Our Summer Language Experiment

by contributor · 11 comments

By Christiane Küchler Williams
Photo credit: jepoirrier

This summer I tried something drastic in an attempt to expand my children’s secondary language use and exposure. Something they weren’t happy about at first and that even my – usually very supportive – husband found a bit extreme.

Did it work and boost the kids’ language learning and did, as Germans say, Der Zweck heiligt die Mittel (“the end justifies the means”)? Here is our summer story with a little background…

We are a bilingual English-German family – dad is from the US, mom is from Germany, currently living in England. Two boys, age 9 and 7, who grew up first in the US and then moved to the UK almost 3 years ago. Both kids go to a normal British Primary school, so German is restricted to the interaction before and after school and in-between the many activities they attend. We are very strict followers of OPOL (One-parent-one-language). During their early childhood this meant their main language was German, since I was home with them, but when they started (pre)school English became their main language of communication.

During the recent school year, I’d become increasingly frustrated with the vanishing amount of German in the house. Since they are older, the kids don’t really want to play with me anymore, but rather with each other (=English) or make up their own role plays with cars or Lego (=English). They don’t even want me to talk to them a lot, they need their peace and quiet after school, time on their own to unwind and relax after a long day before homework is calling again. So the most precious time to speak German (after school, but before dad comes home) often passes without much interaction. While it is great that I can prepare dinner in peace, the lost opportunities of communication became more and more apparent to me as the school year was winding down.

In addition to the lack of spoken language, there was also little reading and writing going on in German. We try to have German school (that I teach) every 2-3 weeks with 3 other kids, but scheduling problems between the three families had made those lessons infrequent and inconsistent. As for reading German: while we have plenty of German books, both boys now prefer to read on their own and don’t want to listen to me reading a story. Each has their favorite series of typical boy books (Diary of a Wimpy Kid, Horrid Henry, action hero stories, books about cars and Lego) and they are practically all English. When I try to expand their horizon and get more variety (science and history), we head to to the library, but – of course – all books from there are in English! In addition, as part of their homework they have to read to a parent (which they do with their dad since it is English), so reading out loud in German never occurs unless almost forced. The most obvious sign that most new knowledge and interesting facts were gained from English sources was the difficulty with which they tried to explain to me what they discovered. They simply lacked the vocabulary for this rapidly expanding world of interesting facts!

While German books were around, I only rarely saw one of them pick one up. Part of the problem was the speed with which their interests had specialized and the fact that they were outgrowing the classic German children’s books rapidly! Despite my encouragement, German books were not perused as often and since free choice and free play are central in our parenting philosophy, I watched frustrated but powerless. I realized that drastic measures had to be taken in order to at least attempt a change and reintroduce some more German back into the lives of my children!

In the past our usual vacation plans had included daily German exercises and activities. I started with these intensive summer classes when they were 3, first with the ABC’s, then teaching them to read/write. Lately they had to work through age-appropriate work books from Germany over Christmas and Easter. (In my opinion it is better to avoid parallel acquisition of reading/writing in two languages to avoid confusion and not hinder progress in school.)

For a couple of reasons (the main one being that we had to prepare for the UK Music Grade exams after the summer and had a schedule of daily sight–reading and listening exercises already) I assigned no German homework for the break. Instead I used a passive, but hopefully effective approach…

I waited until the summer holidays were in sight (here in England you get 6 weeks of vacation between the end of July and the first week of September). This way there was no English homework or reading assignments and no after-school activities. And then I did it: On the last day of school I removed ALL English books and videos and put them in the guest room.

The shelves looked a bit bare, but I replenished them with our German travel comics (which they are usually only allowed on the plane), some German versions of their favorites (e.g. a car model book and Wimpy Kid/Greg’s Tagebuch) as well as some cool new science and experiment books as gifts for their last day of school. Finally I had also ordered two of my favorite childhood books by Astrid Lindgren which I hoped they boys would like (Mio, mein Mio and Brüder Löwenherz/Brothers Lionheart). I wanted to read to them in the evening as part of our new bed time routine.

When the kids came home they were less shocked then expected, possibly appeased by the gifts. Over the first couple of days, some books were missed (especially the Horrid Henry ones, which you can gleefully read out loud, shouting and screaming horrid things without getting in trouble!) but on the plus side there was now a big pile of German comics and some picture books they hadn’t seen in a while as well as a whole new stack! Both kids settled into reading German books without complaints. As far as I could tell, the frequency of their reading did not change. That swap was painless and successful!

