11 Jun 2015

Raising Kids Bilingually

I’m a German expat, so it was always a given that I would raise my kids bilingually. Firstly, because it’s a bit of a no-brainer – a “free” language that my kids can pick up as they grow, and secondly, and most pertinently, it’s important to me that Becky and Alex are able to communicate with their grandparents, who speak very little English. And then there is also an element of wanting to convey to them a bit of German culture; a piece of my roots and the traditions and customs I have grown up with, and language is a fundamental component.

I’ve always put a big emphasis on languages. At school I was never that good at maths and the sciences, but languages just came naturally to me. I speak three languages fluently, and at one point I was versed in six, though – years down the line – I have unfortunately forgotten most of those, as I no longer use them actively. I view languages as the key to everything really; they are such a gift, and I often hear from my British friends that they regret not to have had a stronger focus on foreign languages themselves.

So the idea is that Becky and Alex will speak both, English and Deutsch.

Raising kids bilingually, however, requires a lot of commitment and consistency, and it’s not always easy, especially when only one parent speaks a foreign language. John doesn’t speak German (apart from a few rude sentences *snigger/sigh* and a few random phrases he picked up when he lived with me in Germany for a while), so it’s a little trickier to integrate German into our everyday family life.

Most advice and guidelines on bi- and multilingual education at home suggest that ideally children would be exposed to the primary language – in our case English – outside of the home, such as nursery, school and their social circle, and the second, or secondary, foreign language – for us German - would be spoken at home all the time.

Well, this just doesn’t work in our case for obvious reasons. We wouldn’t be getting very far. So, pretty much from when Becky was a baby, I have resorted to speaking to her – and now Alex, of course – in German when I’m on my own with them, and when we are together as a family, I repeat everything we say in English in German, and vice versa. This means that the kids at least hear everything in German one way or another, but it also means that John understands and that our family life can function as normal and no one is excluded. It’s not strictly by the rule book, as really, I should be hardcore and speak German, no matter what, but I just don’t think it’s fair on John and I just can’t see it working for us.

Becky’s first and dominant language is therefore English. John speaks English to her, she goes to an English nursery, her friends speak English – so it’s natural that her main and active tongue is English. But she understands everything in German and always correctly answers any questions or responds to me within the right context, albeit in English. 

Increasingly though, she has been using German words in English sentences, which can result in some hilarious statements, such as: “Mummy, can I have some Erdbeeren mit Zucker in the Hello Kitty Schuessel, please” (“Mummy, can I have strawberries with sugar in my Hello Kitty bowl, please”).

She is now also very aware that she speaks / learns two different languages and the difference between German and English. She knows that Oma and Opa (grandparents) speak Deutsch and that her Nanny & Granchie, us, her friends and so on over here speak English.

Funnily enough, towards the end of our week in Germany recently, she had picked up so much German that rather than mixing individual words, she was responding to my Mum in full German sentences, which was great. I was so chuffed!

I don’t know whether Becky would be more fluent in German if I did it the “proper” way, but part of me doesn’t necessarily think so. I have a number of friends and acquaintances who are doing it by the book and consistently speak just the one language, and their children don’t seem that more advanced in German than Becky is. The same goes for a Chinese couple we are friends with, who both speak Chinese to their daughter, and she, too, is an active English speaker, and only uses her second language passively at the moment.

Either way, I’m not worrying too much about it. I have, at the very least, laid the initial foundations for Becky’s and Alex’s grasp of the German language, and we will continue to build on it at our own pace and method.

The kids, and especially Becky at this stage, will continue to be exposed to German; we read German books, we sing German songs, we regularly watch German kids programmes on Youtube and play German lingo games on the iPad, and of course, we chat, so they will always be surrounded by the language. I will also enroll Becky at German school, which is a Saturday school where other kids of German expats or those who have an interest in bilingual education come together for two hours every Saturday to learn the language. And eventually, she will hopefully pick German in secondary school, so I’m pretty sure we’ll get there.

I’m conscious of not turning learning German into a chore and that it remains playful, natural and enjoyable and eventually doesn’t just become a second language, but second nature.

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  1. This is really interesting - languages have always appealed to me too, would be fantastic for us all to be able to speak more languages within our family, its a still many of the UK lack.

    1. Thanks Alice! It would be nice if there was a stronger emphasis on languages in schools.

  2. I am an expat in the UK as well. I am from the Philippines and have been using english since I arrive 5 years ago and the language we use at home. I am using too much english that when I would use my local dialect I feel like I am using speaking foreign.

    I need to do something about this as I dont want my son to be a stranger to my words. Thats my goal this vacation.


    1. I think that's a great goal to have and if you do it playfully, he will be able to pick it up eventually, even if he can just understand initially. Good luck, and let me know how you get on!

  3. In my family half speak spanish and half speak english and I have always been keen to teach my kids spanish so they can talk to their cousins when we go back home. but they also have english so they can just use that and do. I have found that even if you are strict on the teaching or just casual about it at a young age some find it nerve racking to speak out loud a language they know most don't know and my two nieces are prime example one will respond in spanish and the other can understand it but won't respond as she is too shy and says no one else speaks like that so she won't. But you are giving them such an amazing gift. I wish I was better at spanish I am not fluent so that I could only speak to the kids in spanish. I don't think you are leaving someone out when you are giving such an amazing gift. I only wish I could speak fluently in three language so amazing. One talented lady. Thanks for linking up to Share With Me #sharewithme

  4. Thanks Jenny, that's a really good point! Becky was a little bit like that a while ago, she said that no one else speaks "Deutsch" and that she didn't want me to talk to her in Deutsch in her nursery. Probably, because she was the only one. Now she has realised that it is special that she speaks another language, and she is embracing it more and asking more about it, so we're getting there!


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