- Location: Germany
- Parents: Dad=German; Mom=Russian
- Child: German, Russian & a bit of English in kindergarten
Anastasia is a friend and colleague of mine. She is a professor in the field of second language education. Anastasia and her husband live in Germany. They raise their now 4-year old daughter bilingually with German and Russian. Originally from Russia, Anastasia speaks Russian to her daughter, while her husband speaks to her in German. Read here how Anastasia and her husband make time for the different languages, what challenges they have encountered, and how they have made it work so far.
Veronika: Okay! First of all, thank you for taking the time to do this.
Anastasia: Sure, no problem! You’re welcome.
Veronika: So what languages do you guys speak at home?
One parent one language
Anastasia: We speak two languages on a daily basis, Russian and German; and when we have friends over, then it’s usually English. Some of our friends don’t speak German and that’s why we need to switch to English.
Veronika: And you speak Russian to the little one and your husband speaks German?
Anastasia: Yeah. It’s one to one—the one parent one language approach.
Veronika: Are there any other languages she’s exposed to or are those are the primary ones?
Anastasia: Let me think… I guess these are the primary ones and she is also exposed to English in kindergarten because they have one bilingual teacher or caregiver and he only speaks English with the children.
Veronika: I see. So that’s quite a mix of languages. Why did you want your daughter to grow up bilingually? What was the reason for making that decision?
Anastasia: I guess there were many reasons. The first one would be that it actually doesn’t cost anything at this moment. So it’s a perfect opportunity not to do much or not to have much extra effort in order to learn a new language. You have to invest time and money when you’re an adult to learn a language and that’s what you don’t have to do when you’re a child. Also half of the family speaks only Russian especially the grandmother (my mother); so if my daughter doesn’t pick Russian, there would be no opportunity to have any conversation with her grandma or with the rest of the family in Russia. So I think it’s very important. And I think being bilingual just a nice thing in today’s globalized world… to be able to speak many languages and not necessarily to study a language in order to be able to speak it. So I guess these are the main reasons.
Veronika: So it’s a more natural processes of picking up a skill that takes time and energy when you are an adult.
Anastasia: Yeah, exactly. I mean it’s more work for parents, but for the child there’s actually not much effort that they have to put into it.
Veronika: Yeah, speaking of hard work, how do you actually keep it going and how do you expose her to Russian which is the minority language in your case?
Anastasia: I’d just say that it’s really hard work because I work full time which means that in the spare time that is left for the child, it means that all the input should be in Russian. So I basically speak only Russian with her and often in these situations when there are people around who don’t speak Russian, it feels a little bit awkward, but you have to decide whether you want your child to learn the language or if other people think that you’re rude or…I don’t know.
Speaking, traveling, and fun activities
Veronika: Do you stick to Russian all the time?
Anastasia: I stick to Russian all the time and in some cases, depending on which situations these are, I might switch into a German when it’s not like one to one conversation with my daughter and there is a third person around us. If it’s a 3 people conversation, I would use the majority language, but otherwise I would try to use each second to expose her to Russian; and so everything she says in German, I repeat in Russian which is hard work because it seems a little bit unnatural and you cannot really fake not understanding the majority language. Children are smart and they know it right away.
Veronika: I hear you! I have the same challenge. Ella speaks more English than German cause she knows “Mommy speaks English as well so why bother? So, yes, I also repeat everything in German.
Creating the need to use the language
Anastasia: Exactly, so yeah, first of all I speak Russian with her all the time; then she would either go to Russia once a year so that she spends time with her cousins and her grandmother; and her grandma comes to Germany like once a year for a month or maybe twice a year for a month. So this is the precious time because the grandma doesn’t speak any German. She might understand a couple of words, but that does not help my daughter. If she wants to get some milk, then she needs to say it in Russian otherwise she doesn’t get any.
