Tuesday, June 28, 2011

My Kraut has Come!

This post was written for the Blogging Carnival on Bilingualism, hosted this month by Natasha Goncharova of Bilingual Russian. Should you be new to the carnival idea, it is a way for those of us who are passionate about 'lingualism' to connect with and learn from others who are similarly eager to build community. For more information, or to participate in future carnivals yourself, check out Bilingue per Gioco.

It's crazy. For probably 4 months now, it seems like I've been blogging about my frustration with my own German--how uncomfortable I feel with it; how good it isn't; and how I simply don't want to live in this language if my daughter won't be living in it with me. All of a sudden, however, over the past two weeks, the focus has finally shifted to Kaya's output, and my German has taken a backseat for this wonderful little ride.

Thank the good spirit of the universe.
It's about time that I quit complaining and feeling like a victim of my own creation.

Two weeks ago today, I started a new method with Kaya, which I will now refer to as perseverance (thank you 'Germanintheafternoon' for that great piece of advice). My previous term, insistence, left me with such a dictatorial feeling--perseverance, on the other hand, leaves me in a much more inspired position, instilling confidence and contentment like never before.

Up until two weeks ago, Kaya had been phasing out her German with me over a period of about 2 months--initially speaking between 40-80% German with me, until ultimately speaking nearly none. When I switched both my method and my attitude, expecting only German from her and guiding her through the process to make it happen, she began to speak more and more German with me, to the point that she's at today. I now accept only German from her, and she gives it to me about 95% of the time. How's that for mathematical analysis from a language major!?

It's amazing to me, and incredibly exciting!!, that over a period of two weeks, we were able to change what had become our habit, and ultimately, my negative outlook on the whole endeavor. How wonderful it is to finally be communicating in the same language as my daughter!

Should you be new to this blog, or perhaps just this development of ours, I encourage you to check out the past few weeks of our blog, starting with our first day of 'Insistence'. In that handful of posts, I've laid out, nearly day by day, the successes and challenges of the whole process, ending with a celebration of "It's working! It's working!".

For this post, however, I really want to be in the moment, and live in this excitement of mine that my Kraut has finally come! (I told you it would!)I know there are many of you out there who know how I've struggled with it for the past long time. I know there are others of you who have struggled with the same thing yourself, and may be wondering if this is possible for your relationship, too. I'm clearly no expert, and my perspective is that every child and every situation is different. At the same time, we're all endowed with a human brain, and for the most part, it tends to find the easiest way through a situation, and do whatever is necessary to be able to follow that route. Until two weeks ago, Kaya had no real need to be able to speak German. Understand, yes. Speak it, no. She was doing just fine speaking English to everyone, including me, and had only to develop the ability to understand everything I said so that she could get her needs met. We had fallen into this pattern where she'd say whatever she'd say in English, and I, in hopes of encouraging her to speak German, would then ask her, in German, if what she'd meant was thus and such. She'd answer, "yeah", and we'd move on from there--her getting her needs met, and me growing ever more frustrated with every passing week of less and less German spoken.

Though it was exceptionally trying at times, especially for Kaya who was used to being able to speak English and move on, she ultimately learned that she wouldn't get what she wanted if she didn't speak to me in German. Initially, it was a challenge for me to know what she knew how to say and what she didn't. There were a few buzz words that I knew she knew, like Hund, Affe, Essen, Wasser, [dog, monkey, food/eat, water] etc. But sometimes, it was really hard for me to know how long I should wait for her to produce the German without feeding it to her, as I'd been doing for months. Over the course of the week, however, it became clear to me when she was frustrated because she didn't want to switch, and when the frustration was from the challenge of formulation. At this point, the frustration is almost non-existent (with the exception of her most tired moments). Instead, she either speaks to me outright in German, or will switch immediately if I either don't respond right away, or ask her politely what she said (Bitte? Wie war das?). Often, now that her comfort level is improving, she'll begin to ask a question or make a statement and will pause in the middle of it while she figures out what comes next. Generally, I'll give her a few seconds to try it herself, and then, like with anything else, I'll coach her through the process before she gets to that point of frustration or giving up.  At that point, I'll say the German and ask her if that's what she means, and then will encourage her to say it herself if she hasn't done it on her own already (as she often will). Sometimes, as she did the other night while some friends were over, she will begin a sentence in German and then start to end it in English, catching herself in the middle to switch:

"Wo ist Johanna goi--geht?" [Where is Johanna goi--going?]

