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.

Minotaurs and Merlions: P’s Very Un-Darwinian Language Evolution.

Pea’s evolving language never ceases to amaze and amuse me.  I know kids brains are supposed to be all pliable and sponge-like with an incredible capability to sort and slot all sorts of information but there are times when I feel even I am pushing the limits.

My poor child was subjected to a number of waves of different dominant languages from English to Spanish to French, back to English with quite a bit of Mandarin in the last few months. Lately, her exposure to Spanish has fallen to a record low.

How I would portray P’s Spanish since moving to Singapore

Given P’s linguistic history, it’s no wonder her languages are a bit all over the place. Even following OPOL for the most part, the variation in exposures has fluctuated so much. I find it interesting that the words that seem to be sticking in French are verbs and she has fought again and again the use of french pronouns. I’m curious if that is a pattern in kids who mix. I expected nouns to be the first words to change since you don’t need to conjugate them. I’ve definitely noticed her avoid articles like Le and La, replacing them in stead with The.

Some of her linguistic concoctions:

Fading like a Dodo bird
She systematically used the Spanish word for with i.e. con. I loved hearing her say ‘i go con you’  and long to hear her speak con me that way.

Rising in numbers like Singaporean mozzies after a rainstorm

You plie it

‘You fold it’ AKA my toddler ordering me to clean up after myself. I blame her OCD father

 I mélange it

‘I stir it’ AKA my control freak toddler ordering me away from her yogurt and honey.

 I don’t want baby Claude to dérange me

‘I don’t want baby Claude to bother me’ AKA ‘I need you to both stay seated next to me while I colour, paint, play, etc and simultaneously take baby Claude away to another room. I don’t care if they haven’t figured out cloning. You are omnipotent so make it happen.’

My sirene goes under the water

‘My mermaid goes under the water’  Yes well she’s half fish so she would wouldn’t she. And now if only you would go under the water; I’ve spent a freaking fortune on those swimming lessons.

Finally my favorite category – the bilingual hybrid.
Please meet Tiny. Tiny is P’s Perroque. (half Parrot half Peroquet)

Sometimes, she really amazes me. Just when I’ve given up on the idea that she will act as my interpreter when we visit my lovely Mexican Mother-in-Law, she’ll point out a random object like a crane and say “that’s grua in Español”.

My heart soars!

So like any good parent, I offer her some gateau. “No Maman, I want cake! That’s pastel in Español”.

Two steps forward, one step back. Even sponges reach saturation point. I trust someday these languages will work together.

Falling Off the OPOL Wagon -how multilingual parenting is akin to giving up smoking

I didn’t realize I had fallen off the OPOL (One Parent One Language) wagon until I found myself face down on the ground with a chipped tooth and a mouthful of dirt.

FALLING OFF THE WAGON: For me It was a slippery slope. I don’t know offhand if I am correct in thinking that strict OPOL means that even to each other, parents speak their native language. This would require that my husband speak fluent French. Given our non Francophone location and his long working hours, this is a distant dream.  I would need to speak fluent Spanish, which I should by now but don’t and mostly have myself to blame. So even if I only spoke French to my daughter, she KNOWS that I both understand and speak English and not just outside our household but to communicate with her dear Papa. Here is my hand dangling off the wagon.

Then there are the group play dates where other little English-speaking friends come over. Here I can speak individually to her in French but sometimes I need to address the kids together and this now means I am technically speaking to her in English – even if I do repeat it in French for her benefit just after. My arm creeps out over the side of the wagon.

There was the swimming class to help her get over her fear of water on her face – a key endeavor when you live in the land of unguarded swimming pools. This was a stressful time with both her teacher and I trying to cajole, console and “push” her simultaneously as she is learning new things. It felt like I was adding confusion and extra layer of cacophony to an already noisy and difficult experience so more english was spoken to “unify” the message as well as let the teacher hear that I was reinforcing what she was saying. Et hop, that’s one leg over the side of the wagon.

Moving to Singapore was a blessing in so many ways and the fact that the country is set up to accept multilingualism as the norm is definitely one of them. Knowing that Papa in his field ends up working long hours, we had always thought that someday we would have an au-pair or help at home once we had a second child and it became more cost-effective. We would choose someone Latin who would speak Spanish and help support this minority (as in least spoken/exposed to) language. Instead we have the MOST WONDERFUL helper from the Philippines who speaks very good English. This has resulted in Pacifique’s English improving in leaps and bounds but also means she has developed an extremely strong preference for English which was reinforced by her recent enrollment in a local nursery, which splits the days in English and Chinese.

And here is where my other leg goes over the wagon’s side and I am now barely hanging on, white knuckled with sweat trickling down to my finger tips. Toddlers can be quite a handful and you want to make sure the caregivers are on the same page especially with impending tantrums and other naughty behaviors. In order to do this I would say something to Pacifique in French and then say it again in English for Cherry’s benefit. With Pacifique speaking more and more English, this soon mutated into me saying it in English and then translating it into French and somehow I soon realized I wasn’t even always translating it into French. I knew I’d hit rock bottom when my sentences turned into a language mish-mash similar to a salade macedoine .  And to make matters worse, as more English crept into my exchanges and my husband and I were also trying to be on the same page, more English crept into his despite the fact that my spoken Spanish is awful but I actually understand 95% of what he says. Ay yay yay. We were heading downhill at breakneck speed and hadn’t even noticed.

The hard thud on the ground is when I suddenly realized that when completely alone with my daughter P, English started creeping into our conversations and she no longer ever uttered a word in French to me.

