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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Natalya June 5, 2011 at 1:53 PM

I can totally relate as I try to raise two Russian speaking daughters with a non Russian speaking husband! Saturday Russian school is a tremendous help as are Russian speaking friends and other Russian centered activities. But the biggest help is spending time with grandparents or other relatives in Russia. We arrive with my girls only speaking in separated words and leave with full sentences!

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Angela (Toucan Scraps) June 2, 2011 at 3:40 PM

I’ve met many people who have tried and found it difficult byu the time the child turned 3/4 years old. Their kids rarely speak anything other than English now. It’s sad, but real. don’t beat yourself up over it.

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Carol Schiller May 31, 2011 at 6:47 PM

Oh Dagmar, I hear you! It IS so hard to raise bilingual kids, even if both parents speak both languages as in our family.

And, and as you rightly pointed out, it gets harder with each one. My Japanese husband started out super strict with our oldest, and predictably, it went downhill with each kid after.

I think what happens is this: as the kids get older and go to school, their vocabulary and ability to express themselves in English increases much much faster than in the language you speak with them at home. So, they naturally gravitate to the language that allows them to express the increasing sophistication of their thoughts.

So for kids who refuse to speak in the second language, it’s not that they rebel against the second language per se. It’s more that they rebel against how infantalized they feel by their inability to speak at their own level.

Take heart though. Whatever you are teaching them now is probably enough, because just exposing them to another language is making them more receptive to learning later. I learned two foreign languages quite fluently — AFTER college — and it worked out just fine. Just plan on a semester or two in Germany during college and they’ll be speaking like natives in no time!

Carol

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Erika @NaMammaSte May 31, 2011 at 6:30 PM

My father is first generation German American. He was the first child and he is fluent in German because his parents only spoke German to him for the first 5 years of his life. Then he went to school and kids made fun of him, so they stopped teaching him and barely even tried with his two sisters.

So, when my sister and I came along, he didn’t even try despite our constant nagging. I don’t really blame him considering he was not the one who was around us most of the time and my mother did not speak German (even though her grandmother was first generation German American, too).

Anyway, I think you’re amazing for even trying! I’m sure he’s soaking up even more than you realize!

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Artsyfartsy April 13, 2011 at 9:30 PM

Hallo Dagmar,
ich habe dich über Hobo Mamas Blog gefunden. Ich finde es sehr interessant, dass du mit den gleichen Problemen wie ich zu kämpfen hast, obwohl du deutsche Muttersprachlerin bist. Ich erziehe meinen Sohn zweisprachig englisch/ deutsch obwohl ich keine englische Muttersprachlerin bin und dachte, dass die Probleme, die auftreten, an diesem Umstand liegen. Aber offensichtlich ist es einfach schwierig, gegen die immer so präsente Umgebungssprache anzukämpfen bzw. sich durchzusetzen.

Lies gerne in meinem Blog mit, wenn du magst.
http://zweisprachig.blog.de

Ich bin immer auf der Suche nach neuen interessanten Links und Studien.
Und Erfahrungsberichten :).

LG

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Dagmar April 14, 2011 at 4:05 AM

Oh, wie schoen, jemand anderes kennenzulernen von Deutschland! Muss Deinen Blog umbedingt ansehen :) Danke fur Deinen Kommentar!

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Artsyfartsy April 14, 2011 at 6:53 PM

Hallo,

werde deinen Blogeintrag mal verlinken ;).

LG

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Mrs4444 March 13, 2011 at 7:19 PM

The part of the brain that deals with foreign language shrinks if children learn only one language. Later, when they take foreign languages in high school, that part of the brain is small, so it’s not as easy to learn. If you exercise that part of a child’s brain early on (as you have), you encourage that part of the brain to stretch itself, keeping it more open to foreign language learning later. Make sense? So, don’t feel guilty; what you’re doing now is making a difference. When he’s older, if he wants to learn more German, he’ll be able to, because of your efforts.

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Lori @ Your Child Talking March 9, 2011 at 3:29 AM

Hmm…maybe I can sweeten the deal?

Children who grow up bilingually demonstrate better cognitive flexibility later in life. They are better at non-linear problem solving. And starting out bilingual makes later language learning much much easier.

