Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Toddler triplets are bilingual from the start. An interview with Jessica Gearing

Sarah interviews Jessica Gearing, native German speaker and mom to 2 year old triplet boys.

Sarah: You have three little boys, triplets, is that right?

Jessica: I do, three boys, they’ll be two next month.

Sarah: That’s fantastic. It sounds like you have your hands full!

Jessica: Yes, it’s a lot of work, but it’s a lot of fun too. It’s a really great time for them.

Sarah: Yes, I can imagine, they must be getting more independent and moving through the baby stage.

Jessica: Absolutely, changes are really happening quickly and it’s a lot of fun to watch.

Sarah: Can you tell me a little bit about your family?

Jessica: I was born in Berlin, and I came to the States when I was a little girl with my parents and we spoke mostly English in the home. So I forgot a lot of my German for a while. And I picked it back up, and I speak German to the boys, and my mother does. She spends a lot of time with us. And my husband speaks English to the boys. He does understand German and is picking up more and more, but primarily he speaks English and our family language is English. My husband and I speak English together. But I am only speaking German and my mother’s only speaking German.

Sarah: And how are the boys reacting? Are they speaking at all yet, actually? It’s kind of early, I guess.

Jessica: Yes, yes, they are speaking. It seems like every day they speak more and more words. You know, in the beginning, when they started talking, it seems like the words that they picked up first and the words they were the most confident with are words that are the same in English and German. Like “ball” and “baby” and “teddy” and things like that. Those were the words they really took to at first. But now they’re speaking German words to me and English words to my husband. It seems like there are some words that they only say in German and there are some words that they only say in English. And I’m not quite sure why. Like they always say “Baum” instead of “tree” and they always say “turtle” in English – maybe it’s too hard to say it in German, I’m not sure what the connection is, but it’s exciting!

Sarah: So do you find that they are already differentiating between English and German? That they know they should favor English with your husband and German with you? Do you think they make that distinction?
Jessica: Yes, I do.

Sarah: Wow, that’s fantastic!

Jessica: Maybe not to some degree, maybe they’re not, but the early words they picked up. Like the word “no”, they would say “no” to my husband and “nein” to me. They always say “Bauch” to me and “belly” to my husband. I think they know. I really do, I think they know.

Sarah: That’s amazing! That they’ve already differentiated. And do they speak German to each other?

Jessica: You know, I think they have another language going on with each other. (laughs) I’m not quite sure. I have heard them say German to each other but I’ve also heard them talking to each other in English. I’ve heard them say to each other “Don’t touch”; I’ve heard them say “nein” to each other in German. But I still think that they’ve kind of got their own little language going on.

Sarah: Yes, I’ve heard that’s common with multiples. They have that kind of a bond. That must be fun. Tell me why did you want them to learn to speak German?

Jessica: Well, I think there are lots of benefits to being bilingual of course. But I can tell you that for a personal reason, my grandmother died last year and it came very quickly and when she died, I felt like the German inside of me died. I don’t know if that makes sense.

Sarah: Oh, absolutely.

Jessica: When this happened, it became very important to me that I keep our language alive and that I keep the culture alive and I really grabbed a hold of it and made it a very strong priority and that it’s an important part of our family. Of course, my mother was very supportive and my husband too. So I think that’s probably the most important thing. I want to keep that cultural connection there with the heritage.

Sarah: That’s a really nice way to honor your grandmother, too.

Jessica: Thank you.

Sarah: I’m sure your kids will have that understanding as they grow up that it’s a connection they have to the past. It’s beautiful.

Jessica: I hope so. Of course, we still have family and friends there and I would like them to be able to communicate when we travel and be comfortable, but I think it was her death that really made it so important to me.

Sarah: That makes sense. Kind of like the spark for you, I guess.

Jessica: Yeah, absolutely. Absolutely.

Sarah: What have you found to be the biggest challenge in speaking German with your kids so far?

