Saturday, June 27, 2009

How to involve a parent who doesn't speak German

You're having a dream: You're in a room with a bunch of people chattering away in a foreign tongue. They talk to you, make jokes, and are having a wonderful time. They smile and nod at you, and the volume in the room is growing ever louder. All the while, you are feeling more and more left out and baffled as to what they are saying.

Is this a scene from a Kafka novel? Nope - it's what some monolingual parents imagine when they think about their kids growing up speaking German with their bilingual spouses.

One of the most common reasons a family gives up on German as a second language is because one of the parent's doesn't speak it.
Reality usually isn't quite as harsh as our Kafka nightmare, but it can be an obstacle for families where one parent is bilingual and the other is not. The English-only parent (EOP) feels left out and excluded from family conversations, the bilingual parent (BP) is torn between wanting to provide as much German as possible without leaving her spouse out in the cold.

But bilingual family life doesn't have to be all confusion and exclusion for the parent who doesn't speak German. Take a look at these suggestions to help pave the way for linguistic harmony.

1. Create your family's language goals and objectives together.
Probably the most important step, when you discuss your goals regarding German together, it's much easier for the EOP to be supportive and feel involved.

2. Build family traditions together that transcend the language.
If you're consciously integrating German culture into your family activities, this is a great time for the EOP to be involved. You can all enjoy a Laternenzug on Martinstag or give SchultĂĽten on the first day of school. These German traditions can be enjoyed by all and will create a sense of family unity which is not based on language ability.

3. Allow and encourage your children to do some mixing or "code-switching."
Some families like to be very strict about never mixing German and English in the same conversation or sentence. But most bilinguals are very comfortable switching back and forth depending on the context - perhaps your children wouldn't dream of calling a pretzel anything other than a "Bretze" and they do so even in an English sentence, or they throw in some German words when telling their EOP about the German DVD they watched. This is an easy way for the EOP to pick up a few German words and allow the kids to enjoy their ability to pick which language is right for a particular thought. This kind of linguistic play is lots of fun for bilinguals and you can encourage it in your family.

4. Offer the EOP some of our free Parenting auf Deutsch phrase guides.
He can then issue commands in German with confidence!

5. Make sure the EOP has quality time with the kids in his native English.
Encourage him to share songs with them in English, tell jokes, or read stories. They will be sure to treasure these times with him.

6. If you start when the children are small and you use a large amount of German at home, you may find that the EOP learns along with the kids.
Perhaps he gets to the point where he can understand most of a conversation and is able to then respond and participate in English. No more exclusion!

7. Suggest formal learning.
This takes the previous point one step further. If the EOP decides to study German himself, within a few years, he can be close to catching up with the kids. Podcasts like One Minute German and Rosetta Stone software make it possible to study German with a small investment of time daily. Formal study will also impress your children of the commitment the family has made to German - if Dad is taking the time to learn this, I guess it's pretty important!

Why is it important to speak German around an English-only parent (EOP)?
Of course you don't have to speak German even when the EOP is around - many families do just fine switching to English when necessary and back to German when everyone present can understand. However, sticking to German more often has it's advantages - the children will get more exposure which will ultimately lead to more advanced fluency. They may be more accepting of German as they hear more of it.

Be proactive - make sure there are no Kafka-esque scenes in your home.
A little preparation to involve your English-only spouse in the German aspects of your family will pay off - no metamorphosis required.

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