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.

Bilingual Families Wanted!

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If you'd like to be interviewed on our blog, please send an e-mail to thea (at) alphabet-garten.com

Saturday, August 15, 2009

How reading German childrens books can help improve your German.

Have you ever noticed how kids can pick up lines from their favorite TV shows and recite them verbatim at exactly the perfect time in a conversation? Sometimes I may not even realize my kids are quoting from a show until later. They are able to do it with such finesse. They absorb the words, phrases, timing and rhythm of these little bits and pieces and store them away for future use.

You may not want to go around quoting TV shows, but did you know that you can use this same strategy to improve your own German?

Learning more German is high on the list for many parents who are teaching German to their kids, even though they aren't fluent themselves.
They are often frustrated when they want to say something that they don't have the knowledge for. Or they can't get the words to come quickly enough. They may not always be able to spend time in personal study. What I tell them is that they can take advantage of a regular German lesson every day, all for the price of reading a book to their child.

Simply reading German books every day with your kids can bring you a surprising effect on your own German fluency.
When you read a German children's book, you get to enter the mind of the author. You have access to her favorite words and phrases, her sense of timing, her style with grammar and sentence structure. As her words are spoken by you, you internalize her style, little by little. You start to take ownership of the words used in the story. It’s almost like you have a tape recorder in your brain which will offer up these “taped” words later when you need them.

Of course all this happens auf Deutsch. So you’re reading, hearing, pronouncing, and absorbing high quality German language (assuming you’ve chosen quality stories). You may find yourself using a phrase later on in the day. Or you'll learn a new word just by hearing it in the context of the story.

Reading is easier than having a conversation.
When you read, you don't have to formulate the sentences yourself. As you read, your brain receives practice speaking German more quickly and with less effort than when you speak spontaneously. If you’re not fluent, you may find it difficult to express yourself or keep up with a more accomplished speaker. When reading you don’t have to retrieve the right words, worry about gender and case, etc. With a book, you can just focus on the story. Your mind gets a bit of a break from the hard work and gets to enjoy some excellent German.

You’re not the only one who benefits from a daily reading session.
Of course your child is getting the same benefits you are. Your child is absorbing German sentence structure, style, rules about gender and case, all wrapped up in the pretty package of a good story. What a fantastic and fun way to learn!

Why is it important for parents to read books to their kids daily?
Daily reading is important for so many reasons, but in the context of this article, the regular practice is key for you (and your child) to maintain the progress you’ve made and keep moving forward. You’ll need to see a new word several times before your brain can easily remember the word, know how to use it, what gender it is, etc. If you don’t read every day, you lose momentum and your progress will suffer.

What should I read?
What you read is not as important as how regularly you read and picking something enjoyable for your child to hear. Pick books on your child’s favorite topics or look for popular stories for your child’s age. Make sure to tailor your pace [liNK] so that your child gets the maximum benefit from the reading session.

What if I don't understand everything we're reading?
Keep going anyway. Just as your child doesn’t have to understand every word of a conversation to know what’s going on, so too, you don’t have to understand every word in a sentence to follow the story. If you must, keep a piece of paper handy to jot down any unfamiliar words so you can look them up later. But don’t stop to look anything up at this point. Stopping during a story will interfere with your momentum and get you out of the groove.

What if my child wants books that are too easy for me? Will I still benefit from them?
Your child may want to hear Augen zu, kleiner Tiger for the 17th time – that’s OK. You’ll probably still find something in the story you hadn’t noticed before. As your child grows, he’ll want longer and more complicated books and your skills will be more challenged by his needs.

Take advantage of your mind’s ability to “record” the books you read aloud. Your read-aloud times with your kids will do double-duty as quality time and German lessons. Then you, too, can quote from the books you read and become a more accomplished German speaker.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Why the confidence wave is so important to bilingual kids.

