Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Trying to raise a multilingual child

People keep asking us how we're going to do the German thing with Piglet. And I tell them... we're going to raise a multicultural kid. One way or another. The specifics are a little fuzzy. We're just starting to hash them out. It's an interesting thing to try to figure out.

The most important thing to us in raising this child to be truly multicultural is for him to be able to have a meaningful relationship with his grandparents, not just my parents who conveniently live in the same country, but Torsten's parents as well. The relationship with my parents will be easier--they live closer (though not exactly close), they visit more frequently, they are more accessible. But the relationship with Torsten's parents is equally important. And that's what will take more work.

Of course we also just sort of generally want Piglet to have a sense of where he comes from, of what it means to be from more than one country, of the heritage and ancestry that are behind him, of how this family came to be. And the benefits of being raised bilingual seem pretty extensive. But the grandparent thing is the number one motivator.

So, since Torsten's parents don't speak English, Piglet has to be bilingual. I've read a couple books about this; there's no real consensus on the one perfect way to do it, but everyone agrees that any effort you can put in to help your child be bilingual is certainly worth it, even if it's imperfect. And honestly I don't think we can say that we'll do X or Y to ensure that Piglet is a fluent German speaker, because a lot of it will depend on how things go.

(As an aside, one thing that the research I've read says: first children are more fluent in the second language than subsequent children. The reasons for this seem to be complex, but are likely a combination of the parents having less time for quality verbal interaction with their kids when they have more than one child, and the second child spending more time interacting verbally with the sibling whose own second language skills are already imperfect. So I guess this means we should try to set the bar high with Piglet, in hopes that a future sibling will also be fluent, even if not quite at the same level?)

Anyway, our basic plan is: I will speak to Piglet in English and Torsten will speak to Piglet in German. Pretty much all the time. When we are together as a family, since I don't speak German, Torsten and I will speak English to each other. But if he's talking to Piglet, hopefully he will speak German, even if I'm there too, even if he has to translate for me if it's something that I needed to hear too.

I think it's clear that since Torsten and I speak only English together, and we live in an English-dominant country, that Piglet will just be exposed to more English than German, and his English will be better than his German. But the goal is for him to be pretty much completely fluent in German, even if his vocabulary isn't as nuanced as it is in English, and even if he makes grammatical errors when speaking.

We also hope that he will be able to read and write in German. We will ask Torsten's parents to bring us a bunch of German-language baby stuff, and eventually as we start traveling to Germany with Piglet we will try to collect German games and music and whatnot. In the meantime I think we're going to suck up the shipping charges and order a few German board books from to get us started, so Torsten can read to Piglet in German from day 1. And we'll use our internet radio and Rhapsody subscription to play German kids' music, too.

Other plans: visits from Torsten's parents. Skype chats with Torsten's parents. Visits to Germany. Possibly when Piglet is older, visits to Torsten's parents without us, to spend a few weeks in Germany in a situation where he will genuinely have to speak German all the time. Possibly insisting that Piglet speak to Torsten in German, once he's a bit older (like elementary school age), but we'll see about that. A general attempt to expose him to as much German as possible on the theory that the English exposure will take care of itself. So lots of books in German, conversations in German, games in German, encouragement to write in German.

The dream would be a school that does German immersion, too. There are a few options for that in Denver, but they are all expensive, new, and/or very, very small. We don't have to worry about this for awhile, so we'll see how things shake out once we're ready to start looking into schools for real, but if Piglet could have even a year or two of German-language preschool, that would already be great. And before then... maybe a German speaking nanny or babysitter? We definitely don't want an au pair, but if there were some sort of caretaker who could speak with him in German, that would be great.

I do wonder how it will be for Torsten to suddenly switch to speaking German so often. His English, though accented, is completely fluent, but when his parents come to visit and he speaks German a lot, he definitely starts formulating English sentences with German-style construction. Hopefully the need to switch back and forth so frequently will help him avoid this habit... like maybe his mind will learn to more quickly differentiate between the two? I really don't know.

