March 15, 2009

On language

Thank you Irmie for making a topic request. This is the first time outside of work I’ve been asked to write about something – I feel like a real writer now!

Irmie wanted to know more about the bilingual habits of our household, so here goes.

When I first moved to Germany I took language lessons but it was slow going. More about that here, if you’re interested.

However, I had various jobs that required me to speak German and over time I achieved a level of functional fluency, the sort where I could call someone an idiot quite plainly but couldn’t say something like, ‘When you sit down, do you get a headache, you chimp?’

Now I can, although it’s more likely to come out like, ‘When you seat yourself, do you feel any pain in the head, you monkey?’

Anyway, my improvement rate slowed dramatically as soon as I got good enough to say what I wanted to say and hit a plateau for a year or so. My German was good enough to get by professionally so I stopped working on it. I spoke German only in a professional setting or with friends but never at home or with Ralf and felt fairly lame and un-funny when I did speak it.

Then when we got an offer to live in California for a year or two (which turned into three) I worried that I would lose all my hard-earned language skills. K was two years old and just starting to talk so I also worried that she would not be able to speak German when we went back. I was eight months pregnant and about to go on maternity leave so the first thing I did when we arrived in California was to organize intensive Berlitz German lessons, six hours a week, for a month and a half until L was born. This bumped my German up a notch.

To keep in practice and make sure K wouldn’t have huge culture shock when we went back to the Vaterland, I resolved to speak only German with K while in California. I kept this resolution until about six months before we were to return, figuring at that point the mold had been cast and what mother doesn’t prefer to speak her native language to her children?

It worked. K learned English at pre-school but her mother language was slightly-off German with weird faux-Scandinavian pronunciation. But it was enough to fit in when we returned and since then she’s improved apace in German Kindergarten.

L was a slightly different story. I spent more time with her as a baby while K was in pre-school and spoke English with her, figuring that by the time we went back to Germany she’d just be starting to speak so could learn it there. And of course, she heard me speaking German to K. But her German is not as good as K’s and she’s more likely to speak ‘Dinglisch,’ which is a hybid between English and German. Then again, she’s only three so I’m not too worried about it.

R for the most part spoke English at home unless I reminded him so it’s pretty much been me keeping the German flame alight all these years. When their German grandmother notices some linguistic peculiarity of theirs I glare at him soundly and the perfect son shrugs back innocently. He is perfectly happy to let me shoulder the blame for our kids’ funny accents.

Today both girls attend a German Kindergarten so we are again an English-speaking family.

Ironically, now that we’re back in Germany my German’s slipping again.


  1. And what about the English of Ralf and German Grandmother? Accented? If German Grandmother's English is lacking then I'd be a tad perturbed at her taking notice of your kids German. But that's just me...

  2. This is interesting! I'm glad someone else asked about it because I've been curious too.

  3. We're also a bi-lingual family and speak English (our native language too) at home. The kids are fluent in both, but as you say, both Sir Pe and I are suffering from worse Swedish.

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  4. I begged my nanny to only speak Spanish with my daughter. she didn't do it. I am now studying Spanish and intend to speak it with her when I get a bit better. She studied some in pre-school and has a good memory. She's only five and I figure by the time she's 6+ I should be good enough to speak it with her.

  5. Great article! Thank you for responding to my request. Spanish was my first language (from Spain) and I learned English, along with my parents, after moving to USA. My father was a military man and we moved to Germany for 4 years when I was 12-16. Of course when back in the states I forgot all my German. Now as an adult, my husband and I visit Munich for 3 to 4 weeks every year. Once was for Oktoberfest and I got my "thrill" of visiting the world's largest amusement park, etc. that one time. I love visiting Munich every year and study as much as possible by myself and language software, so I am able to order at restaurants, make various purchases but most definitely my German is very limited. I've had fun lately with this sentence: Do you remember me?
    Erinnern Sie sich an mich? Wow, what a mouth full! Don't think I'll ask if anyone remembers me. lol

  6. MM can speak three languages and I'm still struggling with English.

  7. I loved your post. Ernesto is bilingual too - his mother is German and his Greek father had been working in Germany for 20 years when they had him. They moved to Greece right after he was born. When I ask Ernesto how it was all done, he answers "naturally and easily". He can't seem to remember whether they spoke German or Greek at home - he guesses it was either, depending on the subject and the spur of the moment. I think this is the best way to learn. I do hope my future children get to speak both languages. But first I have to learn German myself!


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