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With Train in Hand

Guest Post by Corey Heller:

“All aboard everyone, Spencer is leaving,” my older son calls out. But his younger brother, standing in the way, says, „Nein, das is Percys Platz!” A struggle ensues: „Geh weg, das ist Spencers Gleis!” Eventually a solution is found and Spencer continues his route around the table, accompanied by my older son’s announcement: “Here comes Spencer, everyone. Look how fast he can go!”

Ah, an average day in our household: German and English mingle as my children construct, argue, discuss, pretend and cajole. Sometimes they play in one language and discuss in another, other times they use the same language all day long, and sometimes they even mix the two. Language simply flows in ways that make the most sense to my preschoolers.

English is often the chosen language of play these days. This probably has much to do with the influence of friends at daycare. Although we speak German at home, English is the language of play between children at daycare, so our children simply go with the flow. They build their vocabulary bit by bit as they are surrounded by other English speakers. Even at our German playgroup, English quickly replaces German as the older children join in to play with the younger kids. In fact, our children most certainly associate the English language with playing with other children.

Not too long ago, after a visit to the library, my children and I headed home with a few DVDs about how highways are constructed, houses built, and crops grown. Our two boys sat in complete rapture as the road-building crew blew up the ground in preparation for a new highway, and they were enthralled as the carpenter hammered one nail after another and a house slowly formed before their eyes.

A week or so later, I heard the boys in the living room speaking English with one another. This was the first time that I had heard them speak to one another in English. They were pretending to be construction crew workers and spoke in deep, serious workman voices.

“I need the concrete over here, bring it over here!”

“Ok, on my way. Move to the side, here I come.”

“Pour the concrete right here, this is where the foundation is.”

It is hard to describe how I felt at that moment. I felt a bit of confusion, a bit of panic, a bit of delight, a bit of frustration. What could be happening?

Years earlier, my husband and I had come up with a plan. We had decided that we would both speak German at home with our children, even though it was not my native language. I was delighted with this plan. Together we would make the effort to provide our children a life bathed in a second language. And here, after months and months of only speaking German with my children and of hearing only German spoken at home, my kids were in the living room speaking ENGLISH with one another!

I stood where I was in the kitchen, confused about why they chose to speak English all of a sudden. First I jumped to some rash conclusions: It must have been the influence of that English-speaking older kid who had been visiting the day before. Yes, that was it. It was his fault. Ok, no more kids come to play unless they speak German! Or maybe it was because my husband and I speak English together sometimes. Oh no, I was sabotaging my whole effort with those minor slips of the tongue! Enough of that! I’d have a talk with my husband and it would be German from now on, keine Frage!

Exasperated, I decided I should simply question my boys, to give them a chance to explain. I gently asked them what they were doing. Without looking up they responded that they were building a house. “Ah, I see,” I said. I then after a few seconds I said casually, “Um, I was wondering why you two are speaking English while you build your house.” They both stopped what they were doing and looked at me with slightly confused faces. My oldest then said to me with a furrowed brow, “Because we are construction workers, Mama.” The tone in his voice was clear: “Duh, don’t you get it?”

But I didn’t get it, at least not at first. I wasn’t really sure what my son meant in that moment. I thought to myself, “But there are construction workers in Germany too and they speak German!”

They continued playing and I watched and listened for a while. There they were, playing away, using the same words that they had learned from the DVDs: foundation, concrete, front loader, bulldozer, skill saw. The list went on an on and in addition, there were complete sentences in proper contexts. I was truly amazed at what my boys had picked up from just a few DVD viewings. I realized at that moment what my older son had been trying to tell me. In his own way, he was trying to say, “Mama, we only have the vocabulary for these things in English. For us to use the German words, we would need to hear and understand the context of those words in German. And you need to make it interesting and part of our contextual world.”

As my children have grown and learned more and more words and sentences in both languages, I realize just how important language exposure really is. A DVD can have an extremely positive (or negative) influence, choosing a book full of vocabulary in cultural context can help seemingly unrelated discussions blossom, and interaction with children and adults who speak the target language is essential. Children are simply amazing in their ability to pick up words and phrases and to apply them to various contexts. They don’t worry about language rules, or whether a word is a noun or a verb or an adjective. They simply crave the chance to communicate, and they utilize their vocabulary as it expands and swells. Each day I am reminded of the tremendous role that I as a parent have over the direction of my children’s language skills, whether I am trying or not! And I know that my husband and I are not the only influences over our children’s language development. We move along a continual, gentle balance between language worlds.

What I have also come to understand is that our family is actually becoming a bilingual family. This probably comes as an obvious statement, but it has been an important realization nonetheless. The key is to comprehend what bilingual really means. To be a bilingual means allowing two languages to coexist. We are not (nor do we want to be) a monolingual German-speaking family living in the United States. To be truly bilingual means to respect and honor both languages and to allow them their places in our home and in our lives.

It has taken some time, but I now savor the mixing and swirling of languages in my home: A smattering of English here or an outpouring of it there is no longer a source of consternation. I feel our family is finding its language equilibrium each step of the way. We test the waters and inch our way in bit by bit and hope all will work out in the end.

However, it always seems to be in these times of comfort and calm that life turns itself upside down. We will most certainly be dealing with a whole new set of bilingual trials and tribulations before too long. Will my children get to a point where they won’t want to speak German at all anymore? What if I can’t keep up with their level of German vocabulary as it expands? Until such a day comes, I am going to sit back with a cup of coffee and listen to my little construction grew blow up the sofa prepare for the coming highway. Hmmm, I can’t remember, is “kaboom” German or English, or both?

Corey

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