I also wonder... like, I very much look forward to seeing Torsten interact with the baby as a dad. And of course that will be the case no matter what language they're interacting with. But I wonder if it will be weird or hard for me to hear him saying things to the baby that I don't understand. That there won't be cute little comments and pet names that I can listen to and smile over.

But I am choosing to be optimistic about this, and assume that I will learn some German along with Piglet, and also that comments along the lines of, "Who's a cute baby? YOU'RE a cute baby!" will be unmistakable, even if they're said in German.

And we do want to be flexible about this. We don't want to tie ourselves in knots and make ourselves miserable trying to make this work. But we are determined that this child will speak German, and it's up to us to make that happen, and make it fit into our lives. I have high hopes.


  1. We have good friends that are German but that lived here in Tiny Town for 5 years. They spoke German 100% at home and English everywhere else. Both kids were fluent in both. (But both parents were fluent in both, too.) When they moved back to Germany, they didn't want their kids to lose their English, so they put them in an international school. They visit every summer and are still fluent in both. Though, I can detect a (NEW!) British accent to their English, which is cute.

    Anyway, I think the most frustrating part for you will be when he starts talking. It's hard enough know what they are saying, w/o wondering which language he's trying to speak! It's possible, I guess that he'll intuitively know to speak German to daddy and English to mommy... our friends kids (even at age 2) immediately switched to English when around their friends...

    What an interesting journey! Can't wait to see how it works out for you!

  2. I know that you've talked about wanting to learn some German in the past, and that it's been difficult. Maybe this will be the motivation/immersion you need. There will be things that Torsten will repeat often, and you can find out what they mean, and it will help you with some of your speaking skills, I would think. So that's an added benefit, right?
    I think it is so awesome that Piglet is going to grow up bilingual. I wish sometimes that my grandparents had taught my dad more Norwegian, and that he had passed it on to me. Unfortunately, they hardly speak it to eachother, much less to their kids.

  3. I think you will start to pick up on German yourself if Torsten and your son are speaking it. A good friend of mine is married to a French Basque guy who speaks only French to the kids. (What they do sounds identical to your plan.) It's amazing how much French my friend has picked up in the few years since they've had kids. I think most of the time she is aware of what they are talking about even if the details are a little fuzzy.

  4. I think it's great that you're so committed to Piglet's language development. My dad's best friend, who spoke only English married a woman who spoke mostly French and just some broken English (how they communicated, I have no idea). Their kids spoke fluent French to their mother and fluent English to their father from the time they could talk. It was facinating to hear.

    I was also going to mention that kids here have an opportunity to go to a variety of different language school on Saturdays, as long as one parent is fluent in the language chosen. They learn to read and write in the language. It's through the school board and it's free. You might want to check to see if something similar is offered in the Denver school system.

  5. I was raised multilingual and from my experience and others, remember that at the beginning piglet will be slightly confused with both languages. Eventually he will be fluent in both though.

    My mom knew a couple (wife from Spain, husband German) who lived in Mozambique. When she first met the kids (1 and 3) she thought they were a little slow with the confusion of languages. Then she went back a year later and the kids were fluent in Spanish, Portuguese, German AND English. Amazing!

  6. I think it's really great you'd like your children to learn German. I have a number of friends who are in bilingual relationships and are teaching their children both languages, too. I don't think they've put nearly as much thought into it as you have and it's working out just fine for them. I have confidence Torsten and you will do a great job of maintaining the German side in your family.

    There is a toy store in my neighborhood (Timeless Toys) that had a number of German-themed baby items. They don't do sales through their website, but it might be worth calling them to find out what they have and see if they'd be willing to ship to you ... would certainly save on the shipping costs.

  7. I think this is such an interesting topic! And it seems like you guys have gotten a lot of information together and I am sure whatever you do, your little piglet will be very good at both languages.
    I've met a 2-year-old who spoke Spanish with his Mom, German with his Dad and English when they were all together, because the Mom and Dad couldn't speak each other's languages. He knew exactly when to use which language and knew very quickly to speak German with me (he was a patient at a hospital here in Austria). Kids are so smart!

