Encouraging Languages With Children

I noticed the other day that I haven’t written anything for ages. 9 months in real time, probably equating to just about 9 million years in internet time… Between raising our children and work, there hasn’t been much time for extracurricular fun stuff such as blogging! But boy, we have been busy in all that time. Trips to France, Cornwall, Germany, a conference, two language courses taught, a client meeting in Yorkshire (where I got to indulge my favourite accent of all time), new customers, roughly 1.5 million translated and proofread words between us…

Before our eldest daughter was born, I had this vision. I would only speak to her in German. We would have a specific hand puppet for our daily French lessons, and another one for our occasional Spanish sing songs.

Now, almost four years later, I found it was time for a reality check.

Do I exclusively speak to her in German? Absolutely NOT. The reality is, it very much depends on the topic, on the situation and on which mood I find myself in.

Being submerged in an English-speaking environment (preschool, hobbies, relatives, friends, TV, music, and the list goes on) it is her natural response to adopt English as the dominant and active language, and German as the passive one. She will understand everything you say and ask her to do in German, and give simple responses when pushed: “Möchtest du deinen Pulli oder deinen Bademantel?“ (Would you like your jumper or your dressing gown?). Also, she will relay a German sentence in English within the bat of an eyelid: „Sagst du dem Papa bitte, dass die Mama in zwei Minuten kommt?“ – “Daddy, Mummy says she will come in two minutes.“

Her very first words were: See (lake), Fasan (pheasant), Meer (sea), Vogel (bird), Katze (cat), Mauer (wall) – you get a hint of how we live down here! –  as well as vital words such as: alleine (on my own), ranschieben (to push in), Kino (cinema), Fernbedienung (remote control), backen (to bake), Pommes (chips). When she hit nursery age, she would come home with a new English word every day. And they would soon add up to proper sentences! From not understanding one single word in English (aged 21 months) to having her first language changed from German to English in her nursery file (“Her English is on par with, if not better than her peers’ “), it was only a matter of 5 months.

In all that time, we encouraged German and Spanish through nursery rhymes and childrens songs. And Spanish came in very handy to talk about birthday presents or other surprises, until we were asked one night at the dinner table to “stop speaking Spanitch“ and to “speak normal already“. Normal being English and German.

At around 3 years of age, she was then able to identify individual languages and ask “How do we say … in German, Mummy?“. Using her toy bunny Hasi, who goes everywhere with her at all times, we started introducing more and more Spanish. It happens that we sometimes sit at the breakfast table and repeat fruit & veg or various drinks with Hasi in Spanish, which is always a  good laugh. The key to language learning, as I have often said to my students of various ages, is fun. The more positive your approach to the subject, the easier it will be to remember new words. Because our eldest has so many positive emotions connected with her bunny, but also with French (holidays in France!) and Spanish (great friends from Mexico who came to stay with us), language learning is fun and a great means for us to teach geography as the same time (we look at a map together and say: “People here, in Spain, they will say Hola!“).

Songs, books, puppets and travelling – those, I  would say, have been the keys to introducing additional languages from a very young age. Also, it is important to not feel under pressure to speak all languages in equal measures (I did feel like I was failing when I wouldn’t speak what I considered to be enough German in a day). Children are sponges, and they will just soak up new words without even knowing.


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