Thursday, May 14, 2009

Daddy spricht Deutsch. An interview with Barbara Jean Astarita.

Sarah interviews Barbara Jean Astarita, whose husband speaks German to their 18 month old daughter, Greta.

Sarah: Thank you again for taking the time out to chat with me today. I’m really excited to talk to you! Let’s see… first of all, you have one daughter, right?
Barbara: Yeah, I have one daughter and that’s another thing – she’s only 18½ months so we’re in the process of teaching her. We’re kind of not sure how she’s getting along because her words, both English and German, are not clear yet. But we’re trying to teach her both.
Sarah: So sometimes I guess you might not even know if she’s speaking English or German to you. Does that happen?
Barbara: Yes, well, I don’t speak any – my German is really bad; I’m trying to learn it. But my husband speaks to her in German, and if he says something to her in German she’ll understand it. But sometimes I don’t know if she understands it, what he’s saying or she understands the tone of it. For example, when we play games with her, we’ll say “Where’s Greta?” and she’ll right away hide or close her eyes and then if we say it in German - “Wo ist Greta?” – she does the same thing. So we don’t know if it’s our tone that she understands or that she actually understands both of what we’re saying to her.
Sarah: That makes sense. Probably a little bit of each. I mean, that’s how kids pick stuff up, right? They pay attention to what’s going on, and that’s how they pick it all up. So your husband speaks German to her and then you’re speaking a little bit of German or you’re mostly speaking English with her? How does that work?
Barbara: She’s in daycare three times a week and of course, everyone around her speaks English, my family speaks English, so I think her predominant language is English. I try to speak whatever I know just to help her along. When my husband and I speak together we both speak English, so she’s hearing much more English than German. Whenever I know German, which is not really a lot, I try to teach her as well. Even just the basics. For “thank you” we’ll always say “danke” – we never say “thank you” to her. Or simple things like “no” we always say “nein” to her. Little things like that that we know she can pick up quite easily. Like we don’t say “please” we always say “bitte.” Words like that we both stick at it. But as far as teaching to her, only my husband can really do it really fluently. So I don’t know how well she’s picking it up because three days a week she’s in a daycare with English-speaking people and then the two days that I’m off I’m predominantly speaking English. So we’re hoping that maybe the videotapes and audiocassettes we get will help her along.
Sarah: Right, absolutely. I know a lot of people who do find some level of success with that, even if it’s only very part-time – evenings and weekends that they get from the dad. They still do come away with an understanding and they can comprehend it. They may not be as strong speaking it and later on reading and writing they might have to take some classes, but she’s definitely picking it up, I would say.
Barbara: Yeah, she definitely understands it… We both feel like we want her to because her family is there, we’ll be visiting a lot, she has cousins there… I don’t want to go there and have everyone have to accommodate her with speaking English. I’d rather her accommodate them and at least speak my husband’s language. Also for her, it’s better she learn both at a young age. And I did look for schools – we don’t know if we’re staying in the area but I found one she can go to that they’ll take her at 3 or 4, so she’s a little too young for even that.
Sarah: Has she said anything in German yet that you know?
Barbara: Mostly the words that she’s says are, you know, like English, they’re only one word, they’re not clear. Two words that she does say – for “no” she always says “nein.” If we say, “Greta, don’t do that,” we’ll wave our finger she’ll know “nein” and if she wants something we’ll hand it to her and we’ll say “What do you say?” and she’ll say “bitte.” She has a grasp on little words like that. But I think much more, she understands English a lot more. Which is natural.
Sarah: Surely if she’s getting that much English, it will be balanced that way. I think you just answered my next question which is why do you want your child to speak German? Your husband, did he come over from Germany or does he have relatives there?
Barbara: Yeah, he’s been here for ten years, but all his family is back there, his parents and his brother and all his relatives.
Sarah: That’s just like my husband; he’s been here for ten years.
Barbara: Oh, really, that’s so funny – you’re American though?
Sarah: Yes, I’m American. I learned German studying in college and then I met him in Germany – we were in the same dorm.
Barbara: Oh, that’s so funny!
Sarah: Oh, yes, it’s actually about 14 years for him, but very similar. Well, how did you meet your husband?
Barbara: Through a friend. We’d actually known each other for a much longer time before we got together. We’d known each other for at least eight years before we started to date. Through a mutual friend. And then one day we started to hang out together and then we just got together – that’s how it happened.
Sarah: But he was over here before you got married then?
Barbara: Oh, yes. We’ve been married for two years almost. And he’s been here for ten years. And maybe in the future we might want to move there for a few years if Greta ever wants to go to school there or we just want her to at least know the language.
Sarah: Right, right. Well, how did you learn to speak German then? Did you pick it up from your husband? The little bit that you know?
Barbara: The little bit that I know it’s just through him and then I have all these tapes that I listen to on my iPod, just to pick it up. Because I feel like also when I go over there I would like to speak to his family. They speak English, but just to learn it and speak it and I also think it’s always a good opportunity in case we do decide to go over there at any point, at least I would know it. So the tapes have helped, listening to him helps, we’ve spent some time over there, that helps, but I think in the long run I would eventually like to take classes. So I could pick it up more.
Sarah: So what has been the biggest challenge so far in speaking German with her or having your husband speak German with her? What have you found or what do you anticipate to be the biggest stumbling block?
Barbara: I’d have to say the biggest would be the fact that I don’t speak it. So I think she gets in the habit of hearing us speak all the time in English and I think sometimes he gets in the habit of speaking in English because it’s probably easier. Sometimes he does speak English to her and I keep trying to tell him, you know, just try to speak only in German to her, but I think sometimes he speaks for convenience. He also turns off and speaks English to her.
Sarah: It’s really hard to get out of that habit if you’re used to speaking one or if you hear everyone speaking English then it’s really hard to switch over to German.
Barbara: It’s hard to say, too, because her words really aren’t clear, so I don’t know how much she’s picking up. It’s hard to judge.
Sarah: My youngest is two years and two months. All of a sudden he’s had this explosion of language – he wasn’t really a big talker but now all of a sudden he’s saying all these words and we’re thinking, wow, where did that come from? Unfortunately not as many German words as I would like, he’s definitely biased towards English as well. But it’s so funny because he didn’t talk much when he was 18 months and even when he was two. But now all of a sudden, wow, all these words are coming out of his mouth.
