Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Bilingual Parenting - auf Deutsch!

Today, I thought I'd focus on the positive and share one of my successes as a woman and mother with you. Actually, to be totally honest, my husband deserves more of the credit for this than I do, but I do play an important part, so, heck, it's my success, too. Since the birth of our son, Kurt Jr., in 2005, my hubby and I have been raising him in a bilingual household. Here's a little bit of background about us:

My husband, Kurt, and I are both non-native speakers of German, hold master's degrees in the subject, and have been long time teachers of the language. We both also claim German ancestry. Kurt's great-grandparents were German immigrants. My father was born and raised in Germany and came to this country in his early 20s. Both Kurt and I were fascinated by the German language and culture because of our heritage. Although Kurt's dad has a very basic academic knowledge of German, the language was never spoken at home, and Kurt first began learning the language in earnest during his college years.

My father came to this country in the late 1950s as a young man. I don't think he had the easiest time of it here being German back then. During the 50s and 60s, Americans were still mending their wounds from World War II, and he faced quite a bit of discrimination. After all, for many Americans, every single German they encountered was a Nazi or a Kraut, at best. So, my dad made a point to work hard and assimilate in his new home. When I was born, he wanted me to be a true American and so he rarely ever spoke German with me. I can remember only three exceptions; every night before bedtime, I recited a short German prayer, I also remember loving a game he played with me, called "Hoppa Hoppa Reiter", during which he bounced me on his knee pretending I was riding a horse, and, finally, to this day, my dad has always called me "mein Schatz" ("my treasure" - I know...AWWWW, sweet, right? I still smile every time he says that.). Growing up, the first opportunity I had to learn the language formally was in high school. I remember that I just couldn't wait to start really learning German. Right around my junior high years, my mom and I would always harrass my dad, begging him to speak German with my younger brother and me. But he just wouldn't do it. For whatever reasons, he wasn't comfortable with that, and I believe my brother and I suffered for it. My dad left family behind in Germany, so we had (and still do have) an aunt and cousins there. I was never able to really communicate with them until I was 20, something that, since I am very close to them now, was unfortunate while I was growing up.

So, I'm sure you can imagine why Kurt and I wanted to raise our son with German as well as English. We were a little initimated with the idea, though. After all, neither of us are native speakers of German. And although we are decent speakers of the language, most of our experience with it lies in classroom usage as teachers. We decided to give it a whirl, though. We wanted to give young Kurt the advantage of early bilingualism that neither of us had. We wanted to give him an early appreciation of other cultures and the ability to communicate and connect with a wider range of people. We wanted him to understand and talk with his "Opa" ("grandpa") and all of his other German relatives in their native tounge and understand all of the nuances that the language possesses, something that took both of us YEARS to learn and still challenges us even today.

We looked at the research and decided to try the method of bilingual parenting called OPOL (One Parent, One Language). Although my German accent is more "standard" and I'm more knowledgable of "native" speech patterns, my husband's German is just overall "better." He really knows his grammar and vocabulary. Plus, he is just a lot more diligent and focused than I am in many regards; we figured if either of us could hold out for the long haul speaking German with Kurtie, it would be my husband. So, we decided that he would speak the target language of German with our son and I would speak mostly English. And that's what we've done, since his birth.

My role in the matter has been more of a support figure, but a crucial and active one at that since I know German, too. I've ordered a lot of German books and music CDs for our son over the last several years. I do speak German with Kurtie, but just not nearly to the extent that my husband does. I enjoy singing and reading with Kurtie in German and teaching him cute little poems and the games that I've learned from my dad and all of my schooling over the years. Additionally, as of this past August, Kurtie now attends Houston's Deutsche Samstagsschule (German Saturday School) where he is in a Kindergarten class that is taught exclusively in German. Truth be told, I am so jealous of all of my girlfriends who still live in Milwaukee. The German Immersion School there is one of the best schools in the area; I would love to be able to send my son there, but Saturdays will have to suffice for now here in Texas.

The fruits of our labor over the last several years have been paying off. Young Kurt just turned four. He can understand basically anything one says to him in German. We learned this the hard way recently. I had bought him several Geotrax items in December for both Christmas and birthday gifts (his birthday is Jan. 2nd). Just after his birthday, Kurtie was really fussy one night. We still had one Geotrax present left that we were going to give to him at a birthday party on the 11th. With Kurtie in the room with us, I was attempting to find a way to make my son more agreeable and told my husband in very mumbled, quiet German, thinking Kurtie wouldn't understand: "You could give him the last present we have, the bridge with the airplane." My husband said no that we should wait to give it to him on the 11th. The next morning, my son and I were playing Geotrax together. Suddenly, Kurtie said to me, "Mommy, you know what we need? The bridge with the airplane you were talking about." OKAY! That made me realize that Kurt and I can no longer use German when we don't want our son to understand something! Definitely a good sign but quite a surprise!

As far as output is concerned, young Kurt has been speaking certain German words since he was very small. I actually think that Baby Sign Language helped. I used that with him a lot starting when he was about 9 months old. Eventually, my husband began to use it with him, too, but while he spoke German with him. So, I think, interestingly enough, the sign language acted as a nice bridge between English and German. Kurtie was an early talker and had a fairly strong command of English very quickly. We are still waiting for extensive German output, though. Kurtie will speak more German with my husband, naturally, but still not too much. From what I've read, it sounds as if extensive second language production won't occur until around the age of six.

We are encouraged by recent research which further propells us in our cause. In October of 2006, Dartmouth researchers discovered that people who are bilingual appear to utilize more of the brain that is available for language and cognitive processing than people who are monolingual. Bilinguals actually use parts of the right brain in addition to the language centers of the left brain when switching between two languages, whereas monolinguals only exclusively use their left brain during language tasks. Interesting, huh?

Until next week, Auf Wiedersehen und schoene Woche noch!


  1. Very interesting concept, Brenda! I am glad it's working out for you! I signed a lot with Drew as a baby, and I agree, it did help him be an early, strong talker. Michael would have none of the signing though! He'd slap my hands away and say "No, Mama!"

  2. I am so jealous. I wish I were bilingual and that my kids would have that opportunity.

  3. Wow! My dad, 100% German, grew up with parents who spoke German. Daddy was born in 1941 so as with your Dad my grandparents didn't speak German in public or at home with the kids. They used it to communicate things they didn't want the kids to know. So my Dad has only a casual/fun words/sayings knowledge. I wish my Grandparents had raised them bilingual and thus my Dad taught my siblings and I. But, I can also understand their reason for not.
    Keep up the wonderful work! You are benefiting him in so very many ways~!~

  4. This was a fascinating post for me! I was born in the 'old country' and my family immigrated to Canada in the early '50s. I know, way before your time! My parents only spoke German with us at home. We went to a German speaking church that taught Saturday German School. When I turned 16 I started teaching the younger ones. All of our children can speak it - albeit not flawlessly. Even in my work with seniors in a long-term care centre I use my German every day as we have a large German group here.

    I admire you for sticking to it and giving your little Kurtie, klein Kurtchen, the benefits of another language.

    Here's a short meal-time prayer for you. Maybe you are familiar with it.

    Alle guten Gaben, alles was wir haben,
    kommt o Gott von Dir. Dank sein Dir dafuer!

    Gottes Segen!