Jessica: I think resources are always a problem. We’re very dependant on your store and wherever else we can get books and things like that. My children don’t watch television, and so we’re really dependant on books and materials like that. Besides my mother, we don’t have anyone nearby that speaks German. And so far it’s not really a challenge but I believe it will be in the future, as they start becoming more of the, being a bigger part of the culture of the United States and the English influences will be pretty strong I’m sure.

Sarah: That’s a recurring theme. Trying to find enough. You struggle to keep up and try to maintain a little bit of a balance, especially when they’re young. You want to give them a good foundation.

Jessica: Right. I think that’s why it’s important that we’ve been speaking German to them since they were born. I hope that I can get the best foundation possible before they start school and keep it at as alive as possible.

Sarah: Absolutely. What were you hoping for them in terms of their future and speaking German? Have you thought about how far you would like to see them come? In terms of their fluency?

Jessica: Well, I hope that they will be very fluent. I hope for complete fluency. I hope that when we travel they will be comfortable and be able to communicate themselves well. Absolutely, yes, I definitely want them to be fluent.

Sarah: Sounds like with your mother there you have a really good support system even though it’s just the two of you, but you at least have her so they know it’s not just you that speaks German.

Jessica: Yes, absolutely. I think that’s very good for them to hear that. She spends so much time with them, speaking and singing and playing with them. I don’t think they’ve ever heard her speak anything except German.

Sarah: I have another customer who does that. She says “I’ve spoken German to my grandchildren from the minute they were born” and they speak German back to her. They totally do. They might know that she speaks English, but it’s certainly not something that they would ever dream of doing with her because that’s just the way it is.

Jessica: And she has such a special and different relationship with them, being a grandparent as opposed to being a parent. Her time with them is all about love and bonding and talking. For us, we are disciplining as well and we’ve got rules that need to be followed all the time. But when she’s there it’s such a warm atmosphere for them. I think that they love that about her.

Sarah: That sounds excellent, that’s so special. Is she close by to you?

Jessica: Yes, she lives nearby. Oh, and listen to this, they were born on her birthday. Isn’t that fantastic?

Sarah: Oh, really? That’s really neat! Lots of connections with their Oma.

Jessica: They call her Omi, but… it’s been great.

Sarah: Oh, that’s very sweet. Let’s see, what else would I like to ask – you mentioned that you’ve shopped before with us. Did you find what you were looking for? Were you pleased with what you found?

Jessica: We’re very pleased with your store. We like the selection. Of course, my sons are very big fans of picture books, they love reading, and the picture books are very important to us right now. We also purchased the flashcards off your website and they are really great flashcards. (Note: the flashcards have gone out of print. We are looking for a replacement.) The pictures are fun and bright and they are very good words you would use often. We’re very pleased with them. We buy all of our books – except for the books that family and friends send to us or that my mother gets when she is in Germany – from you. We buy everything from your store and we’ve always been happy.

Sarah: I’m so glad to hear that. What’s their favorite book or CD?

Jessica: Their favorite books are definitely the Max books. They love Max books. They just think they’re so funny.

Sarah: They are, aren’t they?

Jessica: They just love them! And they just crack up. It’s wonderful.

Sarah: It’s easy to identify with him because he’s a typical two-year-old.

Jessica: Yes, and a two-year-old boy! They love him. My favorite book that we’ve bought from you is actually the Fingerspiele book. I know it’s common to play time and time again and find things to do for different seasons and times of the year. It’s a lot of fun. They love it!

Sarah: So you’ve taught them the Fingerspiele too.

Jessica: Yep.

Sarah: Oh, fun. Excellent. They’re too young for school, so I won’t ask you about that.

Jessica: They will go to Samstagschule when they are three.

Sarah: Oh, really, do you have one nearby?

Jessica: Yes, we do. We have the German school just a few blocks down the road. We’re very fortunate to have that there.

Sarah: Oh, excellent. That will be perfect for them!

Jessica: We’re looking forward to it. And it will be nice for them to be with other German children as well.

Sarah: Absolutely. How long have you known about Alphabet Garten? How did you discover us?

Jessica: I think we discovered you during my pregnancy on the computer. A few years, I guess.

