The 007 Family Part 2: Minority Language and School Choices

In Part II, Mama007 takes us through the German education system, the language approach they now take at home (hint, not OPOL) and the choices they’ve had to make when it comes to picking schools. For those of you who missed part one, click here!


Part II: Growing up bilingual in Berlin

Our four-year-old son had to pass his entering exam for elementary school last week. I mean: he is four, FOUR years old. And the German school system already has its claws on him.

And here is why: Germany is a federal state and all its sixteen federal states have their own school regulations and even their own university systems to become a teacher. Basically, there is the same school system all over Germany: after kindergarten and elementary, you are split up. If you are really clever, you get on to Secondary School (called Gymnasium) which means that you will be able to enter University afterwards, if you like. If you are not so clever, then there are two other school types that offer you the possibility to get into a profession afterwards, but you will possibly never end up at university. And this basic system has its own facets in every federal state.

This said, I have to admit that we never much cared about what awaited us and our son when the time for school would have come. There was so much to do and learn with a child that school was on low on our list. But now, this chaotic German school system is awaiting our four-year-old son, who is growing up with a bilingual German-Spanish background.

Languages at home:

We speak Spanish at home because my husband is a native speaker and I speak it fluently too, but when I am alone with my son we speak in German. His Kindergarten is German-speaking, as the alternative would have been to stay at home until he could attend the only option  Spanish Kindergarten which takes kids from the age of THREE! Sorry, but we have to earn money too. We also wouldn’t change him just for the language. He has been at his nursery since his first birthday. I mean – what’s the point of changing the child, taking him from his friends and everything just so he can attend a Spanish-speaking Kindergarten? This was out of question for us. Right now, he speaks Spanish with his father when he likes to. He understands everything and his German is also just great.

Schools, Admissions and Test Prep:

On his third birthday, I was first confronted with the German school system. One of his best friends was moved to another Kindergarten because she will attend a private school for which a special private Kindergarten between age 3 and 6 is a pre-requisite. Okay, so that was that friend gone. The next year after that, I heard a lot about preparations bilingual parents from his group were giving to their children: language vacations, prolonged stays with their French/Spanish/ African relatives, special language courses for children in the respective language. And let´s be frank: we are talking about three and four-year-old kids. When I asked the parents, I was told that they did all this because they wanted their children to attend bilingual elementary schools in two or three years.

Bilingual elementary schools are a specialty of Berlin. Berlin demands that you send your child to school at age five. There are almost no exceptions to this rule. If you like, you may choose a bilingual school, there are more than twenty of them: German/ English, French, Spanish, but also Turkish, Greek or Vietnamese. The classes are held in both languages and in most schools the child leaves with a special language certificate, which makes it easier to get into a bilingual Gymnasium. The thing is: your child has to pass the test. Which test? The bilingual German/ whatever-language-you-choose-test. Obviously, we looked up if there was a German/Spanish school near our home. There was. So what test has our son to pass to get into this school? No one knows, but everybody suspects.

The other parents were sure that the test was vital, super important and had to be prepared extensively, hence all the vacations, courses and the like. But really, nobody knew what the test consisted of and the schools won’ t tell. So you are left completely alone, relying on information from other parents with children who have passed the test last year or the year before. And this information is doubtful at best because NO parent is allowed to be present at the test. Its only your child and two teachers. That’s it. That’s what we were informed.

So, as there was no information about the test, we prepared our son only a little. We talked more Spanish, we told him that his future teachers would like to get to know him but that they speak only Spanish so he had to respond in Spanish. But we did no courses and no extra vacations. We just hoped that he would do the same as at home: speak and be himself.

The Big Day: taking the test!

Last week the big moment had arrived. They took our son inside a room, he is not even five years old, and asked him questions in and Spanish about visiting a piscina. Is there no other possibility? Has it to be a nearly elitist activity as swimming? What about children whose parents don t have money to got swimming with them? Why not pick anything normal as shopping groceries or going to the park? We live in a flat; there is no pool. Nor do we know anybody who has one. We have not gone to a piscina until now because there are so many other activities: climbing, cooking, reading. But the school decided that every child interviewed had to have knowledge about swimming. I don’t get it….

