Friday, August 31, 2007

Raising children bilingual

If you have children in Germany, you have probably been wondering how to help your children become competent in both English (or whatever your mother tongue is) and German. I know some people who have raised their children only speaking German with them. This is partly from the parents' interest in helping their children fit in and sometimes from the school boards who tell parents that their child has a deficit in German.

My father is from Norway, but I grew up in the US. At first, my father tried speaking Norwegian to my sister and I, but shortly he gave up. Back then, it was harder. It has been much easier for me to speak English with my children. Our first child, Lena, was stronger in English than in German at first. But, quickly German became much stronger, since she was in Kindergarten and everyone else was speaking German to her. In fact, she got to a point where she always answered me in German. She knew that I understood her, so it was easier for her to speak German to me. Our son, Niklas, is at a similar age now, where he answers often in German.

At a young age, children develop one language more than another. Then they will want to stay in that one language unless there lots of other impulses. It has been much easier to get our son to speak English than it was with our daughter. For our daughter she had only heard English from me and from books. But, we took a trip to the US for 3 months where the kids were in day care. There they realized that they had to talk in English to get along. That conversion took 2 days. Then, suddenly Lena wanted to speak English with me. Now Niklas hears Lena speaking English with me and he wants to speak English with me, too. He is just missing the vocabulary. When I drive them to kindergarten in the mornings, Niklas will say "ich bin dran", when it is his turn to pick out a CD to listen to. I try to play dumb and Lena will often help him out. But, I don't want to make it too difficult or else he will just give up altogether.

The most important way to help the children learn your mother tongue is to speak to them and read to them. When they answer, you can repeat what they said and in doing say you can say it properly. That way they hear what is right and you didn't have to tell them that they made a mistake. That way it doesn't feel like being taught.

There is also a lot of discussion around having more schools provide bilingual instruction in Germany. There are some schools that already offer this and more and converting or being created all the time. As a response to the PISA study a few years back that showed how poorly German students were doing, schools have been fundamentally reexamining their curricula. Many have seen the benefits that bilingual instruction offers and they are embracing this as a cornerstone of their revamped strategy.

The benefits to bilingual instruction are multi-fold. Firstly, it is a wonderful gift to a child. The earlier they start learning, the easier it will be. Researchers say that any language that comes into daily use before the age of 6 will be processed in the brain like a native language. This means that they child can learn through absorption, like a native, rather than having to memorize rules and vocabulary.

Secondarily, language learning helps in other areas of learning. A child who acquires a second language will have an easier time in learning mathematics and music. In learning languages, we learn to identify various kinds of patterns and this helps in so many fields.

An obvious further benefit is that the child can have greater connection to other cultures. If that other culture is part of their heritage, that will further ground the child and build their self-confidence.

Here are some helpful links for further information:

» "Learning a Second Language

» "Teaching Your Child a Foreign Language"

» Verein für Mehrsprachigkeit an Kindertageseinrichtungen und Schulen (A group promoting early language acquisition. The content is in English and in German)

» List of bilingual kindergartens and schools in Germany.

» Another List of bilingual schools in Germany

For those of you in Frankfurt, there is a new Kindergarten/Elementary School that is offering bilingual instruction:
» Metropolitan School Frankfurt am Main

I read this book and can highly recommend it to anyone. The German isn't very complex and is quite accessible:
"Mit zwei Sprachen groß werden."


Anonymous said...

We're only staying 'til around the end of the year, but...

If we were staying, I would enroll our son in German schools and let them learn English at home. Our son's English skills are already very good and he also knows a good amount of American Sign Language, which I've read is good for helping to bridge the gap between multiple languages.

In the US, we'd love to enroll our children in int'l/bilingual schools but will have to see what we can work out. We feel pretty strongly about helping our children learn a 2nd language as early as possible for some of the reasons you mention.

I don't get here regularly, but you're doing good things here... it's a great expat resource! Keep up the good work!

Haddock said...

We've raised our daughter bi-lingual. I only speak English to her whilst my wife (who is German) only speaks German to her - It works very well and she is fluent in both languages :)

Pecos Blue said...

Thank you this was useful.

Pecos Blue said...

Thank you this is helpful. Wish we had more resources out here.

Nashe^ said...

I'm studying bilingualism in college, and got here by pure chance. maybe I'll use your opinions someday, eh? :)