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.