Sarah: I’m so glad to hear that. Well, do you have anything else that you would like to add? Our interview series has been really popular. I’ve gotten tons of interest, and each time I do an interview, I love talking to people because I get this new perspective. You know, everyone has some of the same things in common but it’s really fun to hear how each particular family is doing this and what their situation is. So I’m wondering if you have any comments for people in a similar situation as you.

Jessica: I think consistency is very important, and trying to keep it fun. I think the boys are just sponges right now, so it’s very easy for them to learn and to repeat words. When I was pregnant, I read a book called The Bilingual Edge and I’ve since passed it on to another family so I’m not sure who wrote it, but it was very encouraging, very supportive. You know, I was very worried about making mistakes, you know, my grammar is poor – it was very supportive and very encouraging. It said not to worry about making mistakes. It gave a list of all the benefits and, you know, pointers. It was great.

Sarah: So that kind of gave you the extra motivation.

Jessica: Absolutely. I think it’s very important to raise children bilingually and I want my children to be compassionate and empathetic and it’s important for them to understand there’s more to the world than just our little area that we live in. We can’t afford to take them all over the world to see it, but I think that language is a good way to do it. You know, so that they can be cultured children as much as possible.

Sarah: Excellent. Sounds wonderful. Sounds like you have a wonderful, fun house. Lots of laughter and love.

Jessica: Thank you! We do! It’s a good time right now. It really is. It’s a lot of fun. They haven’t entered any terrible twos, so…

Sarah: Oh, when that happens you might have a different tune (laughs)

Jessica: (laughs) It’s wonderful, it is. Things are going very well. We’re very fortunate.

Sarah: That’s excellent. Gosh, to hear that from someone who has triplets, that’s saying a lot!

Jessica: Thank you, but you know, I have a great support system, too. My husband is very involved and of course, my mother is a very big part of our lives, so it definitely helps.

Sarah: That helps a lot. I’m sure it must be challenging.

Jessica: Oh, at times, definitely, definitely. But they are happy and healthy and you try to keep that in there. And they’re fun.

Sarah: Fantastic, that’s excellent. That just sounds wonderful.

Jessica: Thank you!

Sarah: You’re welcome. I just really appreciate your time this afternoon. I know that my customers are going to be really interested to hear a little bit about your story.

Jessica: Thank you. I’m definitely honored and flattered that you wanted to talk to me.

Sarah: Maybe we could follow up in a year or so, we could hear what’s going on with the triplets at three.

Jessica: Oh, I would love that! Absolutely. I’m sure they’ll be talking a lot more by then. Oh, and congratulations on your business. It’s really a wonderful store for all of us.

Sarah: Thank you so much!
Jessica: Congratulations and best wishes to you!

Sarah: Thank you, it’s definitely a labor of love. Like I said, after doing all these interviews over the past few months it’s gotten me really excited about just working with people and going a little bit further and seeing, you know, how can we help. How can I help you and what kinds of things can I do to support the work that you’re doing. We’ve got some big plans underway and we’ll see how it goes.

Jessica: That’s great. And it’s great for us to see that we have that support out there. It always seems like you’re – you know, when I visit Alphabet Garten, it’s not just about selling books, there always seems to be tools, and phrases, and the interviews, it’s very exciting. It’s very nice.

Sarah: That’s what we’re trying to accomplish. We’re just parents like you are, so that’s the goal. I’m glad you picked up on that.

Jessica: Absolutely.

Sarah: Well, it was a pleasure chatting with you! I really appreciate it.

Jessica: Thank you.


E said...

An interesting article, but do either of you have any advice for kids who WON'T respond in German? My husband speaks in German exclusively to our kids and they also attend German Saturday school, but they nearly always respond in English. They understand absolutely everything in German, but just won't speak it and claim they don't know how. Any advice?

Martina said...

My kids try to do that too, especially my daughter (5). She seems to have a harder time to switch between the two languages and starts to increasingly use English words when responding to me (who only speaks German to her). I actually pretend EVERY time that I don't understand. It's very tedious and not very pleasant to keep up, but I think that's the only way. I usually know whether she knows the German word or whether it's a new word, and of course, I help her out and tell her the German word. We read tons of books in German and I think that has helped building my kids' vocabulary. My son is 7 and speaks fluently, sometimes uses an English word, especially when describing Pokemon stuff and the like, but I think that's OK. So, it takes being very stubborn with your children... Good luck!

