From encouraging playground visits to hiring a German nanny, we give you a few pointers for learning German for kids.
One of the reasons my husband and I accepted a relocation to Germany was so that our young daughter Sequoia would have the opportunity to acquire German as a second language. When we arrived, she was five. Immersing her in German and surrounding her with the culture was of utmost importance to us. Your children acquiring a foreign language can be one of the most valuable byproducts of being an expat, whether your move is temporary or permanent. You can help that process along without instructing them, and without yourself being fluent in the foreign language.
Here are some of the ways I fostered my child’s language acquisition when we arrived in Germany, and how you can do the same for your children. Most of these tips can be applied to helping your child acquire any foreign language.
1. Get out on the playground
Take your child to the playground. If you’re at a fast food restaurant or the mall, encourage him to play in the play area. Exposure is paramount. My daughter did not speak back to other children for a while, but she was observing and soaking in the German spoken around her as she played. She was also observing how other children behave in this new-to-her culture. This is one of the first things you can do to immerse your child when you arrive in German.
2. Just speak
We were always attempting to use what little German we picked up as we went along. If you do not know German, you will make mistakes. It’s natural. Germans will appreciate that you’re trying.
Make sure your child sees you trying, and also allowing yourself to make mistakes — then she’ll know it’s okay when she makes mistakes.
3. Don’t correct your child
This is so important. You don’t want your incessant corrections to make your child self-conscious and less comfortable with expressing himself naturally.
If you are a beginner yourself, even if you are taking lessons, you are learning one type of German while your child might be acquiring a local dialect. You will not innately know those dialect ‘rules’. If your child is truly making errors, they will self-correct naturally, through interaction with and feedback from native speakers. As you and your child each make errors, just be patient, keep plugging away, and fight the urge to correct!
4. Get a German babysitter
During the academic year, students of various ages from the local schools spend a few weeks at a time doing their practicum. Education students would come and go at Sequoia’s kindergarten and she really took to one teenage girl in particular. I asked the girl to come to the house for two hours once every week, to ‘babysit’ Sequoia, reading and playing exclusively in German. A few weeks later, Sequoia’s teacher mentioned that she suddenly opened up and began speaking. I highly recommend finding a German babysitter as soon as you are settled. Have them come over on a regular basis, to play with and read to your child. Remember: You are not looking for a tutor; just provide your child with a friendly environment that will foster natural acquisition.
5. Visit library reading hour
Find out when your local library has reading hours and take your child. Even if they do not understand at first, just hearing the sounds of German coming from a native speaker will be very beneficial to their own accent in the future. There will be illustrations and the reader’s pitch and expressions to help them figure out what is going on.
6. Get some books
Start simple: There’s nothing wrong with a children’s board book when all of you are just learning. We happened to be just a few months into our time here when Advent calendars came out, so finding a giant Advent calendar filled with tiny German board books behind each door was very exciting. Because the books were for little ones, the vocabulary and syntax were simple.
Then challenge yourself: Walk into a bookstore and look around the children’s books for something interesting—something that you wish you could read. Buy it. Make it your goal to be able to read this book on your own. Don’t go home and look up the words, though. Just put it on a shelf and come back every now and then to see how much of it you can get on your own. We came across Geschichten vom Klöchen one day during our first few weeks in Germany. On the cover, a little boy is carrying a giant book to the toilet. Inside, various things are occurring with different animals in the toilet. This presented the perfect goal: Acquire enough German to figure out what the heck was going on in that kid’s bathroom!
7. Use magazines and other printed materials
Menus and restaurant activities, pamphlets, and signs are also helpful. Even playing the alphabet game as you’re driving or walking around reminds a child that German isn’t so different. This could be effective for children who are old enough to be intimidated by the language: show them that, aside from the β, which is nothing more than two S’s (Straβe = Strasse), and some dots on top of vowels, German and English look very alike—there’s nothing to be afraid of!
Books and other printed material can help with vocabulary acquisition and familiarising your child with the language, but they will not help your child make much headway with actually pronouncing German. So even if you’re a stickler for books, you might have to supplement them with other media if your child is not yet immersed in a natural German-speaking environment.