And…your German will return to its former glory if you speak it more.

Ok…did I offer some more good juicy motivators?? ;)

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Laura D March 8, 2011 at 12:07 PM

Hi Dagmar- I pop my head in here from time to time to see how you guys are doing. I loved that you set up the German playgroup and enjoyed meeting up with you the few times that we did – though as you may remember, it was more of a practice German session for me and not for my kids.

At this point, I figure, if I can impart just a bit of the language, as well as an understanding of how to pronounce the words correctly, and a love of German and Germany (which I hope to do by taking a nice long trip to Germany this summer), that will have to be enough to spark the interest in them to continue further. If the interest isn’t in them, I can expose them all I want (and I’m the only one in both families that speaks German), they just will refuse.

I’ll continue trying my best and realize that I got to my level of proficiency not because of parents who imparted the language to me but because of my own hard work as a teen. And though I may, much to my chagrin, not speak exactly like a native German, I’m still good enough to fool some Germans into thinking I come from some other European country and NOT from America! :o)

Take care and perhaps our paths will cross again.
Laura

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Kristi {at} Live and Love Out Loud March 8, 2011 at 4:45 AM

Stumbled this post!

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Kristi {at} Live and Love Out Loud March 8, 2011 at 3:35 AM

I never thought about how difficult it would be to retain the language, but in thinking back on my high school years I kind of understand. While I was in high school I spoke fluent Hawaiian. My grandparents and I spoke the language daily and I spoke it daily in Hawaiian language class at school as well. But after my grandfather’s death, it hurt too much to speak it so I didn’t use Hawaiian as much. Slowly over the years, I’ve lost most of what I’d learned and I really regret it. The sad thing is my Dad continues to push me into teaching my children the language but the truth is I can’t. :( I hope you’re able to pass that legacy on to Landon whether it’s through classes at school or at home. I know it’s got to be a big challenge.

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Very Bored in Catalunya March 7, 2011 at 3:16 PM

I can so relate to this, in fact I wrote about my experiences just the other week.

We’re the other way around – English living in Spain and my son who’s been fully immersed in the local school, nursery etc is having huge difficulties in learning Catalan (the local language).

I think all we can do is keep plodding along, your German speaking group sounds like a great idea because maybe if he hears other kids talking German (especially older, cooler kids) then hopefully it will give him the incentive to try as well.

Good luck.

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MummyinProvence March 7, 2011 at 3:11 PM

I am so nervous about this!

We live in France but my French is not very good at all so I only speak to BiP in English (she is 10m old) – DH is fluent in French, English and Arabic so we speak English at home. I find it strange that there will come a point, probably in the not too distant future, where BiP will know more words in French than I do.

I’m half Egyptian and can barely speak more than 10 words as my mother found it easier to speak English to me and my sister rather than Arabic. I went through a phase of being angry about this but now, as a parent, I can see that you need to speak the language that you are most comfortable.

Your mother tongue can change. Whatever language you speak, it should be the richest language you can offer to your child … the rest will fall into place. (I think bilingualism goes deeper than just language learning too!)

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Coupon Trunk March 6, 2011 at 2:24 AM

It’s hard enough raising kids in one language. It’s good for them to learn other languages early because it will stick with them more, but there’s no need to put so much pressure on yourself. Your parents should be proud anyway.

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Laura @ SuperGlueMom March 5, 2011 at 9:38 PM

I can SO relate. I’ve been married for 10 years and have been promising my husband to teach him Spanish. Now, my kids are 3 and 4 and while I did great and they understand the basic commands, they are no where near being bilingual. It’s sad, mainly because I visit my family in Spain once a year with my kids and it pains me to see that they can’t fully understand. I know I should do better, but it’s difficult. Thank you for putting into words many of my feelings… many of which make me feel like a failure in the language department.

