As I have often experienced how comforting and encouraging it can
be to learn that others are facing similar problems and can cope with
them, I want to write a (more or less) detailed bilingual family
biography. I would appreciate any comments and discussions.
We (Karola and I) have two children: a boy, Philip, born in March
1991, and a girl, Sophie, born December 1993.
What were my (our) intentions in raising
our children bilingually?
In the first place, there was the example of friends: both
a mixed-American-German family and an English family. I thought that
it must be a great thing to acquire English nearly unconsciously. My
friends encouraged me to try it, they thought that my English would be
sufficient to do it. Another thing which influenced my decision was
the fact that English is the dominant language in our world. I knew
and I had realized very often how important it is to be able to speak
it. I was also aware of how much is involved in learning a foreign
language at school or even later and how comparatively easy it is to
acquire it as a pre-school child. Another important aspect is that if
you are bilingual you are more of a world citizen and not a
How did we proceed?
I started from
scratch speaking solely English to my children, while my wife spoke
German to them. There are no other English native speakers in our
neighbourhood, neither adults nor children, which is a pity. That is
the reason why it is very important to me to use other sources of
English as well: lots of video films, audio cassettes and books in
English, of course. A friend of mine in London supported me quite a
lot in sending me lots of books, cassettes and video tapes, and
besides that I owe her thanks for sending me English films on video at
a time when there was no satellite or cable TV.
Obstacles I had to
First of all, I faced obstacles deep within myself: Deeply felt
embarrassment, a constant feeling that I am doing something abnormal,
something against nature, especially if other people are around and
above all native speakers.
Then I am ashamed of all the mistakes I make or might make. But there
have also been friends and relatives who interfered. They kept and
some still keep on warning me that I might harm the development of my
children. Some even quoted pseudo scientific sources in which it is
proven how dangerous it were to raise children bilingually. But they
could never show me such books or articles.
Another hindrance, which I find more and more threatening, lies in
the fact, that I can't spend as much time as I would like to with my
children during a regular working week. I am constantly experiencing
that it is not symmetrical, if it is the mother or the father who is
teaching the second language. If the language is taught by the one who
is working-in our case myself-the exposure to the second language is
just a short period of time per day and hardly enough to keep them on
the level of their mothertongue. I realized that it is increasingly
more difficult to keep the children on their level of English.
Help I have Encountered:
- Above all, the moral support of my wife. Without her consent I
wouldn't have started or I might have stopped a long time ago.
- All the help I have already mentioned above.
- I am also thankful to George Saunders for his marvellous book
about his own experiences in raising his three children bilingually in
Australia(English/German). He did it without being a native German
Situation by the end of March 1997
My children like it and Philip the oldest, is even a
little bit proud of speaking English by now. This is maybe due to the
fact that English is held in high esteem in Germany.
My son, Philip, tries to avoid German when he is talking to me, his
father, under all circumstances. Sophie, on the other hand,
understands what I am saying but she nearly always answers in
German. However, recently, she told me that she wants to learn to
speak English now. This is probably because we are planning a trip to
the States or England in the near future.
The children always speak
German to each other. Philip is even translating Sophie's utterances
to English for me. I never speak German to them, and I have never read
a German book to them. Now and then, Philip will make mistakes, such
as: "Where go we?" "I like it not!",etc..
Situation by the end of August 1997
Our three weeks stay in England and Wales in May had been
a success to the language development of our children. Philip, and to
a minor degree Sophie too, realized how useful it is to understand and
be able to speak English. Philip was capable of following the
instructions and explanations in museums and other tourist sites, at
least according to his age. He was capable of communicating with other
Sophie who always answered in German when addressed in English until
that holiday is still doing it, but she is inserting more and more
English words to her answers. She can follow children films and books
with ease, and she is capable of repeating even long English
sentences. But as soon as I ask the same question once more, I will
get the answer in German (mixed with some English words)
Situation in February, 2001
Philip and Sophie are both passive bilinguals. They can cope with all
English films, audio cassettes and books, as long as they are suitable
for their age. Sophie started school last September. She is already
capable of reading simple English texts, as "fluently" as she reads
German texts. She is very eager to learn to read English as well. when
you have acquired English as a second language, as I did, it is
fascinating to see the way she copes with unknown words. She just
matches the word she can't read with her English "data base" and
finds most of the time the right pronunciation of the word, while I
had to pick up nearly all the pronunciations from
dictionaries. Needless to say that when I learned English, I had
hardly any English vocabulary to match written words with. Both
children are very proud that they are bilingual. It's partly due to
the fact that their classmates admire them because they are capable of
understanding English computer games or songs and so on. Sophie makes
no mistakes in German which could be related to her bilingual
upbringing, but Philip still has problems with the perfect. His German
perfect is just as simple as the English one: He uses "haben" (have)
in all cases. (In most cases he is right with this approach but in
German there are some words which have to be used in the perfect with
the German equivalent of "to be") But he is aware of the problem and
it is continuously getting better. If he thinks about it, he knows the
right form. It only happens, when he talks fast.
Their English would be much better, if we had an English context around
us - other English speaking children, families etc., but unfortunately
I have been their only source of English.
Sophie told me some weeks ago that she thinks that it sounds strange
when I speak German to her. That's funny, isn't it? She wouldn't
accept it, if I spoke German to her.
Situation in December, 2002
Philip's mistakes in German, related to the bilingual upbringing have
totally disappeared. The dominant language is German for both
children, but they are both capable of reading English books with fun on their
own no. Philip is reading "Lord of the Rings" at the moment and Sophie
"Because of Winn-Dixie" by Kate DiCamillo. That's quite a success, if
you imagine, that there are many other children in Germany who don't
even enjoy reading German books!