HOW DID I GET HERE? No seriously HOW did I get here? If you had told me I would end up so far down this path, I would never have believed it. Then the self berating starts. Well of course I ended up here. I have commitment issues. I have finishing issues. My French sucks. What was I thinking. My situation probably wasn’t helped by the fact that I was diagnosed at the time with Post Partum Depression. The nightly insomnia and almost inability to stay awake during the days coupled with much sobbing should have been a dead give away. When I am being kind to myself, I figure that all the complexities of our lingual situation coupled with feeling so awful and vulnerable would of course make me more prone to this happening. When I am not being kind, I think that I am a poor excuse of a mother, who now has the luxury of full-time live-in help and still can’t pull it together. Yes I am learning to focus on the former not the latter.

Whatever takes you down this road, kids are resilient. Kids can adjust to incredible amounts of change. Don’t let the purists scare you away. Your kid won’t be lost to inevitable language confusion just because you fall off the wagon. Yes it may be tougher to climb back on when you are tired, bruised and covered in dirt but you will get there and you will all make it to your destination.

IT’S LIKE GIVING UP SMOKING: I credit some posts on the bilingual blogging carnival highlighting their children’s progress in a given language with flipping the switch for me.  I knew I had to try to get back on track. It is really a lot like giving up smoking and I should know as I’ve done that numerous times, twice with great success. I realize this sounds like a contradiction but the first time I gave up for four years and the second (and hopefully last) started in 2003 so I am now nearly eight years smoke free. Two key elements set me up for success.

  1. Just because I caved here and there and had a ciggie didn’t mean I was a smoker again. And this included a night out on the lash smoking a pack, waking up with that deep husky voice I miss so. I just started again from the morning as a non smoker forgiving my lapse and telling myself I would do better next time.
  2. I tried to create situations where I wasn’t tempted or more likely to smoke.

Translating that to language use, I’ve stopped berating myself every time I realize I’ve switched to English and just revert back to French. For my situational successes, I also made a point to pick actual French books at night instead of translating on the fly which is tiring and frustrating if you end up with unknown words. I also arranged more outings with other French people. I even just called up some old French friends to get back into the flow of adult French conversation.

HOPE ON THE HORIZON:  One of the really frustrating things with language learning and kids is that you can never be entirely sure why something is working. Even if you take two different approaches with two different kids, every kid is different and every parent is different. A few weeks can also be a time of key developmental changes in your child that would have happened irrespective of any other language changes you made. You may suspect something is working but you can’t ever categorically say for sure whether it is. Sometimes you just need to do your best and trust in the Universe or better yet trust your kid.

So I changed my ways as best I could and this is where we are at after a few weeks:

P was in her bath and started asking for her little seahorse. Much to my surprise, I actually knew where this one tiny piece of yellow plastic was located. I know some greater power laughs as I can’t locate my wallet or keys or transit pass but can locate a one inch toy in a stack of 1000 others. I retrieved the toy and brought it to her in the bath and she turned to me with a big smile and say “Yay hippocampe”, which is also one of the first words I looked up when I started reading or more accurately real-time translating books for her in French. I am pretty sure I NEVER actually knew that word before having her.

Another tiny gift of French came when I told her, as I do most nights, that she should choose a book while I get her a glass of milk and that I would read her a story and then it would be bed time. Normally I would be met with either complete silence indicating an imminent bedtime battle or more often “yes Mama” or “OK Mama”. Tonight I got an emphatic  “D’accord Maman!” Literally I am in agreement with you. I would have fallen off the chair but it is a tiny blue toddler chair so my bum was fortunately well wedged in there.

After reading a short story, I turned off the lights and asked her which song she wanted to hear. Nine out of ten times she will request “the moon song”, which is to her “Au Claire de la Lune”.  I happen to know three out of four of the stanzas to this song which helps managing the repetition. This is one of two songs that would sooth her as a baby so I’ve sung this THOUSANDS of times. No really I am not exaggerating. I counted once 45 times on a lengthy walk back from the park. I once had to sing the song for almost an hour during a four-hour car trip. I will someday die and likely have that playing in my mental background. If my husband has a sense of humor and should outlive me, my epitaph will read “She sang Au Claire de La Lune ad nauseam” (J- I’ll come back from the dead and kill you myself if you actually do that)

When she eventually started talking and even singing the odd song, I was sure this would be one of the first. I mean given how many times she’s heard it, makes sense right? NO. apparently not. New rhymes and songs she has just learned at school like Mary Mary quite Contrary and Humpty Dumpty that she may have heard probably 30 times, a 100 at most if I am being generous, these get recited but not my french lullaby. Until tonight when I discovered she knew 90% of the song.

Here are the lyrics -minus the third stanza- we sing in our house.

Au clair de la lune  
Mon ami Pierrot
Prête-moi ta plume
Pour écrire un mot
Ma chandelle est morte
Je n’ai plus de feu
Ouvre-moi ta porte
Pour l’amour de Dieu

Au clair de la lune
Pierrot répondit
Je n’ai pas de plume
Je suis dans mon lit
Va chez la voisine
Je crois qu’elle y est
Car dans sa cuisine
On bat le briquet

Au clair de la lune
On n’y voit qu’un peu
On chercha la plume
On chercha du feu
En cherchant d’ la sorte
Je n’ sais c’ qu’on trouva
Mais je sais qu’ la porte
Sur eux se ferma.

me: bonsoir ma cherie, dort bien. Maman t’adore. A demain.

P: bonsoir maman

********* Thank you for reading this post which will feature in this month’s bilingual blogging carnival.