Sarah Mueller said...

E -

How old are your kids? Do they protest when your husband speaks German to them or just when they're asked to speak it? Are there any other German speakers nearby?

Ina B. said...

I have a 4yr old son and 18 month old daughter. I have only spoken German to my children when they were younger (my 4 yr old until he was 3) and still my 18month old. I used to only read German books, play German DVD and listen to German music. Now that my son is in PRE K I felt it necessary to start reading what he wanted, and much of it is in English. And I have found it difficult to discipline in German, to get my point across, needless to say I feel I am losing the momentum I had.

In response to E, my cousin did the same as Martina. She would only respond to her son if he spoke in German with her. I tried that with my son at 3yrs old and felt guilty ignoring him. Needless to say, he speaks very little German now. Is it too late to begin again, the ignoring until he speaks? And what if he says he doesn't know how to say it, which he often did in the past?

E said...

In response to Sarah's question, my sons are 5.5 and 4. My husband, who is not German but who speaks fluently and with a perfect accent, has spoken to them only in German since birth. I have never even heard him utter one word of English as a slip-up! He reads to them every night only with German books and they can actually complete the sentences in the books they know them so well. They never protest when my husband speaks German to them as it's all they've ever known him to speak to them. My husband has been recently taking a tougher approach in that instead of allowing them to respond in English, he's forcing them to speak in German if they want more watermelon or the like. However, simple phrases like, "I'd like more watermelon please" and they act like they're complete beginners! They can't seem to string the words together! It's kind of ridiculous. We have to repeat it to them every time. The only other German speakers we know of are at the Samstag Schule and we've thought of having German speaking playdates, but my guess is that the kids would speak in English. It sounds like Martina is taking the same approach that my husband has tried and that it's working. Sounds like maybe we just need to be consistently acting like we don't understand English to force them into German speaking. Thanks to the others who have responded.

Sarah Mueller said...


Congratulations to your husband on being so consistent with your kids - that's an amazing accomplishment. I think with the pattern you and your husband have been able to establish and the fact that your kids aren't yet immersed in school, you have a chance to turn things around in a few months time.

I do think there's a difference between understanding and speaking, especially if they've been speaking very little German lately. Maybe you need to help them along by giving them words to say as you mentioned. Certainly they will protest if you're requiring new things of them but you can keep it light - you can be firm without allowing the whole thing to turn into a power struggle. Help them get used to speaking more and you'll probably see an improvement.

Take a look at this article:
When kids respond in English, why not play the goof?

Sarah Mueller said...


It sounds like you've found just the right balance of insisting in German and being consistent without letting the issue become a power struggle - and it's been very productive for your kids. Kids can be so stubborn and it can be hard to outlast them :)


Sarah Mueller said...


Just when we think we have our kids figured out, they grow a bit and you have to change your strategy again!

I have a friend who only spoke German to her children and refused to read any English books. She was very good at being "consequent" and they knew it. Christoph Oettinger (see interviews) has mentioned he reads English books but translates into German as he goes. I do this too but it's harder depending on the complexity of the book. I suppose it would get easier with practice.

I think you have to decide what the "rules" are going to be - if you decide you want to get as close to 100% German as possible, then you may want to read only in German; if that doesn't work for your family, then use other times and activities to "fill them up" with German. Or make a deal with your son - 1 English book for every German one.

I don't think it's too late at all to change how you're responding to your kids. If you choose to start requiring more German from him, help him out when he gets stuck. Just make sure he understands it's not a punishment to speak German - let him know you're on the same team together, if you know what I mean.

Have you seen the article on goal setting?

Jessica said...

Maybe playing games would make German more fun. For the younger ones, "I spy" or hand puppets. The older children might enjoy a German board game or even cards, the rule being: You can only speak German during the game.