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!


Veronica Dzugan said...

Fascinating comments. Have a smile on my face as finishing and really wish Sarah could organize a party so we can all meet each other!! I love the comment that everything in Christoph's household is so organized that the laundry is always done and weekends are family time. Geht ihr auch Sontags auf Radtour?(!) Yes, traditional but on the other hand, progressive in that this family seems to have it all together where others always seem so busy and get nothing done. Long live the stereotypical german attributes!

Sarah Mueller said...

Thanks Veronica! I wish we could all get together, too! Maybe someday we'll hold a retreat :)

Christoph's family sounds like a fun place to be, doesn't it?


Barbara Jean said...

I have to say the part about cooking, cleaning etc. is great. My German husband also doesn't mind to do the cooking and cleaning and actually prefers to do the cooking claiming he is much better at it. I agree, it would be very interesting to meet up with all of Sarah's clients and the little ones. It also helps to know that the challenges, obstacles, and uncertainities that my husband and I are facing in raising our daughter bilingual, applies to everyone alike.

Barbara Jean