My middle son, Max, is a bit of a perfectionist. Some things come very easy to him and consequently, when he doesn't get something right the first time, he collapses into a puddle of frustration. It was like this when he was learning to ride his bike and like this when he is practicing math facts (his choice - Max loves math problems - weird for a 5 year old, isn't it?!) Anyway, we're working to dispel his perfectionist tendencies and encourage a bit more perseverance. However, I've also realized he has a confidence problem.

You'd think a perfectionist would have all the confidence in the world.
But some young perfectionists don't get much practice working hard at things. They may subconsciously stick to their comfort zones. If everything is easy, they don't know what to do when something turns up that challenges them, as it inevitably will.

Confidence can also be a big issue with kids learning German.
Learning a second language can be a source of frustration for some kids. If they are new to the language or if they aren't exposed to a lot of German, they may feel insecure or hesitant to use what they do know. Perhaps they were criticized or embarrassed by a particular mistake they made. Even well-meaning criticism can be hurtful at times. Confidence can also wax and wane from day to day.

Once a child's confidence is damaged, he may find it harder and harder to keep learning.
When my son is having a low-confidence moment (aka meltdown), there's nothing I can do to help him continue learning the skill at hand. I just have to wait it out and see if he recovers and wants to keep going. Your child may not get all the way to a meltdown, but you may see other signs of low confidence - a hesitancy to speak German around others, or complaining that the German books you're reading are too hard, although they were fine the day before. The child may resist going to German class or talking on the phone with Oma. You may notice he's not increasing his vocabulary or improving his accent at the same rate as before.

The chicken or the egg?
Which comes first? The low confidence or the struggle to learn? Well, one will certainly trigger the other and it doesn't really matter which comes first. The important point is to recognize that it will be more difficult to learn when you're struggling with confidence. This is the important time not to give up on the study. Things will eventually get easier again and confidence will improve.

Why is confidence so key? What about talent?
Think about a time when you had a major accomplishment. For the rest of your day, didn't everything else you did seem effortless? Didn't you feel talented? This is because your confidence was sky-high as a result of your accomplishment. You then were able to approach other tasks with the feeling that nothing could stop you. And nothing did. You were riding the confidence wave.

Talent is overrated.
When you're riding the wave, minor setbacks are no big deal and you navigate through them without batting an eye. You aren't suddenly a more talented cook, parent, or German speaker. It's the confidence wave, not some intrinsic talent. Eventually the wave comes back to shore and you are just you again; not superhuman any more.

My son does have a bit of an aptitude for numbers. But it's his confidence that will make or break him when it comes to mathematic accomplishments. If he doesn't learn to work through periods of low confidence, he will probably decide that he's no good at math and it will be a self-fulfilling prophecy. Similarly, a child who is "talented" with languages but experiences great frustration and low confidence won't progress nearly as far as one who is "not" talented, but who works steadily to improve.

So we now know that building confidence is critical. But how do I do that?
1. Recognize a confidence problem when you see it.

2. Be a good model - show your kids it's OK to make mistakes. Be willing to laugh at yourself when you do something wrong.

3. Pick one specific thing your child does well and praise him for it. Watch him glow with pride and see his internal confidence meter rise.

4. If he's sensitive, find gentle ways to correct his errors. Don't criticize him in front of others. Help him work on his accent if it's a source of embarrassment for him. Make sure that he feels safe speaking German and making mistakes. If he never makes any mistakes, he's not getting out of his comfort zone.

5. Let your child overhear you bragging about his latest German advance. Kids just love this!

6. Make sure German in your house is low pressure and fun. Nobody's perfect and your child shouldn't expect perfection from himself.

Once you understand the importance of confidence related to learning, you will find all kinds of applications for this knowledge. You can't always keep your child's confidence high. More important is for him to know that a time of low confidence is only temporary and doesn't mean he's lost his knack. Help him to keep working and rebuild his confidence and you'll see the results in improved German.