    As for the grandparent relationship: I grew up in the US and only saw my Austrian relatives once a year, during summer break. They almost never visited us for various reasons. Nevertheless, we had great relationships with everyone and looked forward to our visit to Austria all year. I remember that we also had a phone date with our grandma every Saturday morning, which meant a lot to us - and can be even more personal nowadays since now there's Skype.

  8. So, I have a degree in Speech Pathology, so I have a few things to say about this!

    Piglet will learn both as long as he's exposed to both from the start. Children are amazing sponges for language and can easily learn to langues.

    It's all about reinforcement. As Piglet starts to babble, you will reinforce the sounds that "sound like" English words (Baba... yes BABA... bottle... etc.) and Torsten will reinforce sound that "sound like" German words (unfortunately, 6 years of French class leave me unable to give you an example, lol). That is how Piglet will start to pick up on which sounds make words.

    You will be surprised, too, by how much you pick up, hearing Torsten speak it so frequently. Language acquisition is about emersion, as Im sure you know.

    Finally, as you become more comfortable with German, I'd encourage you do speak to piglet in it at times if you can, and for Torsten to speak in English at times to Piglet (like you mentioned if you are in public, etc.) You just want to make sure that he doesn't start associating German with men and English with women.

    Just my thoughts. I could wax poetic about language acquisition, dialects, etc for hours. But don't stress. Just being exposed to the German language will be a major step towards having a truly bilingual child!

  9. I bet your German will improve a lot too.

    I think you have good plans, and I also like that you realize some things may work and some things may not.

  10. My dad is French and my mother is American. It still makes me sad that they didn't try harder to teach me French...esp when they're both fluent.

  11. My bro-in-law speaks Spanish fluently and has only speaks Spanish to his blonde, blue-eyed daughter. She is 2 years old and while she speaks to her mother and everyone else in English, she understands Spanish perfectly and will usually respond to her dad en espanol. My sister has helped this process along by learning a lot of spanish vocabulary, names for things, foods, etc. She doesn't understand the grammar or congegations as much, but between the two of them Little Creampuff will grow up multi-lingual.

    Good luck!

  12. This is very impressive! I think you'll do great and like the others, I'm excited to watch how it all plays out.

  13. piglet (and any future piglets) will be so lucky!! i have spent the past 30 years wishing i had been raised bilingual... and then piglet can take *another* language in highschool and be able to speak EVERYTHING :)

  14. This is awesome. My husband is Armenian, and while my MIL isn't fluent, she does use Armenian words. Bub has infused a number of those words into his vocabulary. Granted, it's not even close to the same thing as being fluent in another language, but it's nice that he is growing up with that.

  15. I was raised in the states but my parents didn't speak english when I was little so I had to learn Spanish. Half my day was spent with my parents in Spanish and the other half was spent with the babysitter and her kids in English. My English is a lot stronger than my Spanish but I can also read and write in Spanish after I took 3 years in high school. The bf is white english speaking only but we plan on raising our kids bilingual with the similar plan you have. May I suggest German Sesame Street? Or other TV shows that are similar? My parents were worried my Spanish would be stronger so they pushed a lot of English educational TV.

  16. Our Munchkin is 2 1/2 years old now and speaks both English and German. As we currently live in Germany and our Bean is exposed to much more German than English, we have decided to speak only English to her. Still, right now she is picking up more German than English. She's at a German 'Kita', but we're hoping to enrol her at a bilingual primary school when the time gets there. Should we ever move abroad, I will be speaking German to her. Things are going well so far, I think, but sometimes I catch myself experiencing emotional issues with the fact that I am not speaking to my little girl in the language I was born speaking, which is something I just didn't think would happen.

