Bilingual Upbringing of
  Children in the Home

Bilingual Experiences

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 nationalist.

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 face:
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 speaker.

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 people.
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) again.

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!

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