So this is what we’re mainly doing and of course we try to meet and spend time with other families where the children are raised bilingually. This works too because I have some friends who also have children who teach or who speak two languages at home. And starting this September, she will start to go to the Russian theatre where she can actually play with others in Russian. This Russian Theater is not a group where they explicitly teach the child the language, but this is kind of a theatre activity where language is not in the focus actually, but it’s going to be in Russian.
Veronika: So it is like a kids group that performs plays in Russian? So they use the language and thus learn without even realizing it because the focus is on the theater play. That’s cool!
Anastasia: It’s ll done and organized by the Russian community. So this is actually what I’m really looking forward to and definitely as soon as she is a little bit older, she will go to Russian school on Saturdays.
Veronika: That’s interesting. We were thinking of a German school; we’ll see how that goes with sitting down on the weekend and learning…
Anastasia: Yeah, I guess in this case, from what I know and from the experience of my friends, if there is a friend who speaks the language, it will not be about going to a Sunday school, but it’s going to be doing something with a friend. That’s probably really important when the children become teenagers. So this is a time when it’s important to have a friend and maybe the best friend who speaks a minority language too. Otherwise it is going to be boring.
Veronika: And have you encountered any particular challenges in raising her bilingually; anything that you felt was kind of hard?
Patience is key!
Anastasia: I guess you really need to have patience. So it’s not a task for impatient people because you really need to have my input or exposure to the language; and of course if you have—apart from the kindergarten—just 3 hours a day, and you split it actually with your partner, it becomes even less. For the language exposure, it’s natural that the minority language or the heritage language will not be as well developed as the majority language especially at the beginning. So there will be this big gap, but after a while, the gap will be slower or will not be as wide.So patience is one thing.
Also I have encountered that it’s a little bit difficult to deal with the parents or with the part of the family who doesn’t understand how much it takes to learn an additional language. For example, the grandmother would say, “Lena, hey, talk English with me or speak Russian with me” and you cannot just switch the whole sentence if you’re not able to speak the language.
And usually the relatives—just generally people who don’t raise their children bilingually won’t understand that it is not easy. They expect you to somehow make a child speak the language fluently—a number of languages; and this is something that is hard to explain to them and make them understand. So you already put much work into raising the child bilingually and then you should also convince others that you are basically doing everything you can. It’s something that you can’t just install in the kid over night.
Veronika: Yes, it’s a work in progress—a life-long project.
Anastasia: Exactly. This is something that I find at least at this moment the most challenging thing. I guess that some other challenging things will come up later. For example, when they become teenagers. So it’s going to be a motivation question; why bother speaking Russian at all…?
Veronika: …when mommy understands German. Yup!
Anastasia: Yeah. So this is going to be the thing and maybe they will just want to hang out with their peers. So there will be other challenges, but I guess at this point being patient is very important.
Veronika: That’s a good point. So what advice would you give to other parents who would like to raise their kids bilingually or parents who are in the decision process at this point whether they should start that journey?
Don’t give up!
Anastasia: I would definitely encourage them to do it and not to give up because sometimes you think that here is the point now or there should be some jump in the language development, but it’s not coming and this is where you shouldn’t give up because there certainly will be a development or there will be an increase in the language development.
So probably this is the thing. The other point is not to switch into the majority language while talking to the child. There might be some situations or moments where the child would just speak the majority language with you because you simply understand. At that point once you switch into the majority language, the child won’t want to hear or speak the minority language.
This is what I actually see very often happening here in Germany. It’s a little bit different if you speak English as a second language; so the statuses of the languages is different and if you talk English to your child, everybody understands it’s not kind of a “dangerous conversation” in a language that nobody will be able to understand. That is why I would really encourage people to stick to speaking with the child, keep at it, and not to feel discouraged.
Try to stick with the minority language!
Veronika: That’s a good point because kids develop at their own, individual pace and each kid develops differently, but I think as long as you see progress, it’s a positive thing. And keeping at it, even when times seem challenging is important!
Veronika: Well, thank you very much for taking the time and sharing your ideas! And good luck on your bilingual journey!