Losing a Language- How I Tried to Teach my Kids German and Failed
German was my first language. ( In fact, I sometimes joke that I could be an ESL, English as a Second Language Student, and apply for benefits.) You see, even though I was born in California, my parents are German… and had just recently arrived in the country. It’s only logical that they spoke German in the home, and I spoke German as a child.
Later, when I got old enough to play with the neighbor kids, English started to take over. Now it was German in the home, English with the other kids. By kindergarten, I was fluent enough in English, that I seldom “messed up”. I didn’t even have much of an accent.
To keep my German language skills strong, my parents sent me to German school every Saturday. I learned to decline verbs, write proper sentences and read ever more difficult German passages. We still spoke German in the home… but more and more, my parents would speak to me in German, and I would answer in English. (Less danger of having my grammar corrected that way!!)
On through High School and College, I took classes in German… but my language skills weren’t really evolving. The classes in my schools just weren’t tough enough.
Whenever I visited Germany, there would be a burst of fluency. Two days in, and I was speaking like a native… well…. like a 7th grade native who had an accent.(Two years ago I finally had a chance to tell off my cousin’s cousin for teasing me about my American accent! We are all in our 40’s now… so it was a bit of a silly thing to do… but his English has a massive German accent, and I never said a word). I could hold conversations, but would get stuck on words that had never come up in my world before. Words used in business, or politics. Words for different soccer/Fußball positions. Words for modern technology!
I could read novels (and still do) but don’t get me started on reading the newspaper in German (they really do like using all the BIGGEST words in the Duden). And I could (and still do) think in German, curse in German, and occasionally even dream in German. So, I thought it would be ok.
The Next Generation
Then I married an American and had a son. My plan… speak to him in German, and let the husband speak to him in English. It was working. I knew all the songs, could tell stories, fed him while using German words, and we looked at my old Richard Scarry Picture/Word book to identify objects in German. I could be a real Mama! But then his father would come home, and it would be a mess. My parents (his Oma and Opa) would speak to him in German, but they lived farther away, and we only saw them once every month or so. When we traveled, my family would speak to him in German….. but, everyone would slip up a bit, and give him English.
And then one day, my son told me “I don’t like that, talk like Daddy”.
And it was over.
And when my daughter was born, we barely tried. She got the lullabies, the nickname Mausi, and German Baby Talk.
We looked for a German School... but the one nearest to us had a reputation for not being great for fluency. And my kids had all those Saturday activities (the one’s that I wasn’t allowed to do…..) like soccer and scouts.
And when number three came… all that was left was the lullabies.
While I really hoped traveling to Germany would spark them, it came to nothing… you see, everyone in Germany speaks English. And all the kids their age are studying English in school, and want to practice. And for older family members who don’t speak English… I was like a UN translator, going back and forth like a maniac… exhausting.
The local High School offers Spanish, French and Cantonese. No help there.
So, I tried, but it obviously wasn’t enough, we were losing a language.
Today, I still have the habit of answering my mom in English (we are both pretty stubborn)… but I love speaking in German with my oversees family. I watch German movies (no sub-titles!!!) and an occasional You Tube video to keep the vocabulary. It’s like plugging up leaks in mind, keeping the language as fresh as I can.
And now there is hope… after 5 years of Spanish instruction, my older daughter has told me that she wants to be an exchange student…. in Germany… so she’s studying German at her university!
(edit. She spent a semester in Berlin, and loved it! Although, Berlin isn’t the best place to be immersed in German…. everyone there speaks English!)
And the other 2… well, they are coming around. I see more pride in their German culture, and they identify themselves as Germans. They love the food, love the traditions that we maintain, and they want to go “home” to Germany for visits.
So, not all is lost….. it looks like the German language still has a chance in my branch of the family.
