Thursday, 29 September 2011

Our Summer Language Experiment

This summer I tried something drastic in an attempt to expand my children’s secondary language use and exposure. Something they weren’t happy about at first and that even my – usually very supportive – husband found a bit extreme. Did it work and boost the kids’ language learning and did - as Germans say - “Der Zweck heiligt die Mittel” (the end justifies the means)? Here is our summer story with a little background…

We are a bilingual English-German family – dad is from the US, mom is from Germany, currently living in England. Two boys – age 9 and 7 – who grew up first in the US and then moved to the UK almost 3 years ago. Both kids go to a normal British Primary school, so German is restricted to the interaction before and after school and in-between the many activities they attend. We are very strict followers of OPOL (One-parent-one-language) - see previous post. During their early childhood this meant their main language was German, since I was home with them, but when they started (pre)school, English became their main language of communication especially amongst each other.

During the recent school year, I’d become increasingly frustrated with the vanishing amount of German in the house. Since they are older, the kids don’t really want to play with me anymore, but rather with each other (=English) or make up their own role plays with cars or Lego (=English). They don’t even *want* me to talk to them a lot, they need their peace and quiet after school, time on their own to unwind and relax after a long day before homework is calling again. So the most precious time to speak German (after school, but before dad comes home) often passes without much interaction. While it is great that I can prepare dinner in peace, the lost opportunities of communication became more and more apparent to me as the school year was winding down.

In addition to the lack of spoken language, there was also little reading and writing going on in German. We try to have German school (that I teach) every 2-3 weeks with 3 other kids, but scheduling problems between the three families had made those lessons infrequent and inconsistent. As for reading German: while we have plenty of German books, both boys now prefer to read on their own and don’t want to listen to me reading a story. Each has their favorite series of typical boy books (Diary of a Wimpy Kid, Horrid Henry, action hero stories, books about cars and Lego) – and they are practically all English. When I try to expand their horizon and get more variety (science and history), we sometimes go to the library, but – of course – all books from there are in English! In addition, as part of their homework they have to read to a parent (which they do with their dad since its English), so reading out loud in German never occurs unless almost forced. The most obvious sign that most new knowledge and interesting facts were gained from English sources was the difficulty with which they tried to explain to me what they discovered. They simply lacked the vocabulary for this rapidly expanding world of interesting facts!

While German books were around, I only rarely saw one of them pick one up. Part of the problem was the speed with which their interests had specialized and the fact that they were outgrowing the classic German children’s books rapidly! Despite my encouragement, German books were not perused as often and since free choice and free play are central in our parenting philosophy, I watched frustrated but powerless. I realized, drastic measures had to be taken in order to at least attempt a change and reintroduce some more German back into the life of my children!
In the past our usual vacation schedule had included daily German exercises and activities. I started with these intensive summer classes when they were 3 - first with the ABC, then teaching them to read / write, lately they had to work through age-appropriate work books from Germany over Christmas and Easter. (In my opinion it is better to avoid parallel acquisition of reading/writing in two languages to avoid confusion and not hinder progress in school.) For a couple of reasons - the main one being that we had to prepare for the UK Music Grade exams after the summer and had a schedule of daily sight–reading and listening exercises already – I assigned no German homework for the break. Instead I used a passive, but hopefully effective approach…

I waited until the summer holidays were in sight (here in England you get 6 weeks of vacation between the end of July and the first week of September). This way there was no English homework or reading assignments and no after-school activities. And then I did it: On the last day of school I removed ALL English books and videos and put them in the guest room. The shelves looked a bit bare, but I replenished them with our German travel comics (which they are usually only allowed on the plane), some German versions of their favorites (e.g. a car model book and Wimpy Kid/Greg’s Tagebuch) as well as some cool new science and experiment books as gifts for their last day of school. Finally I had also ordered two of my favorite childhood books by Astrid Lindgren which I hoped they boys would like (Mio, mein Mio and Brüder Löwenherz/Brothers Lionheart). I wanted to read to them in the evening as part of our new bed time routine.

When the kids came home they were less shocked then expected, possibly appeased by the gifts. Over the first couple of days, some books were missed (especially the Horrid Henry ones, which you can gleefully read out loud, shouting and screaming horrid things without getting in trouble!) but on the plus side there was now a pile of German comics and some picture books they hadn’t seen in a while as well as the new stack! Both kids settled into reading German books without complaints. As far as I could tell, the frequency of their reading did not change. That swap was painless and successful!

More resistance was met with the restriction to German videos. The current favorite (on loan from the neighbors) was English and their German DVDs were apparently too boring or for babies… Alas, faced with the possibility of watching a German movie or foregoing the only weekend TV session, they settled for German.

The biggest success from my point of view however was the bed time story. I know that everybody says you need to read to your children, but life often gets in the way – sometimes they come home too late from Karate, other nights I leave early for choir – but I made a point to read a chapter to them almost every night during the summer, we even took the book on vacation with us. There was new vocabulary to discuss and best of all we always recapped the story line up to the point to which we had gotten so far, which was a great opportunity for using German and expanding a vocabulary field that had nothing to do with the daily grind, school or food. The stories resonated with my boys as we talked about what might happen next. Sometimes during they day they would ask a question or make a comparison to the book. It was all effortless communication, very clearly not inhibited by the fact that they had thought/experienced something in English and then tried to translate it for me. It was clear German input-output, which is the smoothest and therefore most confidence inspiring.

Over the course of the summer, some compromises were made. The big Lego book and two car magazines found their way back into circulation since they were read for the pictures rather than the text. (They were also taken with us on the cruise since they simply give the most entertainment for the least weight.) We also watched two family movies in English, since my husband was participating (and watching “Star Wars” in German would have been borderline ridiculous when you have the original!).

So did this experiment work? Did their German improve by passively diminishing the exposure to English? And was it more effective than covering 4 pages in a work book every day? On the positive side, they certainly increased their vocabulary, new words from books were clearly absorbed and incorporated into the active language. The discussions of the bed time story were lively and immediate. Certain words necessary for comprehension were inquired rather than ignored since there was no easy English alternative book. Thus reading comprehension in German increased, however I am not sure whether this would also reflect in their writing – spelling is definitely something that improves more with workbooks and repeated writing than just reading (unless you have a very visual learner or a child with photographic memory).
Despite the bigger exposure to (written) German, I am not sure how much impact this had on the language of their inner dialogue. During the summer they still mainly played with each other and with their toys in English. However, the Lego figures and some of the cars we had picked up on our short visit to Germany were deemed to speak German and so some toy activity was entirely in German, which had never happened before! In addition, the acquisition of cool new knowledge (and the many ideas for exciting experiments) was dominated by German (and thus the translation into English to share with their dad was for once halting). There were no negative feelings towards German exercises, since it was all play and no work, no pressure to fill out workbooks and no grammatical corrections.

But would I do it again? What I have learned from this experiment is that I need to read more German stories to my children, it was the most effective way to increase vocabulary. I might also buy some more German DVDs so that they would pick these over English ones because of the content, disregarding the language choice. On the other hand, if I want my children to have age appropriate reading and writing skills compatible with their German native peers, I will not get around the work books and grammar exercises. But it sure was nice to take a break from the German homework pressure for one summer – both for the kids and mom!
Now school has started again and during the last weekend, we moved the mountains of books back to the boys’ rooms. They were happy to see some of their old favorites and started reading immediately. Here is hoping that some of the German discoveries will also stay in circulation until there is a new batch of cool German books for Christmas!

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