gorilla parent: the bilingual baby experiment

So we live in Germany. I am American. The Beard is German. Watching a little person learn two languages at once is one of the things I have looked most forward to when it comes to baby making and raising. And here we are.

From the very beginning, from Baby Pickles’ very first minute outside of my belly, I spoke English with (to) her. The Beard speaks German with (to) her. This is what linguists call the one parent, one language style of bilingualism. Some people do one language at home, one language outside. Some people do one language in one country, one language in another. There are about as many styles to bilingual parenting as there is sugar in Willy Wonka’s candy landscape.

However, the Beard and I speak German to each other, and we will continue to do so. Theoretically, when Baby Pickles joins in and speaks German in these conversations, I will answer in English. Then again, some folks propose a “whoever starts the conversation choses the language used” principle, but as I don’t really like speaking English with the Beard I can’t imagine implementing that. It all sounds very complicated, not to mention the fact that I am not very good at constant language switching (though I am a bit better at it already, after seven months of practice).  Who knows. I think the key, like everything else when it comes to parenting, is to remain flexible.

As the only person in Pickles’ direct surroundings who speaks English, I’m figuring on having a lot of work to do to make the language interesting. I don’t want it to someday just be some stupid language that mommy speaks. So I’m looking for English-speaking play groups, and you don’t even want to know how many kids books we already have (in part because I love to collect beautiful kids books, which I of course do in English). Not to mention the fact that we almost only watch movies in English. I figure the more people she meets who speak English, the more situations in which it is useful to her, the more the language will come to mean to her. If she has English-speaking friends, then the language’s value to her will become more acute. And of course there will be trips to the States. What I really, really don’t want is for us to visit and for her to be incapable of communicating with any of her American family.

I’m already bracing myself for the fact that Pickles’ strongest language is not going to be English. I mean, maybe she’ll be great at it, but with the resounding influences in her life in German, with German schools and German neighbors and, well, Germany everywhere around her, I expect that she’ll excel in that language more so than in English. And it totally blows my mind. How could I create a child that doesn’t even speak my native language? Immigrant parenting is a whole new mine field of wonder.

Are any of your raising bilingual kids? What has it been like for you so far?

0 Comments on “gorilla parent: the bilingual baby experiment

  1. Wow, you are echoing my dreams and fears for (someday) raising children in Germany. I speak German with my partner and would prefer to continue doing that (and am also not so good with switching languages back and forth), but at the same time raise a child that is also fluent in my mother tongue. Even though I love speaking German, the idea that a child of mine would prefer German to English kind of freaks me out. Of course it would be understandable, being raised in a German environment and all, but I somehow would want to instill a love and appreciation for the English language. (Not the least of all so that the bond with my family back home could have a chance to thrive.) In any case, the theories behind raising bilingual children fascinate me — and I love hearing about how real people put them into practice. Good luck in your bilingual child raising adventures!

  2. We have a big mix with our kids. When we first started having kids, we were living in Israel. I’m American and my husband is South African, but grew up in Israel. His family spoke English at home (after the changed from Afrikaans when he was 5), but the kids changed to Hebrew between themselves when they were in elementary school. All of them speak English very well because the home environment was completely English. Although, if you ask my husband, he will tell you that he is more comfortable in Hebrew. So, when we married we decided to follow that model and keep an English environment at home, knowing that once the kids go to school, they will prefer Hebrew. So, we have 4 kids and their primary language is English. BUT – we left Israel 3 years ago because my husband needed to do a postdoc here in Germany. We didn’t plan on staying for this long, but these things happen. When we left Israel, my daughter had just started going to Kindergarten (at 3 years old – like here in Germany) and she was speaking Hebrew quite fluently. When she figured out that we speak Hebrew too, she started to insist that we speak Hebrew with her when she started a conversation in Hebrew. We indulged her, but we probably shouldn’t have because we know that one day she will prefer Hebrew, no matter if it is our home language. So, going back to Germany. When we moved to Germany we decided to keep our home language English because we didn’t think that we would stay for many years. My daughter entered Kindergarten here and began to learn German, as she did her Hebrew disappeared, although she still understands. My son then followed her and he speaks German now as well. We will be going back to Israel in the Spring, so then they will be learning and speaking Hebrew again. For us, we will leave our home language English because it works for us. I’m not sure to what extent they will appreciate that, but I’m sure English won’t be their preferred language one day.
    It’s harder when you have a situation like you have where one parent speaks the language of the country you live in. Then it get’s really hard to preserve the second language. From what I have seen with other families, if it’s important to you to preserve English, you really have to put the effort into keeping it up. Many times, the child will speak the native language once they know that you understand that language. But they will definitely understand you and have a good working knowledge of the second language. At least, that’s what I have seen with my friends where the parents speak two different languages. Vacations and time with family can be a real boost to their language acquisition of the second language, even if it’s just a few weeks.
    No matter what you do, Pickles will benefit from being exposed to English. How much of it she uses that in the end will be ultimately up to her. Some kids will run with it and others may not be so open to using the second language.

