Raising a Bilingual Child: C in Germany

My husband is German and I am American. We’re currently living in Germany, where, as you can probably guess, most people speak German. Before we ever had children, my husband and I had no doubt that we wanted to raise our children speaking both languages— It is important to both of us for various reasons.

When I was pregnant, we researched and researched; we read all the books about raising children bilingually and we read article after article online.

It might sound simple, but the best way to raise your child bilingually is to talk to them. At a young age, children’s brains are like sponges and will soak up much, much more than an adult brain will. A two-year-old has about fifty percent more brain synapses than an adult.

We chose a method most bilingual families use, called ‘one parent, one language.’ I only speak English when I speak directly to my daughter. My husband speaks only German when he speaks directly to her. That’s not to say she doesn’t hear daddy speak English with mama, or mama speak German with friends or out in public, though.

It’s actually not uncommon to raise a child bilingually. It might seem rare, but start asking around— I bet if you are a parent and you know other parents, you know at least someone else who is raising their child bilingually for whatever reason.

Whatever method you choose, you must make sure everyone in the family is on board.

For example, we speak primarily English in our home. While English isn’t his first (or even his second) language, my husband understands everything I say to our daughter. However, I am still learning German and I don’t understand everything my husband says to our daughter. She understands and responds to him— either through actions or sometimes words— and if both parents aren’t on board with the plan, that can cause one parent to feel left out or excluded at times, even if it’s not intended.

In our situation, most of the time when I don’t understand something, I ask my husband to translate or explain it to me. He will, and that way our daughter has the opportunity to not only hear it in both languages, but she can also see us working together.

C, who is currently 18 months old, doesn’t seem to have any problem understanding anything either of us says in either language.

She does seem to prefer to speak German rather than English. Most of the words in her vocabulary are in German. She does understand when I speak English to her, but very often responds in German. For example, when I tell her to say please or to ask nicely, she’ll say “Bitte.” When someone says “bye bye,” she responds with “tschuss tschuss.” She refers to many of her favorite foods and some of her favorite toys in German as well.

She probably hears more English than German though, even though we live in Germany, only because she’s home with me all day and I speak English. We also visit our English-speaking friends more often than German-speaking friends for play dates and we are involved in the English-speaking community.

However, daddy only speaks German to her, and our German-speaking friends only speak German to her as well. When we’re out in public, she hears German on the streets and in restaurants and in stores.

While I only speak English to her, she does hear me speak German in public as well. She is also around some of the time when I’m studying German, so she can hear me learn the actual rules of the language. I’m not sure if that helps at such a young age, but I don’t think it can hurt.

You might get some resistance from family members or friends. For example, my grandmother is convinced that she cannot communicate with her great-granddaughter. No matter how much we try to explain to her that yes, she can understand the things she says, it’s hard for her to accept. Especially when at such a young age, C prefers German.

So when her great-grandmother asks what C had for a snack today and C responds with “Käse” instead of “cheese,” my grandmother doesn’t understand and gets frustrated and annoyed that they aren’t speaking the same language.

That will be something you’ll have to work through when your child is still a baby and still learning words in any language. Understand the frustrations of your family member as well.

You don’t have to be a bilingual family yourself in order to raise your child bilingually— you can even learn a language with your child. While we don’t have any personal experience in this, I’ve read about people who teach their child a language while learning it themselves.

The end result is usually that the child learns much more than the parent, but both can end up speaking fluently. Even if your child doesn’t end up speaking the language fluently, the additional exposure at a young age can help the child learn languages better and easier when they are older.

Research has shown that a child must be exposed to a language at least 1/3 of her waking time in order to actively become bilingual.

Here are a few tips we’ve picked up:

  • Praise, praise, praise! Even if your child speaks one language or the other with tons of grammatical errors, praise their efforts. You can correct them by repeating it back to them properly; kids pick up on those things and she will learn it correctly, eventually. It is normal for kids to make mistakes. In my opinion, kids need praise in order to feel confident and secure in anything— and language is no exception.
  • Don’t reserve one language for only negative behavior. It might seem enticing to reprimand your child in a language his friends don’t understand so as not to embarrass him in front of people, but then the child could begin to associate that language with negativity. For example, if you only ever tell your child to take the trash out and wash the dishes in your second language, he’ll begin to associate that language with chores and ugh— who likes chores?!
  • Your child should know that both languages are ‘normal.’ One shouldn’t be considered weird, and you shouldn’t ever discourage your young child from speaking whatever language he feels most comfortable speaking.That being said, it is normal for a kid to choose to speak the majority language in their social atmosphere and refuse to speak the minority language. They will outgrow this and you just have to be patient and persistent.
  • Expose your child to other people who speak both languages, if possible. Organize play dates or hire babysitters or attend play groups in your minority language. It really does help your child to understand that people other than mama and dad speak the minority language.
  • Use tools— reading books, watching TV shows, playing with electronic toys and listening to music in both languages is helpful. (I’ll admit that reading simple German board books and listening to kids’ songs have even helped my German some!)

  • It can happen that your bilingual child might speak later than monolingual children her age, statistically, three to six months later. That is normal! While this hasn’t been true thus far for us personally, it is true for others that I know who are raising their children bilingually.Personally, I can’t seem to get my kid to stop talking… Ever…
  • Despite what people will tell you, learning two languages will not confuse your child. Your child has the ability to learn even more than two languages at a time, believe it or not.
  • Your child might mix up the languages a little bit here and there, but that is normal. Even monolingual children don’t always use correct form (“Her is pretty” instead of “she is pretty.” “Me want a snack” instead of  “I want a snack.”). It is temporary and your child will learn from your corrections and your proper use, just like a monolingual child does.
  • Once your child has a large enough vocabulary, she’ll stop using a word in another language if she can’t think of it in the language she intends. If you refrain from mixing languages in your own conversations, it’ll become easier for your child to differentiate between the two languages.

If you plan to raise your child bilingually, do your research. There are so many benefits for your children later in their lives, but recognize that it can be a lot of work right now. You’ll have to be persistent, especially when your child is school-aged and might start to reject the minority language. When all her friends or teachers are speaking one language, it might be embarrassing or difficult for her to speak the minority language, and that’s okay as long as mama and dad are persistent and always encouraging.

By Cassie W.

Cassie is an American living in Germany with her German husband, their daughter, C (9/2011) and their son, L (3/2013). A reporter and editor by profession, Cassie is a graduate of the University of Missouri's School of Journalism. When she isn't playing with her kiddies or out walking her equally-needy dog Sadie, she loves cooking, baking, reading and attempting DIYs around the house. Her newest hobby is doing nail art and coming up with fun new nail designs. After months of trying parenting tips and tricks, Cassie now relies on her mommy-instinct to guide her through parenting and has found it to be the best trick in the book.

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3 Responses to Raising a Bilingual Child: C in Germany

  1. Very interesting! And major kuddos to you mama. That’s amazing!

  2. That is so neat! My husband and I were just talking about bilingual children the other day :) Living in Ontario we know a few french/english speaking families who have done the same as you.

    This age is really the time to do it, toddlers and kids are like sponges!

  3. I need to talk to my husband about speaking more Cantonese in front of our son… my in-laws too. Thanks so much for sharing your tips!

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