When they were finished the teachers came out and told us that it was over, and the result would be available in six months and they were not allowed to tell us anything about the test and how our son had done. We phoned other parents, the French-speaking, the Spanish-speaking. Some children had failed. Some had resisted to speak to a complete stranger without their parents. Some were able to communicate but couldn´t form complete sentences with grammatically correct conjugated verbs in their second language. And were thus criticized or failed. And all of them were treated like we were: in a cold, impersonal manner. One teacher even told us that our son was “still small”. What does that mean? The federal state Berlin urges me to put my child NOW into school. Now, at age five. Which means, that he has to pass his exam at age four. Yes, he is small, but there is no real alternative and anyway: shouldn’t the teachers be prepared for small children if they teach at elementary school?

I was so upset. And felt helpless. If we want our child to attend this school we have to do all this. But we resolved to be patient and made a reservation at another elementary school. If he can´t get into this bilingual school, then they will accept him and he will go to a nice, friendly school just around our corner. And everyone there speaks: German. I wouldn´t mind that.

Language Families: Meet the 007 Family

To my lovely readers: This is the first in a series of guest posts written by other multilingual families sharing their trials, tribulations, and successes as well as the thinking behind the choices they’ve made.

I am so grateful to Mama007, navigating the Germano-spanish linguistic frontiers with her husband and son, for her willingness to be the first guest poster. I hope someday I can write as proficiently in Spanish or French as she does in English.

Part I: Becoming a bilingual mama….

I think most people with a migrational background and a mixed bilingual and bicultural relationship get to heavy thinking when kids are on their way. In which culture shall they live? Which language will be the “dominant” language? How to achieve that everyone is understanding each other, culturally speaking… as well as in “simple” language terms?

It’s not easy. And our western society is already giving us a strong hint to think that bilingual, trilingual and more-lingual growing-up as a child is not only something desirable but also an element to future (adult) success. So it becomes a kind of status symbol that unilingual German children may have a Russian or French nanny. Or, worse, that the parents are trying at all costs to speak English with their children, leaving them with as bad an German accent in English as you can imagine and a horrible vocabulary – all the time only wishing to do them well, supposedly teaching them the Nr. 1 language in world-wide business.

That’s something I would really like to put a finger on. Don´t think about future success. Just live your languages. It’s a recurring theme in my own blog “Mama007” that I think we should put up a resistance to these societal claims. You don´t have to give up everything and live in the woods, just don´t believe everything that the media and other parents tell you about “future success” because of early music lessons, Yoga for babies, bilingual education and the like. Give your child the time to grow up and pick up languages and interests, helping him or her with your own love for your language(s) and whatever you are interested in. Hey, I am a  former GDR-child and learned only Russian and a bit of English when I was young – and now look at me. Able to communicate in three languages, one of them learned at the age of 20 – 25. So, who cares! I am fluent in Spanish and German, and what my English is like – well, you can decide for yourself.

Experiences in 2 worlds

Multilingual Mama asked me to share our approach to multilingual education, so here it is!

Family Background: I have to admit: When I was pregnant, we were working as archaeologists in a remote area of the Bolivian Altiplano (high plateau) and I soon discovered that giving birth in Bolivia would not be my choice. We had been living there quite for a while so we knew what birth giving in Bolivia meant and what education in Bolivia meant. Since we had a choice, we chose Germany, my native country at least in the short term. Pregnancy in Bolivia is a natural thing. You don´t receive much attention and information, and there aren’t five bookshelves in every bookshop to choose your personal pregnancy-assistance-book from. To be honest, there are almost no bookshops at all. You can have every new blockbuster as an illegal DVD from the black market for a peso or two, but books…no se puede.

Pregnancy in Bolivia means: You are just going to have a child, that’s all. That’s OK with me, but I don´t like the idea of giving birth in a clinic with five other women screaming all around me, with no one from my family present and with no noteworthy medical assistance should anything go wrong. So we turned back and put on our old German lifestyle until when the time would be right to return as a family of three.

We had always been speaking Spanish during the excavations, in the city, and between us as a couple as well. My husband is Bolivian, so I practiced quite a lot. He speaks German but this is not a practical choice when all around you there´s Spanish and you have to be quick to take decisions –though German works out splendidly if you have to communicate rapidly over some tricky matter on indigenous community decision making!  From the beginning we decided that I would be speaking German to our child, while my husband would take the Spanish part. We chose the classic OPOL method, although we were speaking to one another in something of a Spanish with German missiles in it. But whatever, it works for us, with the usual exceptions: you twist a German word or sentence into the Spanish language when you want to be ab-so-lu-te-ly understood by your child about this matter of jumping of the bed with the edge of the table being just 10 centimeters away? Or painting the walls with cocoa and finger paint!

