My Failure to Raise a Bilingual Child

I’m bilingual. Sort of.

I can get by in German – like if you dropped me in Berlin I could feed myself and find my way around – and I’m slowly making my way through the first Harry Potter book auf Deutsch, but my communication in that language is full of fumbling and stumbling. The main reason I even consider myself remotely bilingual is that because I learned my German early on, I don’t translate. For me, speaking German, even when I’m doing it badly, is more like speaking English than it is like speaking in the limited Spanish I know. I don’t have German memorized – it’s just sort of there in my brain.

So once upon a time I had grand dreams of raising my children to be German speakers.

It turns out this is incredibly difficult to do when you’re not rearing them in an environment where German is spoken consistently. And because my own German is so schlecht and I don’t have a bi-lingual parenting partner, it was difficult to keep at it when P. was just a little thing and I was delighted by anything she said at all. We just kind of trended toward English.

raising bilingual kids

P.’s first time out of the country in northern Germany

Now that Bo is here, I have a second chance, but frankly, my German is still pretty poor and so I’m not really sure how to pass the language on to him without mucking it up.

Back when P. was a baby, I thought I’d have my family to lean on in this regard but considering they are not local I can’t say it would have done much good to have them speaking German at her six or eight times a year and that’s it. And I was surprised when they didn’t just speak German to P. anyway, without my having to ask.

But I’ve since reconciled myself to my little ones’ current ability to only speak one language. It used to drive me crazy that my mom and my grandparents weren’t speaking German to P. Until, that is, I realized that it was more important for my 80 year old grandfather to be able to communicate with her than it is for him to help me undo the barrage of English she’s heard since she was born. My mom would rather play pretend with P. than give her a language lesson. That’s okay – I can definitely see where they’re coming from.

Like I said, maybe I have a second chance with Bo. Right now, I speak as much German with him as I can during the day when P. is at childcare. I’m looking into what it will take to send both of them to the German school in Boston. And if nothing else, talking to a mostly uncomprehending baby boy is at least helping me remember more and more vocab every day.

Maybe I’ll still get them speaking German eventually. Just as soon as I find the time to work on my own grammar.

christa terry - mom meet mom

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