Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Oh, the Sweet Sound of Insistence!

For quite some time now, I've been wondering about the following:

At what age is it possible, or even recommended, to start "insisting" on German from Kaya?

As much as I've read about responding in German, and encouraging children to speak in the minority language, I've yet to come across information that could answer my question. Today, however, the sun shone down upon me...

A few years ago, after a phone call to the German American Society, I found a German playgroup that meets once a week for a few hours. Over the past few years, through my participation with the group, I've discovered that there are a variety of family situations that exist within our group. In all of the families, at least one parent speaks exclusively German with the children (OPOL). In some of them, there are two native German speakers, in others, both non-natives. In some of them, the children speak mostly English with both parents, in others, all German with the German-speaker. There is one family in particular that I seek to emulate, in which the mom (a native Austrian) speaks only German with her son (who is 4 1/2 yrs old), while the dad speaks only his native English. Together, the parents obviously speak English, and, similar to Geoff, the dad can understand some of what is said in German between the mom and the kid. I highlight this situation because it is one that is most similar to ours and 'offers' what I seek most right now: an exclusively German relationship between mom and child.

My intention had been to talk to this mom about her situation, asking her specifically when I might start "insisting", or feigning misunderstanding, from Kaya. Before broaching the subject, however, I found myself pushing Kaya on the swings, standing next to the only non-native dad in our group. He's the only other parent (that I know of other than me) who is non-native and speaks exclusively German with his daughter. She and Kaya happen to be about the same age, too, with Kaya being just a few months younger.

So, eager to get my dilemma solved, I asked this dad about his experience with his daughter, specifically if she speaks German to him.

"Ja," he answered.
My thoughts began to spiral. What's wrong with me? What am I doing wrong? Why does his kid speak to him in German and mine doesn't?

I began to ask question after question (all in German, of course) in hopes of discovering the answers to my internal banter:
Do you insist on German from her? Well, sort of, without creating a negativity around it.
Are you a stay at home dad? No. Only a few hours in the morning.
Does your wife speak German? No. She speaks English.

My line of questioning was making me feel worse. It definitely didn't help when he told me that some kids are more inclined towards movement and less towards language, and thus, their language tends to develop slower.

My kids loves to read. And is clearly all over language. Just not the German!!

It wasn't until I asked him if his daughter had always spoken mostly German with him that I began to feel a little sense of hope.

There was a little while, he shared with me, that she spoke more English than German.
Oh thank the dear Buddha in the trees...there's hope afterall!

That's normal, he told me, apparently picking up on my concern. Keep up the good work, you're doing great.

My head was spinning. Was I doing great? It sure didn't feel like it. I couldn't shake the idea that there must be something that I could be doing differently so that I can live in the same language as my kid.

Kaya, by this point, was ready for another activity. She wandered over to the play structure and told me she wanted to slide. Do I ignore her? She just told me in English? How do I feign misunderstanding without feeling like a cold-hearted beast?

It was back on the swings that I decided to test out my new method. This time, we were alone, so I didn't have to get hung up on what I thought others might be thinking of my beastly ways. She wanted me to push her, so with every push, I'd count in German: eins...zwei....drei...vier...After a few rounds to ten, she began to get the hang of it, and would join me in counting. Instead of saying the next number in German, however, she'd say it in English (which impressed me that she even knew what came next, in either language!): ...sechs...sieben...eight! As dismayed as I felt about overall German situation, I told myself that all I needed to focus on in that moment were the repetition of the numbers...even if I couldn't see the effect. The repetition will sink in, that's the gist of 'learning'--it's simply how the brain works, right?!

After about 5 minutes of pushing and counting, Kaya was eager to move on:
"I'm dun", she told me.
"Wie bitte?" [What?] I asked her, telling myself that this was my window.
"I'm dun," she said again, in a similar tone.

I kept pushing, wondering if ignoring was the ticket to success. Would she just figure out what I was doing and switch languages to see if that would get her what she wanted? This dad in the group had told me that he just doesn't respond a lot of the time if his daughter speaks to him in English.
"I'm done!" she said, again...and again, and again, and again.

Ignoring wasn't working. It's like ignoring a barking dog...they don't just stop the ruckus on their own. Nor do they generally start meowing like a cat.
"Was hast du gesagt?" [What did you say?] I asked her, as I pushed her higher. I felt so mean.
"I'm done," she said, a little louder this time.
"Was sagst du mama?" [What do you say to mama?] I hinted.
"Fertig," [Done] she finally said, as a smile formed on her lips. I stopped the swing and kissed her face. Repeatedly.
"Genau! Fertig," [Exactly! Done.] I told her, with a bigger smile on mine.

Next, we headed over to the big slide.
She was eager to climb up, and told me as such: "I want to go up."
"Bitte?" I asked her, repeating my method from before.
She repeated herself, in English, and I began to wonder if she even knew how to ask me for what she wanted in German. That's been a part of my internal dialogue, actually, that she probably doesn't even know how to express what she wants and needs, so I need to just go with her statement in English or tell her how to say it in German (which has been wearing the hell out me!).