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Verena March 5, 2011 at 8:49 PM

I really can imagine how hard it must be to raise your OWN child bilingual. My best friend (she is german) is married to an american, taught all three of her kids german, but since they live in America it’s just hard to keep the german language…
Some other friends of mine have four kids and they had lived for many years in Germany. The mother is german and the father american. They told me that they had spoken only german until the kids were three years old. After that they had started to speak english with the kids! I was really impressed. I’m not sure if I would be that consistent. I’m sure your son will have the chance to learn german in school!
Liebe Grüße,
Verena

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Rachael March 5, 2011 at 4:14 PM

The question that hits me is what to do once we leave Germany. I was a little surprised to hear my 8 and 6 year old talk about their bilingualism as something they enjoyed having. The prospect of losing this second linguistic heritage if we move back to an english-speaking context upset my son. I am pushing my language acquisition to the max., and we are starting to “code switch” a bit, which I swore I would never do. It is a natural development I suppose, but as an English teacher I am also aware of my importance as a language role model.

Thanks for the article! Rachael

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Candace @ NaturallyEducational March 4, 2011 at 10:51 PM

I’m not really bilingual (I’m just proficient in Spanish and can read a tiny bit of Russian) but I’m trying to raise my kids bilingual and it is tough.

Just rest assured that even if they don’t want to speak the target language, they will be able to pick it up much more quickly later on because of your early efforts!

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Polish Mama on the Prairie March 4, 2011 at 10:28 PM

Oh, I can completely understand this and teared up a little.

My parents seem to think that I should have no problems teaching my kids Polish. Because their memories of my childhood seems to include them always speaking Polish to me. Which is true, until I turned about 8. Then they completely stopped. I think I feel really inspired now to write a post about this actually.

And I doubt that they will teach German in schools. Spanish yes and from elementary school. Maybe French, in middle school. Maybe Chinese or even Arabic I have seen.

Same with Polish and it breaks my heart. Good luck in your struggles! I feel your pain!

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Alexia March 4, 2011 at 5:38 PM

Thanks for this post! My husband’s family is from Lebanon and primarily speak Arabic in their home, and the rest of the family in the old country speaks NO english, so it was important to us that she be bilingual. Our daughter already knows several words in Arabic and knows certain things (like ‘light’ for instance) only in Arabic. But you know what? I have it easy. I can’t really speak Arabic despite taking some classes, but my in-laws are teaching her (and me in the process). If my in-laws didn’t live right by us, there would be no way she would learn it. Don’t beat yourself up on this one. English is your language now, and you’re not a school teacher. If German is important why not let a professional to teach little L what you’re having a hard time with! Well worth it in my opinion!!

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PragmaticMom March 4, 2011 at 5:15 PM

Love your post. I don’t speak another language but I have been trying for years to get my 3 kids exposed to Spanish and Chinese using a plethora of things that don’t exactly work that well but are better than nothing: weekly tutor, cds, dvds (stock my car with only foreign language ones), books, board games, comic books, bi-lingual friends, bi-lingual babysitter. Finally, out of frustration, I started learning Spanish myself and just recently, my husband joined me. I have a horrible accent but his (he’s Korean so who knows why?) has a beautiful accent. As he is studying, he says the words out loud and I repeat them and we try to get our kids to participate but they think it’s annoying. Our next strategy is doing some visits to Spanish speaking countries for short vacations.

But I am hoping that this investment in time, energy and $ will result in a non-nails-on-the-chalkboard accent and the ability to hold a conversation at some point!

I have a whole bunch of posts on this on my blog, PragmaticMom, at http://www.pragmaticmom.com/?category_name=foreign-languages of the stuff that worked for me but as I am writing this, I should do more research into iPhone apps that are bilingual. Have you had luck with any? god knows my kids like to play games on my iPhone; they may as well be doing it in Spanish (or even Chinese).

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Candace @ NaturallyEducational March 4, 2011 at 10:49 PM

I have one called “Feed Me” (http://www.kidsgobilingual.com/2010/07/free-iphone-app-kids-spanish/)… it is available in English, Spanish, Japanese, French, Italian, Korean, German, and Chinese.

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Hasta claridad March 4, 2011 at 4:31 PM

I worry about this so much… Every time I talk to my family in Spain, it hits me like a ton of bricks: I am losing my Spanish. I worry that when we have our first little one, we won’t be able to materialize my dream of having a bilingual baby. It feels like such a huge part of who I am and I want to pass that one… but how? It’s good to know that there are others worrying about the same thing…

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