German Schools.. Both Saturday Classes and Immersion Programs In America
You can do what my parents did, send your child to German School. Click here for the list of schools–>German Schools in America
No German Schools Near You? Here’s where you kind find German TV, Movies and Videos
There is still hope for these guys…
OMG! We, too, attempted to teach our children German. Luckily my American husband speaks pretty good German, so baby number one spoke 100% German until we put her into day care. Within 2 months she was speaking 80% english. A sad and guilty day when I realized that I wouldn’t be able to pull of the bilingual thing with both kids. But there are always trips to Oma and Opa’s house and Germany. Just gotta keep trying 🙂
It’s hard… but you are so lucky your husband was able to help. I know a few kids who came from “mixed” families, and still retained their German. They will remember more than you think (even if they don’t speak, they will understand)
We are in the exact same predicament as you. Just like you, I was born in the US to a German mother (and asian father who spoke fluent German). We spoke only German at home and that was also my first language until I entered Kindergarten. I also attended German language classes on Saturdays for 8 years. I also married an American who only speaks English and cannot speak a lick of any other language. My German now is (amazingly) at a B2/C1 level and I actively watch movies, stream radio, and speak with my mom exclusively in German (she speaks to me in English and I respond in German, which amuses her).
I also have tweens who were born here. I have been sending mine to German language school on Saturdays since the were 5 (they are now 12) and I try to speak with them in German at home. But when their friends are around or their father, I digress to English. I am also not extremely diligent about speaking German to them. My son has never liked learning the language and has made me miserable about going to Saturday classes. My daughter is also not happy but she goes. I have been completely inflexible about them going. It’s the only gift I feel I can give them that they can take with them. They have missed many birthday parties and many sports events because of it. But one day their schooling will be over and they will be able to speak and write (not as proficiently as I do, but they will still have something). And then they will understand the gift. In the meantime, I argue with them frequently about going and try to speak with them in German as often as possible. My daughter is now trying to answer me in German about 1/8 of the time because she knows I’ll be so tickled that I will give in to whatever she asks. Whatever works, right? My kids will both be taking German in high school for 3 years and it’s at that point that I am hoping my battles will be over. What happens after that will be beyond my control. Glad to have found your blog. I look forward to reading future entries!
Ahhhh…. the dreaded Saturday morning “do I HAVE to go to German School” argument. It’s wonderful that you are able to give that to your children. (I was up against too high a wall here).
One day, I promise, they will thank you for it. How do I know? Because my 17 year old just complained to me that I never sent her!!!
Hahaha Yes, I definitely wish my mom had insisted on me learning Czech when I was little too! Well, what you know in hindsight…
True…. at the time it seems like a hassle, later you wish you had taken the time.
Born in Nürnberg but moved here when I was 5. German in the house. English outside. The dreaded Sat morning classes. Oh how I remember those. Now I’m with an Englishman in the USA and other than fighting with who has a better soccer team (Manchester or Bayern) he wins on the language. Because it’s hard to teach a child German when only one parent is talking to him. Now that he’s visited good ‘ol Germany though and heard mama speak my 9 year old is showing some interest. Hope is not lost!
There’s always a chance…. and maybe one day he will see the light about Manchester too!
Gurl, u r in luck, call me the good news fairy, K? Wo sind denn meine Manieren, hallo, ich bin der Heinz, ich bin in der Welthauptstadt Koeln geboren, und bin dort auch aufgezogen worden [von meinen lieben Eltern]. Then, when I was about 14 yo, I came out and promptly was discarded as an “imminent danger to my siblings”, no that wasn’t my father’s idea, it was the Elders Idea, I grew up in a fundamentalist Christian Church native to Germany: The New Apostolic Church – jetzt sind die am Aussterben in Deutschland, wegen ihrer scharfen Gesetzgebung, haben sich nach Afrika ver-ehm…wie dem auch sei, die Neuapostolische Kirche ist jetzt am staerksten auf dem Afrikanischen Kontinent, und ich lebe jetzt im Land der unbegrenzten Moeglichkeiten, to be precise, in San Francisco, CA, where traditionally the women are strong and the men are pretty (smirk).
Das Leben ist was du daraus machst, meine Mutter Sprache ist Deutsch, habe dann aber 5 Jahre in Madrid, Spanien, gelebt (mein Spanisch ist ganz gut brauche keine Hilfe, aber wusste nicht of ich es auf dieser website gebrauchen konnte), und habe seit 2001 in San Francisco, CA gelebt, my English is as good as it gets, the key to the magic is pragmatism and determination. And, who knows, one of these days I will break out of living in poverty, und mir wird mal Arbeit angeboten, it is the Promise Land, isn’t it!
