again. (laughs)

Sarah: (laughs) No, no, this is fantastic stuff! Like I said, your perspective as a dad is so important. Moms can’t do it all themselves. A lot of moms can’t do it at all because they don’t have that level of fluency, so it’s really cool to hear these ideas from you.

Christoph: The other thing is I’m also a very different dad. My wife owns her own company; she’s the primary breadwinner in our house. I’ve kind of switched roles. I’d like to say I retired from the corporate world. I used to be the international sales and marketing guy. The last company I was with, I got to my senior level. I loved the international aspect of it. That’s been my life. I love it but I realized the corporate world just isn’t for me. Maybe it was just the companies I’d been with but the priority that they always put on international wasn’t there to the way I thought it ought to be. It doesn’t mean it’s right or wrong, it’s just the way they ran their business. I was just very fed up one day and my wife looked at me and said, “So why don’t you just leave?” I looked at her with this very strange look and she said, “Look, it’s not worth being miserable. It’s just not. You’ve not got to the company that has put the priority on international. Since this last company you’ve seen your entire budget go down to zero dollars and the expectations increased, it’s not an environment you want to be in. Quit. Figure out what you want to do.”

Sarah: Really?.

Christoph: I kind of looked at her like “But what else do I do?” You know, international business has always been my focus. It took a little while. I taught for a short period. Then I realized I kind of liked the kids. And I kind of want to be home. I’ve turned out to be the house-husband. I grew up with a very German mother so I don’t mind keeping house. It allows us to be together as a family a lot more. I mean I do everything from cook, clean, do laundry, pay the bills, and keep our life organized. My wife, owning her own company, has the flexibility so late afternoons and evenings are ours because the stuff is done. She’s worked, and so to speak, she’s brought in the money. The house is in order. The kids come home from school and “Huh, what do you want to do?” “I want to play.” “Okay, let’s go play.” There’s no laundry that needs to be done, no last minute bills to be paid, don’t have to sit at the computer and think,” Oh, I’ve got to do the laundry.” Because it’s already done. And so our evenings and weekends are truly family time, which is the way I grew up. It was my mom doing what I’m doing. The family thing is to me a very traditional thing. And this way the children always have a parent picking them up, a parent is always home, rather than having to rely on a babysitter. Or, “Oh, okay, gotta ask Grandma to come and do something again.” It’s usually Dad, but Mom or Dad, always a parent there. And that’s something I grew up with, I was lucky enough to be able to grow up with, and we’re able to give that to our kids. And it gives me a little bit more to them, and keeps more of the German going. So that’s the other side of things. I’ve, gosh, for almost 20 years, I did the traveling. I had more miles than I knew what to do with and so I did that. I loved it, I enjoyed it to a certain extent, but our household is just a little bit different. That contributes to the way the kids are growing up too. And you were saying, what other comments and such, it’s just kind of nice to see through your site and that interview you did, I think the first one that I guess I paid enough attention to go, “Oh, huh, it’s nice to know that there are others doing it.” But as you see there’s a common thread to the story. One parent is a German. The importance of having that aspect of the life there is what that common thread is. It sounds so silly, but it’s nice to know there are others out there. And I think we all face the same challenges, especially with a language that isn’t so, you know, so forefront for people. It’s not the sexy language; it’s not the language that’s the second strongest language in this country. It’s kind of a language you need a reason to be speaking. You need a reason for it to be important in your life. That’s usually because one parent if not both, are German. I wanted to just say, keep doing what you’re doing please. Keep providing the resources. Because that’s what it is, at least to me, it is truly a resource that you may not tap all of the time, but for me it’s kind of in stages. And I don’t know how many stages it’s going to be. We’ve found the books that we could read to them when they were young. Three months old, six months old. Now we’re kind of progressing on. It’s nice to know that there’s a resource out there. I’m thrilled that you’re just able to keep it going.