More resistance was met with the restriction to German videos. The current favorite (on loan from the neighbors) was in English and their German DVDs were apparently too boring or for babies.  Alas, faced with the possibility of watching a German movie or foregoing the weekend TV session, they settled for German.

The biggest success from my point of view however, was the bed time story. I know that everybody says you need to read to your children, but life often gets in the way – sometimes they come home too late from Karate, other nights I leave early for choir – but I made a point to read a chapter to them almost every night during the summer. We even took the book on vacation with us. There was new vocabulary to discuss and best of all we recapped the story line up to the point to which we had gotten so far, which was a great opportunity for using German and expanding a vocabulary field that had nothing to do with the daily grind, school or food.

The stories resonated with my boys as we talked about what might happen next. Sometimes during they day they would ask a question or make a comparison to the book. It was all effortless communication, very clearly not inhibited by the fact that they had thought/experienced something in English and then tried to translate it for me. It was clear German input-output, which is the smoothest and therefore most confidence inspiring.

Over the course of the summer, some compromises were made. The big Lego book and two car magazines found their way back into circulation since they were perused for the pictures rather than the text. (They were also taken with us on the cruise since they simply give the most entertainment for the least weight.) We also watched two family movies in English, since my husband was participating (and watching “Star Wars” in German would have been borderline ridiculous when you have the original!).

So did this experiment work? Did their German improve by passively diminishing the exposure to English? And was it more effective than covering 4 pages in a work book every day?

They certainly increased their vocabulary. New words from books were clearly absorbed and incorporated into the active language. The discussions of the bed time stories were lively and immediate. Certain words necessary for comprehension were inquired rather than ignored since there was no easy English alternative book. Thus, reading comprehension in German increased. However I am not sure whether this would also reflect in their writing – spelling is definitely something that improves more with workbooks and repeated writing than just reading (unless you have a very visual learner or a child with photographic memory).

Despite the increased exposure to (written) German, I am not sure how much impact this had on the language of their inner dialogue. During the summer they still mainly played with each other and with their toys in English. However, the Lego figures and some of the cars we had picked up on our short visit to Germany were deemed to speak German and so some toy activity was entirely in German, which had never happened before! In addition, the acquisition of cool new knowledge (and the many ideas for exciting experiments) was dominated by German (and thus the translation into English to share with their dad was for once halting). There were no negative feelings towards German exercises, since it was all play and no work – no pressure to fill out workbooks and no grammatical corrections.

But would I do it again? What I have learned from this experiment is that I need to read more German stories to my children. It was by far the most effective way to increase vocabulary. I might also buy some more German DVDs so that they can pick these over English ones because of the content, regardless of the language choice. On the other hand, if I want my children to have age appropriate reading and writing skills compatible with their German native peers, I will have to continue the work books and grammar exercises. But it sure was nice to take a break from the German homework pressure for one summer – both for the kids and mom!

Now that school has started again, during the last weekend we moved the mountains of books back into the boys’ rooms. They were happy to see some of their old friends and started reading immediately. Here is hoping that some of their German favorites will also stay in circulation until there is a new batch of cool German books for Christmas!

Christiane Küchler Williams is a German university lecturer and writer, currently living in England with her American husband and their two sons. In addition to trying to raise the children bilingually, she can claim to have owned a bilingual parrot and currently a bilingual dog (if he listens at all).

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{ 11 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Bekah October 16, 2011 at 11:40 pm

I know it may not increase reading/writing time, but one strategy I’ve read about for increasing speaking time in bilingual living situations is to designate certain rooms of the house to be “X” rooms or “Y” rooms (for you, English and German). That way, communication no longer is interaction dependent (dependent on the parent/child/sibling someone is interacting with), but it becomes situation dependent (dependent on the function of the space someone is in). This has also been said to be a good way to help learners understand register and diglossia issues. I’m not sure what the research says about OPOL vs. this approach, but it seems to me that your children might be old enough that the room approach could help. :) Good luck!

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2 Kristin October 17, 2011 at 12:25 pm

Really interesting article, and great experiment! As a fellow German living in England, with a child just starting school, I am really keen to find out about these things. Thank you!

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3 Antonia October 17, 2011 at 1:01 pm

Well done!
Children are often less resistant than we think they are going to be!

