CONTRIBUTED BY KARI MARTINDALE
One of the reasons my husband and I accepted a PCS to Germany was so that our young daughter Sequoia would have the opportunity to acquire German as a second language. When we arrived, she was five. Immersing her in German and surrounding her with the culture was of utmost importance to us. Your children acquiring German can be one of the most valuable byproducts of your family’s time here. You can help that process along without instructing them, and without yourself being fluent in German. Here are some of the ways I fostered Sequoia’s language acquisition when we arrived in Germany, and how you can do the same for your children:
1. GET OUT ON THE PLAYGROUND!
Take your child to the playground. If you’re at a fast food restaurant or the mall, let him play in the play area. Exposure is paramount. My daughter did not speak back to other children for a while, but she was observing and soaking in the German spoken around her as she played. This is one of the first things you can do to immerse your child once you arrive in Germany.
2. JUST SPEAK
We were always attempting to use what little German we picked up as we went along. If you do not know German, you will make mistakes. It’s natural. Germans will appreciate that you’re trying. Make sure your child sees you trying, and also allowing yourself to make mistakes—then she’ll know it’s okay when she makes mistakes.
3. DON’T CORRECT YOUR CHILD!
This is so important. You don’t want your corrections to make your child self-conscious and less comfortable with expressing himself naturally.
If you are a beginner yourself, even if you are taking lessons, you are learning one type of German while your child might be acquiring a local dialect. You will not innately know those dialect “rules”. If your child is truly making errors, they will self-correct naturally, through interaction with and feedback from native speakers.
4. GET A GERMAN BABYSITTER
During the academic year, students of various ages from the local schools spend a few weeks at a time doing their practicum. Education students would come and go at Sequoia’s Kindergarten and she really took to one teenage girl in particular. I asked the girl to come to the house for two hours once every week, to “babysit” Sequoia, reading and playing exclusively in German. A few weeks later, Sequoia’s teacher mentioned that she suddenly opened up. I highly recommend finding a German babysitter as soon as you are settled. Have them come over on a regular basis, to play with and read to your child. Remember: You are not trying to “teach” your child German, so you are not looking for a tutor. You are providing your child an environment that will foster natural acquisition.
5. VISIT LIBRARY READING HOUR
Find out when your local library has reading hours and take your child. Even when they do not understand at first, just hearing the sounds of German coming from a native speaker will be very beneficial.
6. GET SOME BOOKS!
Start simple: There’s nothing wrong with a board book when all of you are just learning. We happened to be just a few months into our time here when Advent calendars came out, so finding a giant Advent calendar with tiny German board books behind each door was very exciting. Because the books were for little ones, the vocabulary and structures were simple.
Challenge yourself: Walk into a bookstore and look around the children’s books for something interesting—something that you wish you could read. Buy it. Make it your goal to be able to read this book on your own. Don’t go home and look up the words, though. Just put it on a shelf and come back every month or so to see how much of it you can get on your own. We came across “Geschichten vom Klöchen” one day during our first few weeks in Germany. On the cover, a little boy is carrying a giant book to the toilet. Inside, on different pages, various things were occurring with different animals in the toilet. This presented the perfect goal: Acquire enough German to figure out what the heck was going on in that kid’s bathroom.
7. USE MAGAZINES AND OTHER PRINTED MATERIALS
In an upcoming article, Using Magazines to Foster Your Child’s German Language Acquisition, I will explain in depth how I used the magazines with freebies attached in a way that was fun, comfortable, familiar, and beneficial—to both of us. Menus and restaurant activities, Happy Meal books, pamphlets, and signs are also helpful. Even playing the alphabet game as you’re driving or walking around reminds a child that German isn’t so different. This could be effective for children who are old enough to be intimidated by the language: show them that, aside from the β, which is nothing more than two S’s, (Straβe = Strasse), and some dots on top of vowels, German and English look just about the same—there’s nothing to be afraid of!