As you may know of German, in order to form a gerund (the -ing form of a verb), you simply use the regular present tense verb (goes), without a helping verb from 'to be' ("is" going). 'Geht', in other words, means "goes, is going, and does go". That grammar difference definitely catches Kaya at times...it's pretty cute to watch her wheels spin when she speaks German from an English vantage.

That same night, at our BBQ, Kaya was lying in my arms, hours past her bed time. She snuggled in close so I could hear her say, very clearly, "Ich viw schlafen." [Ich will schlafen = I want to sleep.] A two year old asking to go to sleep is quite the party-trick--I was simply excited because she told me in German!

Similarly, Kaya now tells me "nein" [no] and I love it. Not that the concept is so exciting to me, nor new to her--being two and a half, she's had that one down for a while now, and it definitely adds a challenging element to many a situation. But I can't think of a time when she's used "nein" so consistently with me. Initially, when we first started this change, she'd say "no" and I wasn't sure how to get her to switch. But, as with many other situations, I pulled in the either/or option, asking her "Ja oder nein?" [yes or no?], and she would inevitably choose the German. I think it probably took her about 5 days, but now she uses the German term consistently, clear that it's just part of the language that she speaks with Mama.

What made perhaps the biggest difference for us was when she learned the term "ich will" [I want] and "ich mag" [I like], which she often uses to talk about things while we are reading--it took about four days, but once that term became part of her working vocabulary, the German seemed to start rolling off her tongue, in longer and longer sentences.

What I've noticed about myself through all of this, is that most of my previous concerns on the subject have disappeared. Before this change, I would find myself a bit unexcited about any time that she'd be immersed in English--at her grandparents, with her dad, listening to me on the phone, etc. I felt all this pressure to expose her to only German, concerned that too much of the community language would contribute to her tendency to speak more and more of it with me, as she'd been doing. Now, however, all of those anxieties have disappeared, and I feel excited again about the simplest of activities. Granted, I have to admit that two isn't my favorite age--but I'm once again enjoying the simple games of pretend and hide-and-seek (Versteck!). We even just decided to host a young French woman for a month, which, since she'll be part of our family for the next many weeks, will naturally increase Kaya's exposure to English. But I'm nothing but excited about the whole thing. I recognize that exposing Kaya to all sorts of people, speaking all sorts of languages (or even just English!), will contribute to her understanding that there's a world full of people out there, and it's all about creating the connections and recognizing the similarities between us, despite any differences we may have in our communication.


  1. Congrats on your progress! I love hearing about success stories like yours as I speak my non-native Spanish to my 22-month old, and have many of the same concerns that you seem to. Glad to know that your method is working for you!

  2. very interesting post, very very. Did I understand correctly, that the one thing you did change in the last week or so is that you would not give her what she wanted unless she asked you in German? But if she did ask you in English would you keep repeating the question in German as you did before or would you just wait until she asks you in German?

  3. Yay for happy endings! I'm so glad it's working so well for you two.

    I wonder how much of this has to do with Kaya's age? Griffin, at 3.5, does NOT like to be interrupted by me exhorting him to "say it in French" or asking him "what does that mean in French"? And now a lot of his utterances in English are more complicated than what I've ever heard him say in French.

    I have a lot of "what if?"s going through my head as I realized that my son clearly prefers English, although he's still perfectly happy to listen to me, music, movies, and books in French.

  4. I'm so happy to hear things are going so well! And equally happy that my suggestion of "persistence" has helped you reach a more inspired place. Amazing what one little vocabulary word can do! :)
    If I'm reading right, it sounds like you have on the one hand become more persistent in keeping Kaya in German, but at the same time you have become more relaxed in your attitude toward it as you welcome the young French woman into your home. That's quite an accomplishment!
    Keep up the great work! You definitely inspire me to continue with my own German-at-home project!


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