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4 Christel October 17, 2011 at 6:00 pm

Hi to all fellow multilinguals:

We are a household of three living in the USA. Me, the mom, born and raised in Germany, husband born and raised in the Philippines by US ex-patriots, and our 10 year old daughter, born here in the US. Maintaining our daughter’s German language and culture has always been a huge task an obligation to me, supported by my husband. I created an environment of “Germaness”, if you will, at our home with all kinds of exposures. New movies are bought only in German as well as books like “Diary of the Wimpy Kid”. This way, our daughter experiences the same cultural learning as her US peers while maintaining and strengthening her German literacy. I also created experiences for her acquisition of traditional and contemporary German culture so that our daughter can communicate not just in language but also in socialization with her German peers. I am glad to submit a longer report on our activities to share with others in this BLOG.
I applaud all fellow multilingual parents who provide the gift of another language and culture to their children. Our children will be citizens of the world who will benefit from their skills in many, many ways!
I have an extensive BLOG on English as a Second Language incl. a category for German language. I invite all to contribute to my BLOG whatever they can so it can be shared with others here in the USA.
Thanks, Christel

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5 Barbara October 18, 2011 at 8:30 pm

We (US-Geeman family in US) also let the kids watch German TV-shows, mainly Sendung mit der Maus. We get those via an “internet-Vioderecorder” ( we use http://www.save.tv), but you can also get the Sachgeschichten as Podcasts or on their website http://www.wdrmaus.de. The stories are entertaining and educational. As they explain technical things for kids, the kids’ vocabulary expands into the technical arena, that might not be otherwise used at home. There also new science/educational shows or older kids now like Wissen macht Ahh. With all the TV-shows and movies we can download from the Geeman TV-program, the kids hardly watch US TV or videos.

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6 Petra October 23, 2011 at 6:53 pm

Thank you for your informative article. We are in a similar situation but in Australia. I find that german audio books work really well. For example my 7 year old is into “Beast Quest” at the moment, so instead of reading the english books to him he listens to the german audio book – and prefers it – he gets to listen to the whole book in one evening instead of a chapter a night (or having to read them himself!).

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7 Barbara October 23, 2011 at 7:41 pm

We also listen to a lot of German audiobooks in the car. I found that the iTunes Germany stores has lots of children’s CDs, including all the old Astrid Lindgren-versions I listened to as a child, as well as Otfried Preussler etc. These old recordings are cheap, too. You only need to register with iTunes German (I have an US-account and a German account), but then you can also download German music. Internet makes the bilingual live so much easier!

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8 Sarah October 26, 2011 at 12:00 am

German is a beautiful language. It is great that you are giving effort to bring back your kids’ interest about it. I am impressed with your ideas on how to do this and I think you will see their effect on your kids as time progresses. Just keep up the good work and I am sure your kids will show some progress.

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9 Ella October 26, 2011 at 12:17 am

since our children (10,9) can use the internet on their own, they watch all kinds of clips, tv programmes, free games, Sendung mit der Maus on the internet and that does help a lot. We keep the computer in the living room in order to make sure they don´t watch strange things

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10 Corey January 3, 2012 at 7:47 pm

Thank you everyone for all of the fantastic comments! I am certain that Christiane read them all and was delighted with your feedback!

I was so excited to read Christiane’s article when she first sent it to me. What a fantastic thing to do and then to share it with all of us so that we could “live” through her experiences! So wonderful!

Please continue to share your experiences as well as your recommended resources. It is so exciting to see how others are doing things and where they find their language support.

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11 Christine Rolland November 5, 2012 at 8:35 am

An American living in France with a French husband, I have raised two children bilingually. I am a bit surprised at Christiane’s fear to have her children learn to read and write in both languages at the same time. My experience was that there was no problem with this. I actually never did any grammar exercises with them. With each, one day when they were at the end of first grade or beginning of second, I pulled out a first grade reader in English. I explained vowel sounds to them and how they were written differently in English and French. About an hour of looking at the book together was enough. Within weeks, they had figured out how to read in English and were happily doing so. From the time they were tiny, I had read a bedtime story to them in English and this continued well into primary school. With my son, since he was very auditive, it actually continued into junior high. We read all kinds of books chapter by chapter — novels, adventure stories, some of my favorite books from that age… When they reached 6th grade, when a second foreign language was required in school, they took German and in 8th grade, when they were supposed to start a second foreign language, I was able to arrange for them to go into an English class with students who had already done two years of English. This is where they learned grammar and to write correctly — with no difficulty and very rapidly, all the while continuing to study German in school as their second “first” foreign language.

At home, from the time they could stand, we did cooking and games and housecleaning in English. When we went for walks, we were talking English. My husband was an English teacher so that re-enforced their desire to practice their second language. In about 6th grade, when one of my children wanted to earn some money and I proposed various jobs, he answered, “No. I want to correct homework like Papa.” So his father showed him his students’ uncorrected homework and he picked out most of the mistakes…

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