Barbara: That’s like her, too, she says all of these words but they all sound alike. I think I’m the only one that can distinguish what she’s saying. So I’m waiting for the time when her words are a little bit more clear. Yes, she’s kind of talking, but now it’s only things like “bitte.” Does your husband speak in German?
Sarah: He’s kind of both. He’s kind of a mix. Maybe 50 percent German, 50 percent English with my youngest and with the older kids, there’s more and more English that creeps in. Unfortunately, it’s the same with us, it’s the habit. For me, I just don’t have the vocabulary, the technical vocabulary they’re talking about – astronauts or bumblebees or whatever – I don’t have that vocab and I have to search it out, find books, pick it up that way. We have to study it together.
Barbara: But with all your books don’t you have like a lot of materials?
Sarah: Oh, absolutely. We have lots to pick from. That’s the good thing; we can just go right to the bookshelf and say, we need to talk about technical questions about electricity – my kids are really into science stuff – so we have to find the “How Stuff Works” books. I can’t even explain it in English. It is a challenge. I have some vocabulary, but it’s a constant process to try and build that up.
Barbara: You know, what I like even more than the DVDs are the CDs. I think those are really good. Because I put them on in the car and I feel like those are actually more effective because she really listens in the car. Sometimes with the TV she doesn’t stay focused, she’s bored and wants to do other things. The CDs in German are working really well. I’m actually now picking up stuff from it, too. Just with my husband speaking it, and then the tapes in the car, I pick up more and more words myself, so I think it’s helped.
Sarah: Which ones do you like the best? Which ones have you been listening to in the car?
Barbara: Die Reisemaus and then we have another one, but with me I usually bring one in the car and then I get kind of stuck on it. We listen to music – I’d purchased a, I don’t know if I purchased it from you – music that is half-English, half-German. They’ll say a verse in English and then the next verse is in German and they’re all kids songs. We’ve been listening to that for a while, but then I started now with the CD, just strictly the CD. But the music was good for a while too and I found that even in the car just driving to my parents and stuff it’s helping me as well.
Sarah: Yes, I think also the repetition, like you forget to switch it out so you listen to the same thing ten times or twenty times and by then, it’s really kind of gotten into your head. Way more than just listening to it once or twice would be.
Barbara: I agree.
Sarah: And like you said you’re kind of a captive audience. You can’t be running around and your kids aren’t really playing with anything, so maybe they’re paying a little bit more attention to the audio than they would if they were at home.
Barbara: Yeah, I really feel like the audio in the car is working really well.
Sarah: I wanted to ask if you found any of the books and DVDs and music on our website useful. Did you find what you were looking for?
Barbara: Yeah, I did find them really useful. I think my husband is the one who found you. I think he ordered three of the first DVDs we got from you, the caterpillar and Die Maus and there was some other one that he ordered and then I ordered after he told me about you. I ordered the audio tapes and I think there’s some other stuff we ordered from you as well, but yeah I find them really useful. I actually ordered some flashcards from you too I think. Do you have flashcards?
Sarah: Oh, yes, we do.
Barbara: Yeah, I think I ordered those from you too.
Sarah: Yeah those are cute. I really like those. What’s your daughter’s favorite book or CD or DVD?
Barbara: You know, it’s hard with her, because I think I emailed you about this, her favorite show of all is Sesame Street, so everything else, like the caterpillar and die Maus, she watches it, but her attention is not as focused as Sesame Street, which is why we were really trying hard to find a German Sesame Street. [NOTE: we now have a new Sesamstrasse DVD on the website.] But honestly I’d have to say I think the music she likes and then the audiotapes she likes best. I think it’s hard with the DVDs, I don’t think she has enough attention span yet to sit down and watch an entire one. It’s sort of hard; I’m hoping that when she gets a little older, maybe when she’s two, she’ll be able to sit down a little bit longer for those. But the music is great, she loves the audio.
Sarah: Excellent. Well, I was going to ask if you have access to a Saturday school or anything like that, but I’m guessing no, since she’s so young.
Barbara: Like I said, there’s one that I researched and I think they start them at three. They have Saturday school like Mommy & Me and it’s singing songs in German. But it’s on a Saturday, and it’s very early in the morning, and my husband and I, we don’t really like to get up that early on a Saturday. And I figure for the hour, if that’s all they’re going to do is sing, I have all her tapes here so I don’t know how beneficial it would be… If it was a playgroup perhaps for an hour, to get her on track with kids who spoke German I think it’d be helpful. So I haven’t really moved her on that. I think when she gets a little older. If they have German lessons or something, then I’ll definitely enroll her in that.
Sarah: That typically starts around three or four, where you’ll actually see like a playgroup. I mean, they do have them for younger kids, too, but at that point, they’re not really going to be talking to each other that much anyway, so it’s more for the parents I think. You won’t be missing out on that much with a toddler. I guess I wanted to know if you have any other comments or any suggestions or advice for other people in your situation. I mean, with you not speaking German it’s a pretty big commitment for you to work towards raising her bilingually. Any advice for other people in the same situation?
Barbara: You know, it’s hard to say because she’s so young. I mean, I don’t really know how she’s coming along. If she was a little older and I could tell how she’s doing, I think I’d be able to say more, but I think, honestly, if I spoke it fluently, I think she’d probably be better off. Because I would make sure that I always speak to her that way. But with my husband, it’s hard to keep telling him over and over, I mean, he does, he does a lot, But yeah, when she gets a little older and she understands more, even when she’s two, he’s going to have to teach her a little bit more. I would say to be really persistent, with speaking one language only from the parent who speaks the German.
Sarah: That’s a huge help. Well, great! I think that covers it for me, again I really appreciate your time.
Barbara: Yeah, and you can check back, you know, in six months or something and I can tell you how she’s doing if you want to do that.
Sarah: I would love to do that! That would be great! Are you guys planning a trip to Germany soon?
Barbara: We were there in January; we’re going to try to go back in the summer time.
Sarah: Well, that should be good. And you can really see if she’s understanding what other people are saying to her, and she’ll be a little bit older.
Barbara: Yeah, so maybe a follow up, a study, what’s working and what we’re doing wrong, what we can do better…
Sarah: What you’re going to change… Yeah, let me know if you come up with any tips to keep consistent. That’s a very common challenge. That’s one of our biggest challenges. To not forget and slip into English. Well, I will definitely put it in my calendar to check in with you in six months; that sounds great! Thank you so much for your time!