Heinz… the US is a land of opportunity, there is bound to be work somewhere.
It stinks that you went through what you did when you came out. I never could understand how parents could be so hurtful to their children about orientation… makes no sense. Luckily, you landed in an open-minded place!
Good to hear that others deal with the same problem. My sons were born in Germany and I only spoke German with them, their father spoke English. They answered me back in English. Whey they were 3 and 5 we went to stay with my parents for 3 months and within 6 weeks they switched to speaking German except amongst each other. After moving to the USA I kept speaking German with them and within 6 weeks they switched back speaking English and always gave me answers in English again. After my older son attended school for a year, the teacher and counselor told me to switch to English so my son would not be confused. I did not want to do that but gave in. To this day I regret this decision. My younger son took German in High School and College and did a 7 weeks internship in Switzerland but he still does not want to speak German. Like you said, in Europe all the young people speak English and want to practice the language so while there they all spoke English including his cousins. It’s hard to maintain a language if they don’t have people (beside me) talking with them. I find a lot of families with Spanish speaking children and I assume that they have friends who also speak Spanish or both of the parents speak Spanish with them at home.
I think often in this case, the whole family is speaking Spanish at home, and there are older family members in the home or close by who don’t speak English.
Frankly, I think the teachers are wrong when they say two languages is confusing. My English grammar lessons were much easier after learning it in German first.
My husband went to a cultural German School when he was little. When my kids were 4 and 6, we visited his cousin in Germany and they played with cousins their age. That year, they both started in the cultural German School. Both continued German through high school. At one point, my daughter transferred to a DANK school, which offered more advanced German. She volunteered for 8 years in the class and now teaches in a classroom. My kids both complained about going. My son? German was the first class he chose in college! Just when I thought German was over for them. They continue to visit with their cousins in Germany.
Very interesting! This reminds me of our story (on my mother’s side). My mother was the youngest of the first generation born in America (of Czech descent), and because of that she got the least Czech immersion when compared to her older siblings. And then when I was born, I got the Czech name, the Czech nicknames, the lullabies, and a few traditions and other phrases.
My daughter just let me know she wants to study German at University… so… who knows? Maybe it will come back around.
This was a fun read. I was born in Germany, but moved to the US at the age of 12. Only German in the house and with family. Otherwise it was all English. I am married to an American who speaks no German. When we had kids, I quit my full-time job so that I could be home with the kids and raise them bilingually. They are now 17 and 14 and to this day speak English to each other, but German to me. They both did a 2 month “study abroad” with Oma and Opa, which really solidified the language. But I don’t think we would have had this success if I hadn’t quit my job.
How lucky they were to have you teach them! I should never have given in.
Sounds siliar to my experience. We did do Samstag Schule, but the drive was long, kids wanted to play sports etc. And the there just isn’t opportunities to learn it as easily as say Spanish.
Exactly… kids have so many distractions… when I was young, sports were not on the radar.
If I had had my kids ten years later it would have been so much easier. You can watch German movies and kids tv on an iPad and stream it to your tv. You have Duolingo to challenge your older kids and have fun with it. I often dream about that delay. What hindered German in our family was the large amounts of homework the kids get. One interesting thing though is that they now as teenagers want to speak German with me whenever we are in public. Just not at home. Another frustration is that their school offers Spanish and mandarin but after 6 years of Spanish they still can’t talk. Total waste of time. The school does not want to discourage the kids with expectations that are too high. The teachers that know better are not allowed a different approach. It is really sad. They could not believe that in a German college prep school you are expected to learn up to 50 new words in a week including correct spelling. It’s frustrating to me as I am such a language nut.
I hear you.. .my daughter spent 5 years studying Spanish… but she wouldn’t open her mouth in Mexico. I’m hoping a year overseas will really help. Fortunately, the world has gotten smaller, and the internet makes language study easier.