  17. I had a friend in college who was raised in Switzerland, the daughter of an American (English-speaking) mom and a German dad. She and her sister were only spoken to in English by her mom and only in German by her dad, and were only allowed to speak to each parent in the appropriate language, and both sisters ended up completely fluent in both languages. (I think the parents spoke French to one another, and they heard French outside the home, so the girls ended up pretty fluent in French as well.)

    Babies and young children are very plastic in their ability to learn and understand language, not only in fluency but in figuring out which language is appropriate to use in which context. I think your plans for Piglet and, I assume, future children are good ones to help ensure they're be bilingual and bicultural.

  18. That is so awesome! I don't think that you'll end up feeling left out at all, because I'm guessing that you'll end up learning right along with Piglet. I mean, that's the perfect starting point, really - no better chance.

    Piglet is such a lucky kid already - that is going to be so cool for him to be bilingual!

  19. My husband grew up in a bilingual household. His mother spoke to him in English, his father in Italian, and at home they speak mostly Italian when together. Interestingly, my husband switches seamlessly from one language to the other, even in the middle of a sentence. We were in the car with my in-laws, and my father in law was driving while my husband and mother in law carried on a conversation in English. My husband saw a car run a red light, and in the middle of speaking English, yelled in Italian for his dad to watch out, then went back to his English conversation.

    I have relatives who have also married into bilingual families, and they've done the same thing--one parent speaks one language, one speaks another. Seems to be the way to do it.

    I've had a few attempts to learn Italian, but can't seem to get my husband to talk to me in Italian all the time.

  20. sounds like a great plan! and i'm sure your german will improve.

    one tip: to avoid the shipping costs, you should order from if you buy stuff (they have books and cd's etc.) for more than 44 euro shipping to the u.s. is free! i use them all the time. it's great!

  21. I think this is such a wonderful goal/plan. If it's any consolation about the second child, my husband's cousins are all fluent in French, Hebrew, and English, but the middle child is the most fluent. That could be a fluke of intelligence, but it can be done. It's a great thing to encourage him to embrace all aspects of his heritage, and starting young sounds perfect. I'm looking forward to reading all about it!

  22. Ok - I have to tell you that when I read this yesterday I thought, oh no, this poor child! I came back today to see what others had commented, hoping to see the other point of view and WOW did I ever. I think what you are doing is amazing and am very impressed. I had no idea. I only speak English as well as my and my husband's entire family so this was a new concept to me.
    Anyway, I just had to say something. Good for you and Torsten (and Piglet)!

  23. I'm pretty sure what you guys plan on doing is the best way to do it for a child. I'm really impressed on how committed to this you guys seem! I agree with the commenter who said that you will probably start to pick up on what he's saying, just think, Piglet won't know German at first either :)

  24. It's sounds like a great plan to me - that Torsten speaks German to Piglet, and you speak English. I can't imagine a better way to try and create a bilingual child, especially with the addition of books and Skype. Goodluck!!

    Also, I'm totally imagining how cute it would be to listen to Piglet utter his first words in German!! BABY German! Eee.

  25. I think it is awesome that you two are so committed to recognizing and incorporating your child's German heritage into his life. Good luck with it all!

  26. Amanda. (, November 17, 2010 5:34:00 AM

    As an American living in Germany with the military, I have many friends who are German married to an American (who speaks little or no German). I have a good friend who has 3 children... Her daughter (3 yo) knows to speak English to me, German to her Mother & then English to me again. They have the one parent one language going in their household & it has worked pretty well. Her oldest son (15 yo) speaks English with no accent (maybe Midwest sounding?) & His German is accented perfectly (you would never know he's bilingual). It seems that your children become as bilingual as you make them... If they aren't encouraged from the beginning, it's a lot harder to enforce as they get older (friend is trilingual - kids are English fluent , basic understanding of Croatian & German, but respond only in English). Good Luck!

    PS. I can mail you German related items via the US Mail... Send me an email!

  27. I love that you are doing this! Even though I am not fluent in Spanish I hope to teach our future children Spanish- not only will it help me remember the language, but is helpful in general.