  3. You really touched the spot here. Me and my boyfriend we are thinking about having kids soon and this is one of my biggest fears. I am Portuguese he is German, we speak both english and german with each other and we live in Germany… I think it will be hard for our kids to pick up on the Portuguese because we don´t have much portuguese friends here and there isnt much activities around where the language is used… let´s see how it goes. But please keep posting about this, I find the topic really interesting 🙂 and your baby is looking so sweet!

  4. I have know some people that taught their children Spanish and English. They told me that their children took twice as long to begin speaking, but took to both languages well.

  5. I don’t have kids yet, but I definitely think about this a lot. I feel the same way – must be so weird to have kids that are more German than I ever will be! My husband and I speak a strange mix of German and English. I’m not sure what it will be like when we have kids. But it’s fascinating though, and as you said – there are so many ways to do it.

  6. My son is 3 1/2 and is being raised bilingually. I speak purely English to him and his dad speaks German to him. He goes to a purely German Kita and that has been his main language really since he was 17 months. He speaks a real mix of both and the periods when he speaks little English to me (I always reply in English though and repeat what he says back to me in English) sometimes make me a little sad but I know the English is still there. It’s slow progress in comparison to when a child just has one language but what a start for a child!

  7. Mandi: Thanks! And I’m sure you guys will figure it out too. I have to say I have gotten a hell of a lot better at constantly switching back and forth between languages, though I’m still not the best at it, and then sometimes find myself starting a sentence addressed at someone else in English. Whoops. But it’s totally worth it I figure. I hope.

    Sherah: Wow, what an interesting language experience you guys have had! You’ve got it too…however much English she wants to use, she will. Oh how I hope I manage to do a good enough job that it becomes at least mildly important to her!

    Rute: Oh! Exciting that you guys are thinking about kids and kids’ languages. I will def be posting a lot on this in the future. That is really one huge benefit to my native language being English–there is a lot of English speaking community, even here. I hope you guys figure something out that works for everyone!

    Justin: I have heard that too, about bilingual kids often taking longer to get started with words.

    Liz: Thanks for the rec!

    Sarah: Exactly. I don’t think it will ever stop amazing me that I made a baby who speaks perfect German! Wow.

    Workingberlinmum: Awesome and best of luck! Seems like a lot of parental perserverance is required. Hope I can manage it.

  8. My husband and I are both English, so we did the English at home, German at school method. It worked best for the first child. After that, we had visiting German kids round to play a lot, so there was more German spoken at home. The tricky bit was ensuring that they spoke English amongst themselves at home – sometimes, especially with games (Pokemon cards etc.)they’d learned from school, they just didn’t have the English vocabulary – and neither did I! But overall, all three kids turned out completely fluent in both languages… it just took the younger ones a bit longer to get there.

  9. Hey Nikki, we are working on raising a bilingual child. My husband mostly speaks Macedonian and I mostly speak English. It’s funny now that Andre is beginning to speak more and more what he comes out with. The majority of his words are English, but he does come out with some Macedonian every now and then. It’s pretty cute and neat. It’s funny when I ask him a question in English and he says, “Da!” (yes) or waves and says, “Ciao!” to everyone when they leave (I know that’s italian, but it’s what they say over there most of the time). Hoping he picks up enough to be able to communicate with his family over there without a problem though the reality is it will probably be hard for him when he’s immersed in English language the majority of his day. We will see how it goes – I haven’t really read up on it, but probably should. Good luck with your ventures!

  10. There are lots of English mums+babies meet-ups advertised on Toytown for Frankfurt – could be an opportunity to be around other English speakers. The woman who runs the shop downstairs from me had a baby in March and although her husband is technically a native English speaker, he’s lived in Germany since he was a kid and usually speaks that (although I recently found out that despite that he, like me, still needs to use English for doing sums). Although he tries a bit not to be lazy about it, he was really pleased with himself when he realised that with me around every once in a while, he wouldn’t be solely responsible for speaking English to the baby.

  11. Your position is enviable (at least for me). I had grand visions of only speaking German with my son but as I am the only one in the household who can, and am still just a beginner at that, I find it difficult.

    Most of the daddy parent babble just comes out English, it takes a real conscious effort to do German and then I gotta work out translations and sometimes do some preparation pre-engagement with a eng/ger dictionary just to figure out what I’m gonna say to him.

    I think Pickles will turn out just fine for you, although the books I have read say there will be a point where the child will likely refuse (English likely in your case) to speak one of the languages at home just because it’s not used by the peer group. At any rate most Germans have a frightening grasp of English once they leave school so there’s no reason to fear, methinks.

  12. I am the French influence in my friends’ billingual children’s lives. He is Francophone, she is English (but speaks french), thy each speak their language to the children, but french to ach other. So far it is working pretty well. Their 4 year old can switch back and forth with no problems and their younger son (2 yrs) is starting to really distinguish between the two languages. Ther was a lag in launguage aquisition at first, but they seem to have caught up with it pretty quickly.

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