By Corey Heller
Photo credit: eamoncurry123
As many of you know, my husband is German and I am American. I met him in Galway, Ireland during an education abroad program in 1991, fell in love with him in 1992 and life hasn’t been the same since. (In a good way, that is!)
After Ireland I moved to Kiel, Germany with my husband where I spent a total of two years learning the language, learning the culture, getting to know my husband’s family and friends, taking German language classes for many hours a day and eventually attending the university of Kiel in my field of Ancient History. After two years in Germany, we moved to Seattle in the USA to start grad school.
Those two years are the culmination of my intense, authentic German language exposure. Even though I was the most dedicated student I could imagine, two years is still a relatively short amount of time to master a language.
Of course, I have kept up the language on my own and my husband has been fantastic in helping me continue to practice it. But still… there is only so much that I can do. My German language skills have declined bit-by-bit each year, to my dismay.
Despite this reality, for the past 11 years I have made the effort to raise my children and educate them at home in German as much as possible. I have made more grammatical mistakes than I can even count and I have failed to know proper vocabulary words on more occasions than I’d like to remember. I am rarely able to explain puns or special terms or sayings to my children while reading them the Percy Jackson books out loud in German – simply because I have failed to understand the meanings myself.
However, despite all of these failings, I am confident that I have provided my children a wonderful foundation in the German language. We converse comfortably in German and aren’t shy about looking up words or asking their father when we aren’t sure of a specific pronunciation or definition. My children can read books comfortably in German and I look forward to reading magazines and books in German every moment that I can. Each time we visit Germany, family and friends rave about my children’s German skills, which reminds me that I must be doing some things right.
However, I still grapple with that nagging voice in the back of my head that says that I am a failure for not having made it farther. I lower my head in shame that I wasn’t able to do more. I sigh in disappointment for not having practiced my German more diligently each day so that I could have have been able to do so much more for my children.
Reality Sets In
Since returning from a visit to Germany in the fall, I have been speaking more and more English with my children but not because I am lazy or forgetful or tired out. I do it because as a homeschooling family, I realize that I have been selling my children short by trying to do everything in German. As my children’s main source of language arts instruction, it is my responsibility to make sure that my children are exposed to increasingly complex vocabulary and syntax and overall language exposure each year. This is important!
And I have come to terms with the fact that I just can’t do this well enough in German. My own vocabulary and syntax and overall language skills in German just aren’t rich enough.
If I want my children to learn a variety of words for the world around them, aside from the myriad of literary terms and expressions and meanings and subtleties, then I need to be able to share these with them. My children and I need to be able to discuss things in ever increasingly complex conversations and debates. I need to be able to use a variety of vocabulary comfortably in a number of different contexts so that my children will themselves become comfortable with an abundance of usages and nuances.
If I want my children to be able to fully and accurately express and clarify what they are feeling and thinking, then I need to help my children become comfortable with the words and thoughts and expressions to do so. If I could do this in German, I would. But I can’t.
Am I disappointed in myself?
But am I also proud of myself?
I am proud that I have been able (and continue to be able) to provide my children with German language exposure in meaningful ways for these past 11 years and counting. I am also proud of myself for having admitted that I can’t do everything in German and have been willing to seek out a new path.
I am proud of myself for not trying to be some kind of super-woman for my children and for myself. For not being too stuck in my ways to admit that I don’t have to accomplish everything just as I had it all planned out in my mind.
I am proud of myself for accepting myself for who I am, what I have been able to do and for accepting my limitations.
I am delighted that my children are old enough now to feel that they are masters of their languages. They feel comfortable switching to English and then back to German and then mixing the two when they want.
My children don’t feel that language use is something fraught with rules and demands and worries. I have never taught them that one language is “right” and the other is “wrong” so they don’t feel any discomfort using both at will. My children use their languages however they want yet don’t even realize how often they switch back and forth seamlessly. It is simply part of who they are.
I, on the other hand, feel like a non-native who has gone astray.
I feel like I have given in to something that I shouldn’t have (digging into that big bowl of chocolate ice cream that has been sitting there, taunting me). I feel like I have stumbled and fallen, crashed and burned, turned to the dark side.
Yet at the same time, I also feel strangely empowered – a non-native speaker who is taking matters into her own hands.
I feel like I am forging a new path through the thick underbrush with a machete in hand and a strong sense of direction. Forget the beaten path, we will create our own!
So, I although I feel that I have gone astray, I also feel that it was time to make a change. And although I feel like I have turned to the dark side, deep down what I am now doing also feels right and good.
Because when it comes down to it, the reality is that each of our family’s language patterns are always in flux; always ebbing and flowing and changing. It is simply a matter of staying on the path when it makes sense and then having the faith to create our own when the time comes.
But most importantly: we need to remember to check out the view along the way because dang, it is always so spectacular!
What about you? Do you feel that you have gone astray? Or do you feel that you are still on the path?