Friday, 19 August 2011

How to raise a bilingual child

I've found the magic potion. The one that turns a passive bilingual into a fluent German speaker. After all the trials and tribulations, the hard work, the questions, the wondering if it's all worth it, it has happened. My child, at least presently, speaks German and English equally well and speaks German only to me, as well as to any other person who is German (even if they speak perfect English).

How did it all come about?

Of course the basics were to consistently speak German. That did a pretty good job for passive bilingualism. I then insisted on German responses when she was older, but did so gently by modelling (I really couldn't enforce a rule that I wouldn't respond to English utterances, I would have felt a cruel mum, considering how beautifully she speaks English with such a lovely Scottish accent!).

Next ingredients was maternity leave = spend more time with the child. There is a direct correlation of time spent with a child and level of language - 4 days a week in childcare is boo, 2 1/2 days with mummy around the rest of the time and a little sibling who mummy says is German and won't understand English - we're getting there.

Finally: Go to Germany without daddy but with a German friend and her children.
Magic. 2 1/2 weeks later and we've moved from slow and laboured minority language with interspersed English words and underlying English grammar to:
The Balance Bilingual Child. Yes.

I hope we can keep it up but it does seem easier now that speaking German finally comes natural to her and is no longer difficult. The hardest part was getting through her reluctant phase where she rightly said that it's harder to speak German than English. Now it's not and she no longer is reluctant.

Was it easy? No. It was much harder than I ever thought it would be. But it's been so worth it. I'm one proud mama.

Milestones in retrospect:
Cubling realises that there are real children who speak German when she first watches Die Sendung mit dem Elefanten (age 3).
Cubling travels to visit Opa and realises he doesn't understand her at all when she speaks English or Denglish (age 3)
Cubling becomes a big sister and mum goes off on maternity leave. She also goes to a German playgroups where there are lots of mummy who speak German. (age: 3 1/2- 4)
Cubling travels to visit Opa and is able to communicate pretty well in German and gains confidence in speaking it (age 4)
Cubling goes on holiday in Germany with a German family and is surrounded by German only for 2 1/2 weeks (age 4 1/2)
She now calls herself English and German. A year ago, she called herself English.

I've got a feeling that bilingualism will be an easy ride from now on.

(this post is written for the August Carnival of Bilingualism)


Plummy Mummy said...

Well done. All attempts to teach my little one her language have failed - partly as I wasn't as strict as you and partly as her Indian extended family all speak English. My brother's wife is french and every summer they visit the french grandparents so now they all speak french too - it's very cute.
Interesting that your child doesn't call herself scottish...mine loves declaring she's half scottish and half Indian - even when we lived in london. I cannot wait until she learns a scots accent - it's soo soo cute in kids.

smashedpea said...

Way to go!
I can confirm it gets easier once they no longer find speaking the minority language more difficult - at least that's what happened with our eldest who also was a passive bilingual for her first few years.

cartside said...

Yeah, I keep trying to correct her that she's Scottish not English, that she speaks English but her nationality is Scottish. She finds this strange because to her a nationality goes with a different language (though she has asked when listening on the radio to Obama: "what language does he speak?" er, English? American English? and all "foreign languages" she hears used to be classified as German (so the Lithuanian girl was German like her) and now they are classified as Spanish (the other language mummy speaks and occasionally teaches me funny words in)

Mwa said...

Ah, you give me hope! We had such an easy time of it with my first son, but now my daughter has great English vocabulary, but she does use Flemish word order which drives me crazy! I'm glad to hear this will change.

Anonymous said...


This bilingualism lark is hader than it looks, isn't it? It's nice to know that all the work we put in can pay off.

Medea said...

Too bad that magic potion is so expensive!

Good for you turning the trend around.

My parents are coming to visit for 3 weeks this autumn and I hope that my kids will realise Grandma and Grandad don't speak Japanese. I'm going to leave them on their own a lot. Would be great to have a kid around who can't understand them though.

Annabelle said...

This is such a great story. I think this is me in a couple of years. I am so glad it is working for you. It must be so lovely to see.

Busy as a Bee in Paris said...

oh.... it could be tricky again, there are lots of ups and downs when raising bilingual children, but it's true that there is one major wall in the beginning that must be overcome. other challenges present themselves as children and our situations evolve, but once we've planted the seed of enthusiasm and the child is clearly grounded in his language abilities, he or she has a firm foundation. i love what you said about gentleness. it's one thing we don't say enough in multilingual parenting, but gentle teaching works miracles! it's a powerful ingredient in and of itself! good luck to you, nothing better than the parental bilingual pride!

Frambooske said...

Well done you! And very interesting to read! In my head I'm planning lots of trips back home to Belgium and cycling trips in Holland to help my little boy with speaking... We shall see :).



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