Friday, August 23, 2013

Dual Language Learner "Bump" (the good sort)

This past month, Noah and Mattias started playing with each other in German. Not all the time, but sometimes. Prior to this summer, they've only played with each other in English. It's an important development because it signals (to me) that Mattias has reached a new level of comfort in German. It also creates a new dimension of language exchange in house. Now, it's no longer Fritz speaking to the boys in German, it's the boys speaking to each other.

The boys were very specific about the fact that they were playing KING(s) not PRINCE(s).
Isn't that weird? I feel sure the whole game must have been inspired by their female friends
who play princess(es) - but why would they choose king instead of prince?
Mattias is a very grumpy king.

I wasn't really sure that we would reach this point. Not surprisingly, Mattias, who never had the benefit of living in Germany, has taken longer speaking German than Noah did. The credit goes entirely to Fritz who has persisted in speaking to Mattias for three years in German. They say that a child needs to be exposed to the language for 30% of their time to become fluent. I felt like we were barely hitting 25%, since Fritz is the native German speaker and he works (elsewhere) about 10 hours a day. Sometimes over the last three years, I was thoroughly convinced that Mattias didn't understand Fritz, and I had to make a conscious effort to keep from translating or rephrasing to English. Fritz maintained that Mattias understood. Eventually it became clear that Mattias did understand, but then Mattias would still answer Fritz in English.

There have also been many times over the last three years when I've really doubted our choice to raise the kids bilingually. There's a lot of pressure to just speak English when we're out and about socially. As Noah has become more involved in school and has developed more friendships, the pressure has increased further. There's also been concern about how Noah's bilingualism is impacting his developing reading skills. It was much easier when our life revolved around home. As our family has grown, I've often wondered if speaking German makes us too much of an oddity or complicates life unnecessarily. Are we forcing it?

Either way this summer was a big summer of change for Mattias. He lost his status as the baby. Oma came for a two week visit, meaning the predominant household language switched to German. And Fritz worked 2 day weeks for 6 weeks, meaning he spent a lot more time at home and with Mattias.

All this seemed to be the "bump" that Mattias needed to start speaking German himself. I've read that visiting the second-language country (in this case Germany) can also be a big bump for dual language learners. At this time, traveling to Germany feels like a monumental undertaking. I'm relieved to know that the right visitor and little bit of vacation time can have a similar effect.

I'm trying not to count my eggs before they hatch, but I really think that if this amount of German continues to be spoken in the house, speaking German might be a less daunting obstacle for Trixie. And maybe I'll start feeling a little more comfortable with our choice, and little less like we're going against the grain.

Fluency in another language can be such a subjective thing, sometimes people ask what our goals are for the kids. Fritz will tell you that he would like the kids to be able to attend university in Germany. (Presumably, this would require a particular level of grammar and vocabulary.) My goals are a little more nebulous: I would like the kids to be able to comfortably switch to German when they are with German speakers. Which, I think, is less about a particular level of vocabulary or grammatical ability, and more about confidence.


Pregnantly Plump said...

I love the picture!! That's just a great picture, and a great grumpy expression! And it's great that they will know two languages. It's so much harder to learn another language as an adult. Plus, it's connecting them to their heritage.

twisterfish said...

Oh that picture! Love it!