"I want to go up," she said again, this time putting her foot on the step.
"Du willst aufsteigen?" [You want to go up?] I verified, landing on my old method.
"Ja," she agreed.
"Sag, ,Ich will aufsteigen'," [Say, 'I want to go up'] I told her, again, using my old stand-by.
"Ich viw aufsteign," she said, calmly.
And up she went, higher and higher. I felt back at square one, feeding her words and telling her what to say. Yuck.

I did this a few more times at a few more places on the playground, often with no resolution. She'd say something to me, I'd ask her what she said, tell her I don't understand, and often not even feed her the words. I felt disheartened.

And then, we went back to the swings. After a bit of banter about the "blue one" (Welche? [Which one?]) and the "green one" (Bitte?), I finally lifted her into the green one and started to push. And count. And push some more. She wanted me to push from behind, and once again, the game ensued: Wie bitte? [Huh?] And then it happened. After pushing from behind for a few minutes, she began to tell me, in English, that she was done. She repeated herself probably 8 times, until she finally said, with no prompting, "Fertig!" Clearly, I was ecstatic, and kissed her even more than I had the first time.

Then, as I was pushing her on the blue swing a bit later, the Austrian mom came over and began to talk with me. I began in German, grew frustrated with my lacking vocabulary, and quickly switched to English. Within a few seconds, she told me to speak to her in German--I love it! Just like she does with her son! So, I began to share with her my concern about Kaya's German, and a discussion quickly ensued about her advice about what to do. I was in heaven. Speak to her only in German, she told me, no matter what, no matter who is around. And insist on German from her. My questions came rolling forth: Is it not too early to feign misunderstanding? Am I not being mean? You don't think she doesn't know how to speak German? No. No. No. Her message was clear. It's not too late, silly Tamara, and it's not too early. The perfect time is now. Right now. Just like I was doing on the swings. Treat her with love, tell her that, from her, I only understand German, and as long as I give her the initial time and opportunity to answer, continue to teach her vocabulary when she clearly needs it.

Even now, I breathe a sigh of relief. An "expert" in my own backyard, and the experiment on the playground to back up her advice. Throughout the entire conversation with this mom, I was pushing Kaya on the blue swing. I was impressed with how much she was enjoying it. And then, towards the end of our conversation, when she was ready for another activity, she said it the first time, as clear as a bell: Fertig.

And that, my friends, is the sweet sound of insistence...!


  1. Exactly :)

    One thing I would add is to be patient - if my kids are anything to go by, making the switch reliably and consistently does not happen overnight. She'll have to get used to it (and maybe you do too so you keep it up even on the harder days) - but in the end, it becomes second nature and will be so worth it!

    Similarly to the father you are mentioning, I work full-time outside the house and only see the kids a few hours each day, too - and our's also speak German with me and other German-speakers in our lives.

    Good luck!

  2. WOW!
    Ich glaube Du tuest das wirklich gut mit Kaya.
    Wenn Du Muttersprache deutsch wäre hättest Du nicht so viel daran gedacht!
    Ich meine, wen Du deutsche wäre und Kaya auf englisch antwortete, hättest Du darauf gefreut dass Sie alles verstanden hatte (egal auf welche Sprache antwortete sie)… weil wir keine Muttersprache sind ,dann machen wir uns viele sorge auf die zweite Sprache… nach meine Meinung.
    Ich habe hier in Deutschland festgestellt dass Ch. schon gut englisch reden kann… wenn sie es brauche!
    A. ist etwas weniger mit dem Sprache begabt (glaube ich) und bei ihr geht etwas langsamer… aber geht es!
    Ich wünsche Dir viel Erfolg!

  3. Smashedpea,
    Thank you for your reminder of patience...it's ALWAYS a good piece of advice. It has really helped over the past few days, for sure. ALSO, knowing that your kids do just fine with you in German even if you're not with them all the time, that's ALSO really helpful. thank you!!

    vielen Dank an dir auch! I really appreciate your positive feedback, und es freut mich zu hoeren, wie es mit deinen Kindern geht. Bis bald!


  4. Guten tag zu dir.

  5. Oooooh! What a great story! I got joyful tears in my eyes when I got to the part about Kaya saying "fertig" the first time. HURRAH!! I can just imagine you kissing her face in your excitement :)
    It sounds like a tremendous success. And from the quick glimpse I got of your more recent posts, it sounds like it's continuing. I can't wait to read on....

  6. German~
    As I've said in a few other comment-responses, your energy here makes such a difference for me! Thank you so much for sharing in our joys and successes 'from afar'!
    I look forward to peeking over in your neck of the woods soon, too! You going to be posting for the June Carnival?


I LOVE reading your comments, they make such a difference! Thanks for sharing!