13 November 2008

My daughter is a German mother-tongue speaker

We are all a bit distressed. It's difficult to understand how she could go from monolingual English to failing her English mother-tongue exam while earning a high pass on the German mother-tongue exam all in 14 months.

We will obviously be examining all the options available (although not the 14,000+ Euro English schools- that would be way out of our reach). There are still the lotteries for the German side and the JFK school test is in April- if Thing1 doesn't get in by lottery we will go back to the US for a month before the test and she will go to kindergarten there. That would just be an expensive pain because we already have plans to be in the US for 4 weeks in May through June and now we would have to go, come back to Berlin, and then return to the US. We will do what's necessary, though. The other unfortunate part of her going in on the German side would be that she would learn English only aurally until 3rd grade, so if we go back as planned in 3 more years, she will be illiterate in English (although literate in German).

In answer to some of the comments: we speak English only in the house, we watch only English/American TV (mainly PBS and Disney), we watch only English language DVDs. It is very hard to overcome the time spent in kita. If I had known the way through this maze earlier, we would have put her in a private English kita. The German and I were just discussing how stressful life is here for people who are not "in the ordinary way". After this is all over, I think I will self publish a book aimed at Amercans moving to Germany, and especially Berlin. It is just amazing how one is constantly given incorrect or false information and how few people in the know actually are forthcoming. There's a lot of schadenfruede here, even amongs ex-pats.

Next week I will write up a nice long post on how this system actually works (here in Berlin, it differes elsewhere), with each school doing things slightly differently and with amts giving incorrect and incomplete information.

(And I may even mention the turd I saw in the little girl's room- I wondered if it were a commentary on the process from another shell-shocked family.)


Anonymous said...

Hi G,

I'd look at her experience in Germany as an enrichment, not as a complication. I'm always amazed how much more advanced the material is here for kids of the same age. She'll be ahead of her class when she goes back, which will enable her to overcome any difficiency - real or perceived - in English.

My daughter had only aural English plus a lot of reading - before starting her English classes in Grade 5. Intensive course. Her spelling was lousy at the beginning but now after only a year it's nearly perfect.

G in Berlin said...

Hi Ian- I was perfectly mellow about everything until now. I put the girls in a German kita as an enriching experience. But now Thing1 is losing her English (66/105 English, 79/86 German!) while Thing2 speaks only German.I'm actually going to guess that there was some problem with the tester- those results seem incomprehensible. Our problem is that even though we are in the process of getting an extension here, we still expect to go back in 3rd grade. I find the German system to be less challenging and advanced than the American system and although I am told it reaches and surpasses our system around 5th grade, if we aren't here it won't matter. And if my daughter returns to the US in 3rd grade illiterate, it will be a problem. In any case, we are working on other options,but the usual German attitude- personal situations don't matter, take a hike- is just very stress making.

Dr. J said...

I'm sorry it's gotten more stressful! I hope that other tests or the lottery come through for you and Thing1.

I have a question about the raising of bilingual kids (obviously it's a topic heavy on my mind). Should the parents respond when a child uses the wrong language? It sounds harsh (and I doubt my own ability to stick to it) but is that anyway helpful for enforcing active use of the non-local language? Do you, or any other readers of this blog, know of any research etc in this?

I think the idea of a book for expat parents moving to Berlin is a great idea. there is information around in a general sense, but not a lot which is really specific for having young kids and for this city.

Betsy said...

You know, G, we threw our eldest into the deep end when he got here-- put him straight into 2nd grade in the German school even though he couldn't speak German. And it was really tough for him through Christmas, but he eventually caught up. Within about a year he was reading and spelling at the level of his peers.

Part of it is because we did some extra work at home, but I'm convinced that part of it is also because kids' brains are so flexible when they're so young. It might be different if you would be returning back to the US when your kids are in high school, but since they'll still be so small they'll probably weather the transition just fine.

I've also read before that reading is a skill that's separate from language. That a child who has learned to read in one language can transfer the skill to any other language that he / she speaks. We've really seen that with our sons. They've both learned to read in German, but can read books of a similar level in English even though they were never formally taught to do so.

The decisions you're having to make right now sound totally stressful! Especially given the fact that everything is turning out differently than you'd planned. I hope all the pieces fall into place soon but also have a feeling that it's all going to turn out fine. If your kids have picked up German this fast they should have no trouble picking their English back up at a later date.

christina said...

Ouch. This must be so hard for you. But as Betsy says, don't despair - I don't think it's an insurmountable problem, especially if they are getting steady English-only input at home.

As you know, our kids were born here and went through regular German kindergarten and public elementary public school and are now in grades 7 and 10. They've been able to maintain their English just from me speaking it to them at home and we also had the experience of German reading skills transfering to English very easily. One good thing about education in the U.S. and Canada is that the schools are more than ready to offer ESL help to children who need it and if your daughters did end up having an English deficit, I'm sure it would be remedied in a short time.

As to Dr. J's question: a lot of people disagree, but I have never considered it cruel and unusual punishment to require my kids to speak to me in "our" language. Of course I never ignored them in the sense of pretending they weren't even there or denying their requests, but if they spoke to me in German, I would repeat back what they said in English, or say something like "Ahh, you want a cookie? Can you say cookie?" or "Yes, that's right, that's how Papa says it, can you tell me how Mummy says it?". We often made a game out of it at the dinner table. It worked out REALLY well for us and I think it's one of the reasons that my kids have maintained a good level of English for so long. They've always known that I can speak German perfectly well, they hear me speaking to their dad, to my in-laws and to 99.9% of the people in our daily lives. But speaking to *me* in German was never an option for them, and they got used to that at a very early age. I have no idea if there have been any formal research on this but I think you have to ask yourself "How badly do I want my child to learn my native language?" and you'll have your answer.

Dr. J said...

Thanks for the response Christina! It's something I'm sure I will be asking myself heavily if we have kids and it's great to hear of the experiences of others.

vicki said...

Christina is right about the ESL programs in the US. My husband and I are both native English speakers, but our older son learned German in Kindergarten in Erlangen, Bavaria. When we moved back to Chicago for two years, our son was behind the rest of his first grade class. With the help of his teacher and a teacher's aide, he was able to read and write as well as the rest of his class by Christmas.

Unfortunately, when we moved back to Erlangen two years ago, we discovered that there are no good programs for Ausländer in the Bavarian school system. We had to pull him out of third grade and put him back into second. Not only because his German wasn't good enough, but because he was far behind in math. He's now in 4th grade and can read and write fluently in both German and English.

As for learning to read English, we've had the same experiences as Betsy. Our younger son learned to read German first but had no problems learning to read English on his own (he's in second and won't learn English in school until next year). And our older son can read "big" English words without any help.

I know it's disconcerting now--I was very worried about whether our son would be able to catch up both in Chicago and here. But in the long run, your children will be bilingual, and that can only be advantageous.