Last week, I asked readers for questions. I decided to split up the answers into several posts. This one addresses language related questions.
Maria Guzenko wrote:
You’ve mentioned you are fluent in German. Do you still have much of an accent? Was much attention paid to pronunciation in your German class? Do you feel it’s sufficient to just be fluent or can having an accent make you feel an “outsider”?
My husband tells me I have a very thick, but cute, American accent. I haven’t made much effort to improve my pronunciation, I find that there’s not so much one can do, either you can make certain sounds or you can’t. So I suppose I think it’s sufficient being fluent. I’ve never felt like an outsider because of my accent (but I’m not someone who could pass for German either, so I’m an outsider before I even open my mouth).
There was some attention paid to pronunciation in my German courses, but basically just to the point that you were easily understandable. One comment that’s often made about American accents is that we sound like we’re speaking with marbles in our mouths. An exercise we did in class to try to overcome this, was to hold a wine cork lengthwise between your top and bottom front teeth (so your mouth is held wide open) and then to practice trying to speak German clearly.
Did you speak German before you moved there with your husband? What got you over the hump from German student to German speaker? (I’m learning the language now as an adult and it’s slow-going!)
I didn’t really speak German when I moved here. I had taken two semesters of German as a freshman in college, but by the time I moved to Germany, all I could do was ask how the weather is (and I wouldn’t understand the answer). I started taking evening classes at the Goethe Institut in Berlin (I highly recommend the Goethe Institut), but found that I was not learning quickly enough to catch on to what was going on at work (I was working in a German company), so I got permission to take a 2.5 week superintensive course and after this, I could follow what was going on in meetings, although I was still far from being able to participate. I continued after that in evening courses for the next 5 months, going from level A2 to level C1 over the course of 6 months (back then it was called Grundstufe 2 to Oberstufe 1). I made every effort to learn the language and in my spare time was doing homework and extra workbook exercises. For a time, I also had a private tutor provided by my work. At the 6 month mark, many of my coworkers stopped speaking English to me. I hated this, but it probably helped my quick mastery of the language more than anything else. Within a year I was writing and speaking fluent German.
To sum it all up, I think having people around who force you to speak German is probably what got me over the hump, although I was very highly motivated and a quick learner, which I’m sure made things much easier for me.
Just wondering if your little boy is starting to talk yet? Does he speak English to you? I know you’ve spent time back in the States, which I’m sure did wonders for his two languages. Anything special you do to make sure he doesn’t forget his mom’s culture and language?
Oliver is about 2 3/4 years old now and is talking. He began really speaking a little later than most of the German children we are around, but seems to have completely caught up at this point.
I was a child that was started off bilingual (English and Thai), but when my siblings and I all refused to speak Thai with my mother, she gave up, and now I really wish that I could speak Thai. I learned German very quickly, and I think my early bilingualism helped (she spoke Thai to me until I was around 6 or 7, but I never consistently spoke Thai back). I think the synapses for Thai are still around, just dormant. When I’m given a new Thai word, I can generally remember it with just one hearing, whereas with German, sometimes even after hearing a word dozens of times, it still doesn’t really enter my vocabulary. Anyways, my point is, that making sure the same thing doesn’t happen with Oliver is very important to me.
After reading a couple books on raising kids bilingually, we decided on having an English-speaking household. I always speak English to him, and just after his birth, I made a big effort to cut all Denglisch from my vocabulary and really stick to proper English. This was tough at first, but I managed within a couple months. When Oliver and my husband are on their own together, they speak German, but when we are together as a family, we speak English together. I know a lot of parents doing the one-parent one-language thing and when the kid goes off to Kindergarten they kind of forget or struggle with their second language, so I thought having English at home was something to try. I think either method works as long as you’re consistent and insistent, you’ve just got to figure out what’s right for your family.
Having an English-speaking household has worked out well for us. Oliver switches perfectly between English and German. I’m really surprised how well it has worked, in fact, I expected more mixing of the languages and more dominance of one language over the other. He started Kinderkrippe at the beginning of March, and speaks German really well now (and even curses in Bavarian, yikes!), but isn’t fighting speaking English at home at all. When he encounters something new, he’ll ask me what it is, then after I say what it is in English, he’ll turn to my husband (or another German speaker who’s around) and ask them what it is. It amazes me that he already understands that everything has two names and he wants to know what they both are.
I was a little nervous about speaking English to him when we’re out and about, thinking people would make assumptions about me not being able to speak German, but I found Germans think it’s really great and haven’t made any assumptions about me. They come right up and ask in German how raising him Zweisprachig (bilingual) is going. A lot of people even want to practice their English with him. I think this is one factor that will make it much easier for me than it was for my mother. Most everyone he encounters is very vocal in how great they think it is that he speaks English and they are very encouraging, American culture also has a coolness factor. These are two things Thai didn’t have going for it back when I was a kid.
I hope I answered your questions satisfactorily. They were really great questions. What about my other readers, do you feel the same or would you answer any of these questions differently?