I love your page…My grandparents came from Germany & Denmark…my Opa (from Copenhagen) spoke 5 languages…fluently! I took German in Jr High & HS…but I rarely use it anymore. I sometimes can understand a bit of conversation. My husband is 1st generation here in USA…he spoke German at home, went to German school (in Ridgewood, NY) & still speaks fluently, especially when we call Germany. My youngest child..our son, has gotten into his ancestry…took a German course in HS…and is trying to learn all he can about my husbands family & mine. I just told my daughter about your FB page. 🙂
How great that your son is finding his way to his German ancestry. Encourage him to do some study abroad. There are great programs, and even scholarships available. It’s an experience he will never forget.
Thanks for sharing the page!
I’m probably much older than most of you on this site. Grow up as German being my mother language.
Learned to speak English in school and playing with other children. German was outlawed when I went
To elementary school. The teachers actually told my parents not to speak German at home with me.
Proud that they did not listen, and their philosophy without much of an education was to continue
Speaking German, and a truly educated person could speak, read, and write another language.
One of my children has returned to Germany, the land his grandparents came from to live.
I’m glad your parents stuck to their guns and spoke German with you!
I have the same history. My parents (both German) spoke only German at home with me. When I started American Kindergarten (mixing up the two languages) my parents got called in. They were told: Only ignorant immigrants don’t speak English at home. If they don’t want to raise a “handicapped” child they need to stop speaking German with me. They stopped. They only spoke to each other in German.
Honestly, they didn’t get it in those days… today having only one language is more of a handicap.
This sounds so much like I went through. My children did not learn German, but I still think in German and dream in German and when I have the chance to travel to Germany, I am so comfortable in the language though translating for my husband gets to be a headache. I do believe knowing a second language is so important. In 1968-69 we lived in Germany after my husband was drafted into the Army. My German landlady said pinpointed my accent in where my ancestors came from, south of Heidelberg where we were stationed. Oddly though, my ancestors came to America from Germany in the 1850’s. The accent was still spoken in the home and I got it. Learned English in Kindergarten. Love my heritage. I grew up in the Amana Colonies in Iowa. Look it up if you do not know about it. Machts gut.
I’ve read a bit about the Amana Colonies… it must have been a nice place to grow up
This is a bit like my family.
I also learned German at home from my German mother and fluent American father, but not nearly as much after my mother died when I was young. Now I have two kids, an American husband who knows Spanish instead, and I am semi-fluent in German. I’ve talked to them in German some of the time since they were born, but they often complain when I don’t speak English. My son, who is 5, is starting to show some interest. My daughter, age 3, gets mad at me if I try some German on her. For a long time, the only screen time they had was in German, but I made the mistake of allowing some English materials, and now that’s all they want. Anyway, I still have the habit of only using German when we are out in public, like my parents did with me, so they are learning something. Maybe, since I’m homeschooling my son, we should have a German day each week. Think he’d go for it?
I wish you luck… I was never a patient teacher, but it sounds like you are already homeschooling and can manage it!
Our stories are so similar. I also had all of the best of intentions but when my first born didn’t say any words until his 3rd birthday I was so happy he would speak one language much less two. I gave up with my next two boys but just this morning I was on the phone with my cousin from the Swabian Alps and my oldest, 15, will be spending 2 months with her family next summer. I am so excited not only because he will learn German but also my heavy Swabian dialect. It’s tradition and is very important to me. German 101 lessons begin today after school! The pressure is on.
Thanks for the article. You are not the only one.
My son was slow to speak too… wonder if it’s a boy thing? Good luck with the lessons!
My daughter was fluent in German and English when she started school. One day she came home all excited about her day. As she started to speak, I stopped her and said she can tell me all this in German. She paused, looked at me, and said: Then II’ll wait for daddy to come home and tell him in English. That hurt, big time. I then realised I was asking too much of her. Kids learn the vocab via expierences. I was asking her to translate. Which she never had learned to do.
Ouch… I totally understand… Hopefully she comes back around
Even though I understand that it hurts, you should stick to it. I was born and live in Germany, with chilean parents. So at home, in Germany, my mom always forced us to speak Spanish. When I was in elementary school, I really hated it – especially when I came home and wanted to tell my mom smth in German, and she would say, just like you “No, say it in Spanish” and I would just say “well, than I dont say anything or wait for Papa”. But she didn’t budge. At lunch, we only could speak Spanish. And even if I didn’t want to, in order to say smth I had to speak! When I entered puberty I came around I began to love my bilingualism – and I am so so thankful to my mom now!