I'm reminding Max of times when he did work hard at something and persevered. His big brother went through a similar phase and is now more willing to work through a problem rather than give up. I'm hoping the same change is on the horizon for Max and he can start to ride the confidence wave once more.

Thursday, August 06, 2009

Are you feeling the need for some bilingual support? Why not form a German playgroup?

My mother laughs because I never follow a recipe 100%. My favorite dishes never turn out the same twice. I often substitute because I'm out of a particular ingredient and I hate making last-minute trips to the store. So I use what I have and make do. No buttermilk for the biscuits? No problem - just put a dash of vinegar in some milk and 5 minutes later you have sour milk ready to whip up fluffiest biscuits you can imagine. Frequently my substitutions are better than the original recipe and turn into new favorites.

I'm the same way with other aspects of my life too. I love to use what I have and make do. Making do means creatively making the best of the circumstances you're in. If it's raining, you can't change the weather, but you can make do by using old things in the basement to come up with new games for your kids. If you want to expose your kids to nature but you live in the city, don't pine away for a house in the country. You can make do with a birdfeeder, and window box full of wildflowers, and regular trips to the park.

Now take this strategy one step further.
Are you concerned that you're the only source of German for your bilingual children? Are you many miles from the nearest German Saturday school? Not to worry - why not make do and form your own Spielgruppe (playgroup)?

Playgroups are fun. Playgroups with other German speakers are fun with a purpose.
Playgroups can run the gamut from quite structured with a theme, agenda, crafts, and such, to completely unstructured where kids just play and parents chat. If you don't have a large extended German-speaking family nearby, a German playgroup can fill in as your major support system. You know how important a support system is, don't you?

When you meet weekly with other German speakers, you build relationships that may even last a lifetime.
Parents with older kids can give advice on language challenges younger families are facing. You can share or trade German books and CDs. Parenting advice will surely be freely exchanged. And, perhaps most importantly, your kids will see that there are others who speak German, too - not just Mom and Dad.

Why are German playgroups so helpful?
For a lot of us, the lack of a local German-speaking community is the greatest challenge we face in raising bilingual kids. It doesn't take much to have a productive group - even 3 families meeting weekly will provide motivation and support for parents and bilingual playmates for the kids. Sure, the Internet is great for support, but it still doesn't take the place of real life friendships.

Starting your own playgroup.
You may be lucky enough to find a group already established in your area. But more likely, you'll have to make do and form a new group yourself. It's really not that hard and the rewards are tremendous. Here are a few things to consider when forming a playgroup:

1. What is the maximum group size? Once the group gets too big, you can split it into subgroups.
2. Where and how often will we meet? (group members homes, nearby park, library).
3. How much time do I want to invest in forming and maintaining the group?
4. Will it be structured or unstructured? What kind of activities should we do?
5. Are beginners welcome or should we require one of the parents to be fluent? If all the parents are beginning German speakers, you may find it too difficult to maintain any conversation in German.

Once you've answered these questions, spread the word. Tell your friends and neighbors. Create some flyers and hang them up at the library, post office and school. You might be surprised at how quickly you gain a few members. If no one responds at first, keep trying for a few months. It may take time for the word to get around.

Anticipate problems with bilingual playgroups
Besides the typical problems you might expect when kids play, you might find that the children don't speak German to each other. Especially if the children aren't confident with German, they may find it much easier to speak English. You can choose to not worry about this or to encourage more German from the children. Another potential problem is if a parent isn't committed to speaking German, she may sidetrack the goal of the group.

As the group grows, it's important to make sure the burden of the group doesn't rest on just one person.
To help share the load, you can pass around a sign-up sheet for people to bring snack or host the group or have a group leader position that rotates every few months or so.

How do I encourage the kids to speak German to each other?
You could start the group off with a song or a story to set the mood and establish the group as a German time. If you have activities and a theme, parents can prepare a bit beforehand by familiarizing their children with vocabulary. For instance, if you have a pirate day, you can learn a bunch of pirate words and do pirate crafts.

