Raising a Bilingual Child: Go Ahead, You Try It!

by Dagmar Bleasdale on March 4, 2011

Cool, He’s Going to be Bilingual! Well, Maybe Not.

“Oh, wie schön!” was the only thing my mom could say before she choked up and started to cry.

Those were happy tears. I had called my parents in Germany to tell them that I was pregnant. My father’s first words were: “You better teach him German.” Well, maybe it was the second thing he uttered. But he hasn’t let up reminding me about the importance of raising my son bilingually since he was born four years ago.

My father told me to speak German to my unborn son every chance he got during our weekly pregnancy-update phone calls. Yes, Papa, I get it. Great opportunity I shouldn’t miss.

My 85-year-old father, who doesn’t speak a lick of English, wanted to make sure he can communicate with his first grandchild. Which is understandable — but also hilarious given the fact that he hardly ever speaks (my poor, inquisitive husband went to college for two semesters to learn German to impress my father only to find out that he doesn’t talk more than eight words in a day). Opa keeps pointing out how much of an advantage my son will have in life knowing two, and later on possibly even more, languages.

While pregnant, I kept envisioning how cool it was going to be to stand in line at a Starbucks and to ask my son in German what he would like: “Was möchtest Du den gerne, Mäuschen, einen Keks oder was anderes?” It would be our own, secret language only we could understand, since I’m the only one who was going to speak in German with him.

The baby was born, three days later the grandparents descended on us for a week, and we were off to a great start. I did famously the first two years. When we visited my family in Germany, it was apparent that my son could understand everything that was being said in German. I was doing a great job speaking in German to him while we were alone together, and that seemed to be enough for him to comprehend it.

But since that visit I have fallen off the wagon. Maybe that has to do with my son getting more verbal himself or maybe I have to answer him more quickly these days, which is hard for me to do in German.

German might have been my mother tongue, but English has been my first language now for over 15 yeas, and I much prefer it. I think and dream in English, and my German is getting really clumsy. I wouldn’t be able to write this post in German, and I find myself grasping for German words that I just can’t recall. Consequently, I’m having a really hard time speaking German with my son. It’s like having to translate what I want to say in English to German, which gets frustrating. In the heat of the battle, it’s so much easier to shout, “Put those shoes on, now!” at my precocious preschooler instead of, “Jetzt zieh’ aber mal sofort die Schuhe an!”

When I videotape my son nowadays, I find myself talking to him half in German, half in English, feeling like a fraud because I’m only doing it in case my parents ever see the footage. And I don’t know if its just a phase, but lately my son doesn’t make it easy for me to impart the bilingual coolness factor: he often refuses to listen to what a certain thing is called in German. His response: “No, it’s not” or “No, I don’t want to say it like Oma says it!” Sigh.

Last year I met another mom, originally from France, who could relate. She said she did great with her first child, the second one hardly knows any French, and she is trying to do her best with her third child. It’s not easy to raise a bilingual child when English is what the child hears most of the time, as in her and in my case.

I started a German-speaking moms group but couldn’t find the time to get together more than twice. I was able to reprogram our DVD player to play German DVDs, so L is now watching a few of them, and I sometimes read to him in German. And we are considering giving up our Saturdays later this year to schlep him to German school an hour away. All of this seems crazy because I should be able to just teach him German myself, but I’m failing. I just can’t bring myself to speak German to him much because it’s such hard work for me.

I’m hoping to get my son to understand what is being said, but I can’t guarantee that he will be able to talk to my parents in German.

Last week I tried again to explain to my parents that raising their grandson bilingually is not that easy. I struggle when talking to them — I have to search for the right words in German to express myself all the time — so they kind of have an idea about my difficulty and how frustrating it can be for me to speak German.

If I don’t succeed to teach my son German well enough so he can communicate, I know I will regret it. I know he will give me grief about it later. I know it is a huge missed opportunity because children’s capacity to learn language is so heightened when they are little. But it’s just not that easy to raise bilingual children, Oma und Opa.

Here is to hoping they will still teach German in high school in 10 years.

This was an original post I wrote for NYC Moms Blog that was published March 29, 2010, and I updated it a little bit.

{ 27 comments… read them below or add one }

MP June 29, 2012 at 11:32 AM

My mom moved to the US from Sweden when she came for college (to attend the same college as my dad who came to Sweden in high school as an exchange student).

She had a lot of the same issues as you are having with my oldest brother. There are even fewer people who speak Swedish than German, and it’s certainly not offered in high schools. My dad speaks some Swedish, but obviously his English is far stronger, and they joined a Swedish cultural group, but didn’t keep up with it. By the time I came along, she had given up (partly because at the time, Sweden did not allow dual citizenship although it changed that later, so I still have both). So I only ended up learning a handful of words.

I wish I had learned it as a child. Some advice I can give, having studied linguistics, is to expose him to as much German as possible, particularly from other people (having him speak to relatives could help, for example). It can be easier also if you create certain rules to stick to, like that you and he converse in German only at home, and maybe even refuse to respond to English if it’s not urgent. It would also be easier if your husband continued to study German so that he could participate too.

It might be that German classes or a German tutor (which could start before high school if you can find them) would be your best bet though.

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Karen October 4, 2011 at 11:05 AM

No matter what you do, raising him in an even slightly bilingual environment will benefit him, I believe. My mother is a Cuban immigrant who started learning English (and stopped learning Spanish) at 9 years old. My dad is American. I’m 30, and when I was young I don’t think that it was thought to be very important to be bilingual, so my mom didn’t even really try. However, I was around spanish-speaking family frequently. I found it very easy to pick up Spanish in high school classes, and was able to go to Spain for a month as a senior in high school and come back basically fluent. (I have since lost that, but c’est la vie.)

I think part of it is natural verbal ability, but I also credit being around another language.

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Christina Pilkington June 28, 2011 at 3:52 AM

Wow! I never realized that it might be possible to forget your native tounge if you’ve been speaking another language for over a decade. Very interesting. I symphathize with you wanting your son to speak German. That would be important to me, too. But I can see his point of not wanting to speak it since everyone else speaks English, and since he’s just learning to speak himself wanting to use the language he can communicate with the most people.

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