Books and other printed material can help with vocabulary acquisition and familiarizing your child with the language, but they will not help your child make much headway with actually pronouncing German. So even if you’re a stickler for books, you might have to supplement them with other media if your child is not yet immersed in a natural German-speaking environment.
8. PLAY WITH TIPTOI ELECTRONIC BOOKS AND GAMES
There are quite a few of these books, games, and puzzles, for a wide age range of both boys and girls. We started out with a book about farm animals. Depending upon the setting it is on, the pen reads the story to you or names things in the picture, among other activities.
9. WATCH YOUTUBE
Search for German videos. It’s as easy as typing “German” or “Deutsch” in front of your search—perhaps for cartoons. My daughter watched mostly Mickey Mouse Clubhouse (“Micky Maus Wunderhaus”), Tom and Jerry, and Pink Panther. In the German versions, there is more talking in the latter two than in English versions. Sequoia was familiar with the characters, enjoyed watching them, and soon was watching without realizing the cartoons were in German.
10. WATCH MOVIES
If you are in a position to do so, buy a European DVD player and start watching German movies that your child recognizes. If there’s a Disney movie they’ve seen 750 times in English and love to watch, that’s a good place to start.
It’s also a great experience to see a movie in German. If you’re not quite sure you’re ready, see it in English first, and then go see it German once the family knows what to expect.
11. WATCH GERMAN TV
If you’re in a hotel, turn on German cartoons. If you have German TV access at home, turn it on. There are plenty of German cable channels with children’s programming.
12. LISTEN TO CD’s
CD’s are pretty cheap at the supermarket. You can buy children’s stories and songs, as well as CD’s with full narration of movies with which your child might be familiar.
13. PLAY WITH IPHONE/IPAD APPS AND GAMES
Just as in English, there are German game apps for young children, including learning games. You might have to set up an additional itunes account on your German phone—this will allow you to purchase apps not available in the US.
Here are a few apps that Sequoia used when she was five, early six years old:
Lesen Lernen fur Kinder – A dog takes you through word games such as matching words, word scrambles, memory, and word searches.
Lernen Lesen 2 – a boy character takes you through learning words and games of increasing difficulty, from matching to spelling.
Das Welt – You click on animals and they make animal sounds and say the name of the animal in German, plus there are puzzles and games to complete.
Prinzessin Lillifee games, including Vorschule. – Vorschule offers preschool games with instructions in German (there is even a game that teaches English words.) Games include drawing, matching, and math skills. Instructions are in German as the kids are going along.
14. SEND THEM TO GERMAN KINDERGARTEN/SCHOOL
An obvious way to fully immerse your child in German is to send him to school with speakers of German. Play and interaction with children his own age is a natural and very effective way for a child to acquire a second language. Have no fear: your child will pick up German even if he doesn’t speak a word of it on day one.
If some of the teachers know English, it can be easy to let your child fall into a pattern of speaking English with the teacher instead of German. Discourage the teacher from using English with your child.
15. MAKE SURE THEY’RE HAVING FUN!
The key to all of the above is that your child must be having fun. They will not become fluent, accentless speakers of German by sitting in the kitchen with you and some flashcards. They need to get out, be around native speakers, and be immersed in the language—playing, interacting, and losing themselves in the moment. Provide opportunities for German to sneak up on them.
Note: To read more about Sequoia and Kari’s experiences with the German schools, read these articles:
Is German Kindergarten Right For My Child? Part One
Is German Kindergarten Right For My Child? Part Two
Kari Martindale holds a Master’s in English (Linguistics) from George Mason University, a B.S. in Area Studies (Arabic) from Excelsior College, and was a candidate to graduate from the College of William and Mary with a B.A. in Linguistics before one of her husband’s (USAF, Ret.) PCS’s. In addition, she has studied both linguistics and foreign languages at the Monterey Institute of International Studies at the graduate level, Brigham Young University and Millersville University at the undergraduate level, the Defense Language Institute, and at other government organizations. She also has taught EFL.