The Seattle Kinderstube
Some ambitious parents in Washington state wanted a German community for the kids and formed the Seattle Kinderstube. Their membership now numbers over 300 families! Can you imagine having that kind of network for your budding bilinguals? Your playgroup may not reach that level but you are sure to learn and grow by participating in a group.

So I encourage you to take stock of your needs. If you're feeling the need for a German-speaking community, don't fret that you don't live near the Kinderstube in Seattle! Make do with what you have - form a German playgroup! You may discover new friends you didn't know you were missing and find that the reward of organizing a group is far greater than the effort needed.

Sunday, August 02, 2009

How serving a German "Diet" to your kids can improve their German

Imagine you live in Minneapolis and your child is just starting her first day in a German immersion kindergarten. She will spend the day with Frau Schmidt gently guiding her, expertly coaching her toward a future as a German speaker. You beam with pride as you pick her up and she shares with you the new words she's learned and the beautiful picture she painted of Neuschwanstein. Ahh, isn't it wonderful to have access to such a wonderful school?

But wait! You don't live in Minneapolis and there is no German immersion school in your area. There is no Frau Schmidt and if you want your daughter to speak German, it's largely up to you, non-native German speaker that you are.

Well, it may be up to you, but that doesn't mean it's an impossible goal. It just means you need to get on a German Diet.

What's a German Diet?
No, I'm not talking about Bratwurst and Bier (although enjoy them if you wish!). I'm talking about enjoying nutritious "servings" of German throughout the day. Serve a hearty helping of German Kinderlieder on the CD player in the morning. Share tasty Bilderbücher with your child after lunch. Pick a German time or two each day [liNK HERE] and give them a concentrated dose of conversation auf Deutsch. Hand out German DVDs like snacks after school. Your kids will eat them up!

Why does the German Diet work?
Like any good diet, the keys are patience and forming good habits. When you offer your kids some German every day and encourage them to participate with you, they will "digest" the language a bit at a time. Over time you'll start to see the fruit of your efforts - not in a healthier body but with a better grasp on German.

Lots of kids hear and use German in "helpings" throughout the day.
Kids in immersion school do get an extra large serving but they, too, may be switching back to English for some subjects. You may not be able to provide the German-filled diet these kids get but your own child will certainly benefit from a lighter offering.

How much German should I "serve"?
This is entirely up to you. Obviously the more German you can provide, the better. If you are not a native speaker, you may decide to start with an hour or two a day, broken up into a few sessions. You should start at a level that is comfortable for you and that won't stress you out. Speaking German all the time is exhausting if you're not used to it! You don't have to start at 100%.

What if I'm make mistakes? Will my child pick up on them?
Maybe, maybe not. If your child has other people who speak native German with her, she will most likely correct you. If you don't have access to other native speakers, she may learn a few incorrect things from you. But that's ok! You don't have to be a math professor to help your child with arithmetic. By the same token, you don't have to be fluent in German in order to teach it to your child.

Your child can always take a class later on and iron out any errors she's picked up. She'll still be way ahead of the rest of the class who are starting from scratch. Don't let your own inadequacy stop you from offering what you do know.

Parents can improve too, you know.
If your German is rusty, it will certainly improve with use. As you read children's books, you'll learn new vocabulary and sentence structure (really! I'm not kidding!) As you listen to audiobooks and CDs with your child, you'll hear correct pronunciation and your own listening comprehension will go way up.

The key is the consistency.
The critical component of this method, just like a successful diet, is that you have to stick with it. You can't do it for a week, stop for a week, and expect to pick up where you left off. You have to keep it up day in and day out in order to experience optimal learning for yourself and your child. Cheating on this diet will just sabotage your past efforts.

Even if you don't have Frau Schmidt to rely on and even if you're not a native speaker, you can still raise a bilingual kid. When German is on the menu day after day, you'll be on the right track to bilingualism.