“We need your help. My family and I recently moved to Germany. My daughter is looked after by her nanny during the day, but it’s quite difficult due to language differences. My daughter doesn’t know any German yet, only Spanish, but she doesn’t even speak that perfectly. Her nanny asked us to teach her German at home with the help of bilingual picture books. But we have also heard that we should only speak Spanish at home… We don’t know how to help our little girl… we don’t want to confuse her by speaking two languages, but we don’t want her to lose my native language… Could you help us with this?”
I received this question while preparing for the Easter holidays. Since the message didn’t have enough information for me to give a truly personalized answer instead of general suggestions, I offered them a free initial 20-minute consultation.
Those who have already had consultations of this type with me already know how much we can delve into in just 20 minutes, even from a simple “innocent” question. Because sometimes just by questioning personal ideas about language learning, we can get past obstacles and make progress.
Other times, a simple question about multilingualism leads to completely different topics, ones the person didn’t even think of originally.
I believe in the value of dialogue. Of course, there are very specific questions that can be answered in a few sentences. (However, I would add that at some point in the conversation I might wonder why this particular parent thought of this specific question… and from here, a longer discussion would follow.)
But let’s go back to the original question. Unfortunately, I don’t know how old the child is. However, even during a short conversation, by asking a few questions about how the child’s Spanish language is progressing, as well as the parents’ language skills or their attitude towards learning the language, I could get a huge amount of information about the situation.
If I understand the question correctly, the mother is having difficulties because she has heard that she should only speak Spanish to her child, but the nanny asked her for support regarding the child’s other language as well.
The fact that everyone is responsible for their own mother tongue in a multilingual family is only true in general terms. We must be open to the other language and culture, and it is important to give the child the opportunity to have contact with the other language. At different ages and life situations, it is also possible to help the child with the other language, if necessary.
Of course, this also depends on the language skills of the parents. In this case, firstly, I recommend that you visit the local library and read books in German to your child. You shouldn’t stop reading Spanish books, though; you can read books in both languages.
A storybook may not provide the language of everyday communication. However, the library also helps because the child can listen to locals talking to each other. The library may even provide activities for your child’s age group. Not only the content is important, but also the opportunities for the child to listen, and to learn what kind of conversations local families have.
Now let’s consider the nanny: not everyone, not even educators, has adequate knowledge about multilingualism and in such cases it is worth being careful. Success depends on our communication skills, how tactfully we can convince them, for example, of how we think they should act, or simply reassure them that we see that everything is fine and that only patience is needed.
Your daughter’s situation can be improved even before she expresses herself with words, since she does not only communicate verbally. If she is sociable, kind, friendly, curious and attentive, and communicates well on a non-verbal level, she will integrate more easily into a group of local children, even if her language skills are not yet at the appropriate level for her age. Social skills can only be developed in a group, so it is useful to regularly take children to family-friendly events, or at least to the playground.
I’ve covered only a few points now, but the scope of this question is beyond what can be comfortably typed in a message. I don’t know what would have been obvious to the parents and what would have been new information, about which I could have gone into more detail. But I definitely didn’t want to leave the question unanswered, if someone would honor me with their trust and come to me, even if they didn’t want to take advantage of the free 20-minute consultation.
And I would like to add that I am also grateful to them for this, because today’s post would not have been possible without them.
And if I already mentioned how the free 20-minute consultation works, you can imagine what happens during my 4-week webinar sessions for parents, where we delve into topics related to language learning for a specific age group for 7 hours across four group discussions and one private session.