Sarah: Well, thank you. You know, it’s been really, really fun for me to do these interviews. I think you’re number seven or actually eight now. Every time I talk to someone I think, okay, there’s so much more we can do here. You know, people are out there and they need help and we can help bring you guys together and give you support and give you inspiration. Just a simple half an hour call, with you spending a little of your time with me, again, I think this was fantastic. I can’t wait to listen to the call again and I can’t wait to get it out there for all the other people who are interested. I just really appreciate your time.

Christoph: I appreciate you doing what you’re doing and more than happy to do it. Like I said, I like to talk and I like to talk about what I’m doing, and if somewhere in there there’s something good that comes out of it, I think that’s great. I’m just glad there’s a resource for me, to be selfish about it, where I can go and find the occasional book or movie eventually or things like that. That will help me do what I want to be doing, which is teach my kids German. I think it’s great and seeing that there are other people out there is just very encouraging too.

Sarah: Absolutely. Good stuff.

Christoph: If there’s ever anything else that I can help you with, or honestly, just please, don’t hesitate to shoot me an email or let me know somehow and I’ll be more than happy to help out if I can.

Sarah: That would be fantastic! I will definitely keep in touch. I want to hear how things progress with your kids. Sounds like they are off to a fantastic start. Thank you again; I really appreciate it!

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Deutsch mit Papa (part 1)

Sarah interviews Christoph Oettinger about his experience raising 4 year old daughter and 2 and-a-half year old son bilingually in German and English.

This post contains part 1 of 2 of this interview.

Sarah: I’m so excited to talk to you! I appreciate your time this morning!

Christoph: No worries; glad to do it!

Sarah: Where are you located?

Christoph: I’m just outside of Chicago.

Sarah: And you are the German speaker in your family? You grew up speaking German with your parents?

Christoph: I am, I’m the German one in the bunch as it were. German parents, grew up speaking German at home, and still speak it with my mom and my sister.

Sarah: Did you grow up in the United States or was it abroad in Germany?

Christoph: The short answer is yes… I grew up a little bit all over. I’m actually US born because my father was with the German Foreign Office and we were stationed in New Orleans when I was born. And shortly after that, it was back to Germany for about a year and a half, then to New York with the UN, then off to Argentina, then to Brazil, then to Chicago, and my father retired in ’91 with a mandatory return to Germany – well, not really mandatory – but at the time, with the exchange rate, that’s really the only thing that made sense. So my parents moved back to Germany, and my sister and I stayed in the United States.

Sarah: So you’ve been all over the place!

Christoph: Yes, I’ve kind of been all over the place. Lived overseas quite a bit and then my professional career kind of took me the rest of the way.

Sarah: That’s really interesting – you really have an international perspective to bring to your kids and to your life.

Christoph: Yes.

Sarah: So how old are your kids?

Christoph: My oldest, my daughter, just turned four and my son is two and a half.

Sarah: And are they speaking German back to you?

Christoph: Hit or miss, actually. I mean, it’s pretty normal, they get so much English, you know, outside of the home and they know that my wife and I speak English so most of the replies I get are in English but when I speak to them it’s exclusively in German and my son is using more of it, but both of them understand everything that I say and on the rare occasions where there’s a word they haven’t heard before, both of them will look at me and go, “Now what does that mean?” They know to ask if there’s something they haven’t heard, and my son, like I said, is using it a little bit more. He’s proud of himself when he uses something. I think, as they get a little bit older, they will begin to use it, because they know that their grandmother and their aunt also speak it. Again, they don’t see them every day, and I think I mentioned in the email to you that the opportunity for immersion is difficult. The opportunities are few and far between. So I’m not all too worried that I’m not getting a whole lot of conversation with them in German, I’m thrilled that they understand what I say to them.

Sarah: Well, yeah, I like how you have set it up so naturally. I’m wondering, if that was hard for you to develop that habit or did it just come naturally?

Christoph: It’s come pretty naturally.

Sarah: That’s one of the greatest challenges that I have.