Bilingual Families Wanted!

We are always looking for new families to interview! Even if you are not a native speaker of German and don't consider yourself to be bilingual, we'd still love to chat. It's quick, painless, and lots of fun! Plus, we'll send you a free book for participating.

Here's what Barbara Jean said after our interview:

Hi Sarah,

I really enjoyed our interview. I was never interviewed before, so it was a first for me, and great fun. Since I work three days a week and then busy with the little one, I never really had the chance to explore your site other than browsing through the book selections. However, I realize that there is so much more information that you offer, and your website is filled with interesting articles, interviews, etc.

I particularly like the German phrases for the kids, which I find very useful. I am looking forward to our follow up interview when Greta is a bit older and starting to speak.

Alles Gute,
Barbara Jean
If you'd like to be interviewed on our blog, please send an e-mail to thea (at) .


honeypiehorse said...

Good interview. We're also raising bilingual kids. My husband is German. We were California with them for 3 years, and I took some intensive German classes to be able to speak only German with them. That really helped because although my husband spoke German with them as well, he just wasn't around them as much as me. I ordered books and videos from you too. Now we're back in Munich and have the opposite problem. I speak English with them but am missing more structured learning. I am looking for some advice for teaching 'German' kids English. I'd be happy to do an interview as well, just leave a comment on my blog:

Sarah Mueller said...

[Posted for Anne-Marie]
Take heart, Barbara. My sister is in the opposite position from you--she speaks English to her kids (4 and 2), but their father and their daycare and all their friends speak French. Really the kids get English only from my sister and the occasional visit from their maternal relatives. And yet they both understand and speak English as well as French. So it can be done!

Anonymous said...


Thank you for your words of encouragement. If your sister has any tips on how to make it work, I would be glad to hear them!
Barbara Jean

Anonymous said...

Hi Honeypiehorse,

Did you speak German before taking the intensive German courses? I am planning on taking some courses as well so I could speak at home with my husband and my daughter. In addition, we are also considering relocating to Germany in the future, and are leaving that open as an option, so I am wondering how the transition is working out for you. I visited your blog, but I didn't notice a general place where I could leave a comment. You could email me at
Barbara Jean

The Vosslers said...

These are really helpful. We've ordered from you before, but haven't looked much at your blog. But the books we've purchased have been super ... exactly the things we saw/purchased when we lived in Austria for a few months. I'll have to surprise my husband with some more ... we're learning German as a family with our four boys (and hope to travel back next spring for a couple months) ... but he's a lot further along than I am.