So even though it may hurt and you think it is unfair to force your kid – do it for her. She doesn’t know better, yet. And later she will be so thankful! Bilingnual kids have it easier later to learn even more languages, since they are used to “code switiching” – I speak 5 languages now – All thanks to mom 🙂
I love reading these experiences. We are living in a small town in Austria and my kids 5 and 8 are going to the local German speaking schools. It is so hard right now because the kids don’t speak English, but I think in the long run it’s for the best! I hope we can hang on to the language when we return to the states. Oh and not looking forward to forcing the Saturday German School when we get back. 6 months of classes before we left was really defeating as a parent!
I grew up bilingually with a Bavarian mother and a British father. After university, I married an American and our daughter was born in Germany. We moved to the US when she was 18 months. I spoke German at home, and she acquired English at nursery school and on the playground. She began her primary schooling at a German expat school, and completed her German Abitur last year. After a year of uni in the US, she is now studying architecture in Karlsruhe. She’s completely fluent, and having dual citizenship, can choose where she wants to live and work. I am thankful that I persevered even when external circumstances weren’t in my favour. I never listened to the poor advice of US teachers and administrators whose own language skills – even in English – were often abysmal. Get as much information as you can about language learning and processing, your spouse’s support, find other speakers and organise play outings, watch films together, and encourage, encourage, and encourage. Persistence pays off!
Interesting stories! I succeeded and I think it’s because I am obsessed with making sure my two children speak my language . How could they be my children if they wouldn’t speak my language ! I came to the US 1997 at the age of 26. I am sure I will not loose my German accent anymore. Married to an American we have two children , a boy and a girl. No English word will ever for any reason cross my lips when I speak to them unless we are in a group setting with other English speaking kids or adults. I don’t tolerate any English spoken between them . When they were little I just spoke to them in German , then I bought German kindergarten and school books and we would work through those. They are 2 years apart and naturally when they started speaking that was in German with me and to each other. I remember watching them when they were very little playing and talking and I felt achieved. I knew the English would come automatically and it did. However Both kids qualified for the English learner program at school. My son is still in it at grade 5. My daughter is a big reader and we had the rule that she would read one German one English book . She is 13 now and has a will of her own and prefers to make her own decisions in what she reads. I still see her carrying German books around here and there. At the age of 10 and 13 I hear sometimes some YouTube acquired English between them. Then I will step in and remind them how fortunate they are that they speak another language. I have always made the point that it’s a great skill to have . By now they understand and continue to speak German. What is the secret? Stay consistent . Don’t let that one ENGLISH sentences spoken back become a second and a third. I would joke and say ” ich verstehe kein Wort, ich spreche nur deutsch und kann kein ENGLISH “, if it was necessary to have a conversation at the dinner table in English I would translate . If i ask how the school day went and the feedback starts out in a mix of English and German i will help and translate . That way they still learn every day. And … if it’s just the three of us the movies are in German if it’s a family event then in English. Maybe no US tv , commercials , shows helped to keep the German going . Good luck 🍀 to everyone trying to make your kids bilingual !
These are very inspiring but I feel my road is even harder than all these stories. I’m third generation and my mother never was spoken to in German. It was post WWII years, so we know this story. I have study German and got a bachelors of Germanistik and always Read and watch and listen to things in German, but I’d love to teach my daughter but I fear my grammar mistakes and pronunciation Schwierigkeiten would not be beneficial to her. We have Saturday school that I will send her to when she is 4, but I don’t know if she ever love her heritage and be thankful for minimal efforts. All I can do is play German kids Musik and buy kids books, but sometimes if I wonder if it’s a hopeless better since it’s easier for all of us just to speak English. Any suggestions would be appreciated.
I am right there with you. You do what you can, and hope the kids will learn.
If it’s any help, my middle child studied German in college, then spent a semester in Berlin. She also loves German programs on TV.
I’m sure she will love her heritage, even if she doesn’t have the language. All of my kids do.
Just improve your German grammar alongside your daughter. Use it as good as you can and have fun with it. Laugh about your own mistakes, get up and move on. You don’t have to be perfect to share something you are passionate about. Good luck!
I try to learn new things every day