Christoph: It did come pretty naturally. Again, I grew up speaking German at home. That was just the way my life was. And I’m grateful I have a very supportive wife who as such doesn’t speak it, although I think she suffers more from what most adults do – if they don’t do something very well, they’d rather just not do it. My wife was learning German before she ever met me, and she was learning it from Berlitz which was still using statements like “Gee, Mrs. Mueller, you have a nice skirt on today. Would you get me my cup of coffee now?” which made me cringe, but it’s easy from the standpoint that one, I don’t have to worry that the kids will ever use it to try to pull one over on mom because mom understands as much as they do if not more.

And as they’re learning, so does she. She knows that that’s what’s coming at her, and if there’s ever anything she doesn’t know, she knows that she can ask. So it’s easy from the standpoint that my wife is supportive of it, I grew up speaking German at home, and it is just ridiculously important to me. Unfortunately, I no longer have family in Germany, my mom immigrated to the US two years ago almost, and my father passed away so we have no one left in Germany and for me, it’s just important that my kids learn that part of who they are. It’s kind of who I am, so, as you can tell, languages come easy and I have very little accent in either one. It’s kind of just English-German, flip a coin, it works both ways for me. Having support from my wife to do it was kind of really never even a question.

Sarah: So you feel she’s kind of picking it up along with the kids, even though she’s not speaking it.

Christoph: Oh, yes. She’s picking it up as quickly as the kids. And again, like I said, she was on her own, before we even met, for some reason she was studying German through tapes and classes whenever she could. There was an understanding. We’d traveled to Germany when my parents were still there. Despite what my father always thought, “Go with her, go with her, she needs help,” she could handle herself in a grocery store, the usual type of thing you pick up on so you can get by. She would do just fine. It’s again, we as adults, rather than sound funny or make a mistake, we hesitate to use something but her comprehension is very, very good.

Sarah: Right. Well, that would really hold you back if you were worried about or thinking about something like, which case is this in? Which gender is that noun again? Instead of not worrying too much about it and just chatting, you get a lot further ahead. But it’s hard to do that sometimes, especially if you learn it as an adult.

Christoph: Right, and kids don’t have that, “Oh, boy, I’m going to sound funny” or “Boy, that’s going to be wrong so I’m just not going to say anything.” Kids, for the most part, they don’t even know to think that way. Even as kids start learning English as their first language or their only language. I see it with my kids, I know I did it, and I see it with my kids’ friends. They make mistakes – which are perfectly normal – they correct themselves as they hear it more often or get corrected in school, they learn it. And that’s kind of just the way it is. But they just “Oh, that’s just the way it is” and they toodle on about their business, and we as adults are the ones that have this “Oh, gee, I’m going to sound funny when I say that”, or “Ooh, that’s going to be wrong, someone’s going to make fun of me.” We’re the ones with the hang-ups. Kids don’t have them. So that is another reason it’s easy – you just talk at them, they don’t know that they’re learning a second language while they’re learning a first to begin with, it’s just that’s the way it is.

Sarah: So for your kids, it’s “This is what we do. The words that Daddy uses when he talks to me.”

Christoph: You got it. And that’s exactly it. My son right now is kind of going, “That Papa guy, he uses Deutsch” and “Is that Deutsch, Papa or is that English?” It happened last night. We had my brother-in-law and my sister-in-law and my nieces over. And my nieces look at me like I have two heads. It’s like, “Wait a second, he just spoke English to me and now there’s this strange gobbley-gook stuff coming from him.” And my brother-in-law is like, “What is Uncle Christoph saying? Is that English? That’s not English, is it? Do you notice that Ellen and Copeland are understanding him? Oh, isn’t that amazing, they speak two languages.” And Cope’s looking at them like, “Oh, yeah, I guess I am.” It just is, you know.

My biggest fear, and this is the only thing my wife and I talked about. I said, “I need to know that you’re comfortable with that happening because I’ll be damned if they start using it against you.” You know, as they get older, to try and get away with something or say something to her that they probably shouldn’t and she doesn’t understand it. And she’s says, “No, that won’t be a problem. I know enough to be dangerous.” And she does. It’s just the fact that boy, they may use it against their cousins or some of their friends to talk about them or who knows what else. As long as it doesn’t happen here in the home, I’m okay.

