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How the kids pick up a foreign language

We’ve been posted in Germany for six months now. While life and work have been weird for me under COVID, the kids have a had a fairly normal experience so far. Until Christmas break they went to school and had playdates. We’ve taken them to the zoo many times and, now that it’s closed, we go walking/biking/kite flying to enjoy Berlin as much as possible.

That doesn’t mean they learned a lot of German though. Partially that’s because they spend most of their time with English-speaking kids. When there are English-speaking kids around they gravitate towards them, avoiding the tricky business of communicating in German with the German-speaking kids.

The other reason I think is their ages. My daughter is three—too young, apparently, to even distinguish between German, which is new to her, and Dutch, which she’s heard all of her life. Once in a while she’ll proudly say something like “Apfel” and wait for our applause, but then refuses to say anything more challenging and gets rather angry when pressed.

My son is seven and his only motivation to speak German is to not disappoint his teacher, Ms. Heyl, who lets it be known that she does not tolerate a sloppy attitude during her daily classes. So he does his best, but only for her. To him, the idea of speaking German outside of class is like doing homework at the playground.

Maybe my own skeptical attitude has played a role too. I really want my kids to develop their Dutch, so I don’t help them with German or stimulate it in any other way. Instead, I’ve been sending my son to a weekly Dutch class and I’m thrilled he’s doing well there. So I leave the German to Ms. Heyl.

The thing is, I don’t believe in “having” a bunch of languages anymore. I used to think you could collect languages. I thought learning a language is like learning how to walk, or ride a bike. That once you knew it, you knew it. Unfortunately this just isn’t true. If you don’t use a language for a while, you forget most or even all of it.

I know this from experience. Ask me to translate a sentence in Spanish, which I spoke fairly well from 2010 to 2012, and I would have to think long and hard before giving you a half-correct answer. Ask me to translate something in Russian, which I studied for six months in 2016 and could converse in on a basic level, and you’ll probably get nothing at all. My Russian language skill is either gone or has migrated to the very back of my mind.

Also, I believe it really matters at what level you learn to speak a new language. I don’t really care if my kids pick up a new language right now because they are too young to learn the level of vocabulary and grammar that would actually be useful to them once they’re adults. I mean, my daughter doesn’t know how to use the past tense in English, let alone in any other language!



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