Sunday, August 23, 2009

Deutsch mit Papa (part 1)

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

This post contains part 1 of 2 of this interview.

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

Christoph: No worries; glad to do it!

Sarah: Where are you located?

Christoph: I’m just outside of Chicago.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Christoph: Yes.

Sarah: So how old are your kids?

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

Sarah: And are they speaking German back to you?

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

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

Christoph: It’s come pretty naturally.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Christoph: You got it. (laughs)

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

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

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

Christoph: Wait for the teenage years.

Sarah: You’ve got a while.

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

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

Christoph: That’s what everybody tells me.

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

Christoph: You’re wondering where the time went?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Part 2 of this interview is here.

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1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Great interview. I am looking forward to part II. My German husband speaks german to our 2 year old daughter, although, it doesn't seem he is as consistent as you are in speaking exclusively in German. He also sneaks in some English at times, and then reverts back to German when he hears me in the background, "remember, only German honey or she will never learn". I think when she started saying a lot of words in English is when he really started to pick up in speaking German to her. He was really amazed at how much language she was learning in such a short time, and I believe he finally realized, wait, let me get more German in here. It seems as if you are doing a really wonderful job in raising your kids bilingual.

Barbara Jean