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How I made my kids bilingual

*This post was originally published in German over at Frau-Mutter, a great blog about mothering in German. And by that I mean both mothering in the language of German and mothering by being German. Also, she happens to be in Germany, so all bases covered.

We raised our kids bilingually. All the recommendations we read said each parent should speak their native language with the kids and the kids would learn the languages naturally. One language per parent. Our kids only have two parents so they were limited to just the two languages – German and English. I’m American. My wife is German.

Even though I speak pretty good German, it never occurred to me to want to communicate with my children in anything other than my native language. Mostly because my kids are half-German and I knew what would ultimately happen if I tried German with them.

Eventually we’d be having a simple discussion and my daughter would stop me mid-sentence and roll her teen-age eyes.

“Dad, Jesus,” she’d say. “Your German is so embarrassing. It’s dative. It’s ‘dem’ not ‘den’.” And then I’d lose the argument and I’d have to buy her an Xbox after all.

Just because I conjugated incorrectly.

 

bilingual kids

We have two kids. I spoke only English with them. Every time they said something to me in German I’d say, “I don’t understand. How would you say it in English?” I always felt guilty because I did understand them and – you may not believe this – but we have the two smartest, cutest kids ever. Yes, smarter and cuter than your kids. So it was hard to act like I didn’t understand them.

But I did it anyway. And I kept waiting for them to call my bluff.

“Come on Dad,” I thought they’d say, “We just heard you and mom talking about the merits of laser vs. pulse propulsion in German. I’m sure you understood me asking to be pushed on the swings.”

But they never did. They always believed I never understood them and answered in English. Like I said, they’re the best kids. Ever.

When my daughter was five I read a piece about bilingualism in kids. It said parents should speak in their native tongue because using a second language robs parents of spontaneity. True. Plus it’s also easier to yell in your native language.

There’s other problems with not speaking your native language with your kids.

Making kids bilingual

My kids have always been in bilingual schools and nurseries in Berlin. Many of the kids have German helicopter parents who think it’s vital their kids grow up bilingual even though both parents are German. These parents also follow the mantra of one parent, one language. That means that I’ve been subjected every day to adult Germans trying to speak to their children in English with German accents.

Respect for the parents for knowing a second language but not with their kids. In English, the parents sound like a mix of Boris Karlov and Ariana Huffington speaking to a cardboard box full of kittens. That may work on stage but imagine it in the cloakroom. Or on the playground. Or telling a kid to come sit on their lap.

Creepy.

We’ve even run into a few German parents that gave their kids English names even though they can’t pronounce them. For two years I thought a girl at our kids’ school was named Selma. It turned out her name was Thelma. Her parents couldn’t pronounce it.

I often thought the bi-lingualism would come in handy if I needed to say something in secret to my kids. Once, in the Rocky Mountains, we were in the changing room for a hot springs. A real cowboy walked in – cowboy boots, cowboy hat and giant belt buckle. Probably enough guns in his truck to arm a small Caribbean nation.

“Wow,” I said to my son in German. “I bet you didn’t expect to see one of those here.”

My son looked at me weird. “Dad, why are you speaking to me in German?”

The cowboy just laughed.

I never spoke German to him again.