Sarah: Right. If they’re going to do that, they’ll have plenty of opportunities to do it, whether or not they know German.

Christoph: You got it. (laughs)

Sarah: Kids can be mean in all kinds of languages.

Christoph: I’m sure they’ll be saying stuff to each other that I won’t understand.

Sarah: That could be (laughs). That’s when the real trouble comes in, right?

Christoph: Wait for the teenage years.

Sarah: You’ve got a while.

Christoph: Thank goodness. I’m not ready for them yet.

Sarah: Although I guess it will be here before you know it, right?

Christoph: That’s what everybody tells me.

Sarah: I have a son who just turned 9 and -

Christoph: You’re wondering where the time went?

Sarah: Yeah, I can’t believe it. I was thinking the other day about the first set of books that I bought even before I had the business, I was thinking, gosh, we still have them around, you know, the kleine Ich bin ich and a couple different ones. He was a baby, and now he’s nine.

Christoph: As a matter of fact, we’re going to be having a garage sale here in a couple of weeks from our little neighborhood and starting to pull the books and I’m going, “Wow, I actually read this to you?” It’s like, you’ve outgrown that one. Okay, that one I guess gets to go to the garage sale. It blows me away, how much they’re capable of and again, they just learn so much faster than we do. Their brains are just taking it all in. It’s just a non-issue and they just kind of go with it. It’s not like, “Oh, gosh, what’s this? And now I’ve got to learn that.” It’s just “Oh, okay, let’s just go with it.” It’s an amazing thing to watch happen.

Sarah: Even at age two-and-a-half you see amazing things going on, right?

Christoph: Oh, it’s mind-boggling. It’s totally mind-boggling what they’re doing at two-and-a-half. I have to remind myself that he’s actually that young, because so much of what he does, to me, seems so much beyond but it seems perfectly normal at that age. They tell me, “Oh, no, that’s to be expected now.” And I’m think, really? Are you sure? I’d have trouble with this right about now. But their brains are just so amazing. So absolutely amazing.

Sarah: Just the leaps, right? From age one to age two? The leap in comprehension and what they can produce, it’s just substantial.

Christoph: It’s mind-boggling. It truly is completely mind-boggling. It’s like, “Wow, you can do that, now, huh?” From a language standpoint, we talk to them and the words they all of sudden pick up, in German or English and even Spanish, for that matter. They have it in school just one hour one day a week. All of a sudden they’ll be standing there counting in Spanish. I’ll say, “What? What are you doing?” “What, it’s Spanish, Papa.” “I know it’s Spanish, but you’re working on English and German, what’s this Spanish?” “Oh, yeah, Spanish too, Papa.” I’m all for it. You go right ahead, just keep picking up the languages. Whatever.

Sarah: Absolutely. It’s only going to be an advantage.

Christoph: It really will be. I don’t care what they ever do with their lives, I really don’t, my thing is, as long as they’re happy, but I know that over the years I was so glad.

Christoph: I just think that it’s such a huge gift that I can give them. You know, I’m fortunate enough to have multiple languages under my belt. Given that my father, who was a wealth of information, is no longer alive, and can’t share so much of what he knew with them, it’s the little thing that I can do to keep that German bit going and hopefully it will go on with my kids and their kids, but at least, I’ve done my part to share that with them. That was just very, very important to me.

I didn’t spend a lot of time in Germany and I don’t think I grew up German as such, I grew up very internationally – from my circle of friends, and we’re not traditional German in the sense people always ask me, “Do you eat German food?” Well, yeah, but it’s not like I have my Bratwurst every day and a Schnitzel as well. Yeah, I eat it because I like it, but it’s not what I make every day. And my mom never did either. For me it’s just let’s kind of keep a little bit of who I am, and who we are, going. Understand where you came from and if you do something with it, great, and if not, I hope it just gave you a little bit of insight into where you come from.

Part 2 of this interview is here.

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