As the little one became bigger, things grew fuzzy. When he began to speak, almost all his first word-like creations were German-like with one really cute exception: he referred to himself as “e-goooodooooo“, literally meaning “el gordo” (the fat one), the nickname his father always called him as a baby. When he grew older, he was surrounded by German. He looks German. Thanks to the merry dance of genes he looks like his mother’s mother, who has Silesian –aka German–Polish roots. He speaks German. He attends a German-only Kindergarten. He is German, you can´t deny it. When he was 3 years old no one would suspect any latin roots about him. My husband was even asked if he was the father of the child when he collected him at the Kindergarten.

My husband began thinking that his only child would never utter a single Spanish word, especially as he started responding in perfect German sentences to his fathers Spanish conversations, requests, and stories. He understood everything but chose to answer in German. He understood everything in Spanish, gave the correct answers and laughed at the right times when a funny story was told. But he speaks German. So, what now? If you read the wise books on bilingual growing-up –the shelf just above the pregnancy ones, and there are at least five of them available everywhere in Germany– they will always tell you that you have to be consistent. Just pretend you don´t understand your child if it responds in the “wrong” language. We could not get ourselves to do this. I think we are pretty consistent in all other areas of our daily life, but this, we just couldn´t do. So we got on with a German speaking child, an increasingly frustrated Spanish-speaking father, and me, speaking Spanish with my husband and German with our child. This couldn´t go on for much longer so we took a turn when our child became three: we decided we would ONLY speak Spanish when the three of us are together.

This, I think, is against all the advice you’ll receive. “STICK TO YOUR LANGUAGE!” they tell you but what if your child refuses to answer? We decided to give our idea a try. My Spanish is fluent, almost without accent and with a wide vocabulary – at least according to my husband, my harshest critic. We took to speaking Spanish at home and a miracle occurred – our son started almost immediately to mix Spanish words into his German sentences. We looked at each other and couldn´t believe it. He then started to form little easy sentences in Spanish. Right now, after two years of Spanish at home, we are right on the way to Spanish speaking – with German intermingling, but lets take it easy…..

Our decision made our day messier. I switch to German with our son when we are alone, and back to Spanish when all three of us are together. My husband speaks Spanish, but sometimes switches to German when these cocoa-finger-painting-moments occur. I switch to German in our 3-person-constellation, when personal understanding or health is at risk. So our conversations on topics like: “Where did you hit yourself EXACTLY with the hammer????” are normally in German. Moreover, German serves as a kind of emotional language between my son and me. If we are to talk about subjects like: I care for you, I love you, you are my little one, then we speak German.

On the street, our son is surprised when he hears other people speaking Spanish. He just realized that there are other parents also speaking this language with their kids, but he hides behind my legs and giggles about this rare version of conversation instead of asking the Spanish-speaking child for this wonderfully red painted dump-truck. He is dumbstruck when there are parents speaking Turkish with their kids and asks: “What are they speaking?” – so I have to explain about all the other languages worldwide, just to give him an idea of all the languages in the world. And my husband shocks him from time to time with some Aymara sentences from Bolivia. Kunt´asimayu jilata


Friedrich the Great’s tombstone at his famous castle Sans Souci at Potsdam near Berlin. Friedrich was the prussian king who introduced andean potatoes to Germany and promoted Prussian ideals like neatness, law abiding and honesty.

Please join us next week when we will feature part 2, covering the educational choices Mama007 and her husband have had to make.

German speakers, please check out Mama007’s blog here!

Karambolage: Factoids and Language Learning Bliss

Karambolage: Factoids and Language Learning Bliss via Slate.

Forget naff exchanges about the weather and where the bank is located. These dull as dishwater language basics may be tried and tested, but the end result, as far as I can tell, is a big fat FAIL.

Instead, check out this fabulous program Karambolage. It is made up of superb animations and covers fascinating topics like the origins of Cordon Bleue or how bunnies and eggs became associated with easter.

Drawbacks? You need to sit patiently through the annoying 40 seconds of disco beats and a dismembered head floating around a black screen. Seems like a short amount of time but trust me when I tell you it feels like an eternity. (Disclaimer: part of this could be my sucky wi-fi connection). It is also only available in French and German.