8. Play with electronic books and games
There are quite a few of these books, games, and puzzles for a wide age range of both boys and girls. We started out with a book about farm animals. Depending upon which setting you select, the pen reads the story to you or names objects in the page illustration, as well as performing other activities.
9. Watch Youtube
Search for German videos. It’s as easy as typing ‘German’ or ‘Deutsch’ in front of your search for cartoons. My daughter watched mostly Mickey Mouse Clubhouse (Micky Maus Wunderhaus), Tom and Jerry, and Pink Panther. In the German versions, there is more talking in the latter two cartoons than in English versions. Sequoia was familiar with the characters, enjoyed watching them, and soon was watching without realising the cartoons were in German.
10. Watch movies
If you are in a position to do so, buy a European DVD player and start watching German movies that your child recognises. If there’s a movie they’ve seen 750 times in English, that’s a good place to start.
It’s also a great experience to see a movie in German. If you’re not quite sure you’re ready to handle it, see it in English first and then go see it German once the family knows what to expect.
11. Watch German TV
If you have German TV access at home, turn it on. If you’re in a hotel, turn on German cartoons. There are plenty of German cable channels with children’s programming.
12. Listen to CDs
CDs are pretty cheap at the supermarket. You can buy children’s stories and songs, as well as CDs with full narration of movies with which you and your child might already be familiar.
13. Play with phone/ tablet apps and games
Just as in English, there are German game apps for young children, including learning games. (You might have to set up an additional account on your German phone—this will allow you to purchase apps not available in the US.)
Here are a few iPhone apps that Sequoia used when she was five into the beginning of turning six years old:
- Lesen Lernen fur Kinder – a dog took her through word games such as matching words, word scrambles, memory, and word searches.
- Lernen Lesen 2 – a boy character took her through learning games of increasing difficulty, from matching to spelling.
- Das Welt – she clicked on animals which then made animal sounds and spoke the name of the animal in German. There were also puzzles and games to complete.
- Prinzessin Lillifee games, including Vorschule – Vorschule offered preschool games with instructions in German (including a game that taught English words). Games included drawing, matching, and math skills. Instructions were in German, but things were intuitive, so she was completing the tasks set forth in the German instructions without realising that these German instructions were soaking in.
14. Send them to German kindergarten/ school
An obvious way to fully immerse your child in German is to send them to school with native German speakers. Play and interaction with children their own age is a natural and very effective way for children to acquire a second language. Have no fear: your child will pick up German even if they don’t speak a word of it on day one.
If some of the teachers know English, it can be easy to let your child fall into a pattern of speaking English with a teacher instead of German. Discourage the teacher from using English with your child.
15. Make sure they’re having fun
The key to all of the above is that your child must be having fun. They will not become fluent, accentless speakers of German by sitting in the kitchen with you and some flashcards. They need to get out, be around native speakers, and be immersed in the language — playing, interacting, and losing themselves in the moment. Don’t force it; instead, provide opportunities for a new language to sneak up on them!
To read more about our experiences with the German schools, check out the articles I wrote for Germany, Ja!:
- Is German Kindergarten Right For My Child? Part One
- Is German Kindergarten Right For My Child? Part Two
There’s no better way to learn about the world than to see it. But what if you can’t afford to send your child abroad? The following information may help you find the kind of scholarships that can support your endeavour to put the world at your child’s fingertips. Germany’s on the list — you can let your child learn firsthand about the world I write about in this blog!
Scholarships for American high school students to study abroad
- The Congress-Bundestag Youth Exchange Program (CBYX) offers merit-based scholarships to spend an academic year in Germany. The programme was established in 1983 to celebrate German-American friendship based on common values of democracy. Students live with host families, attend local schools, and participate in community life in Germany.
- The Kennedy-Lugar Youth Exchange and Study (YES) Abroad Program offers merit-based scholarships to spend an academic year in countries that may include Bosnia & Herzegovina, Egypt, Ghana, India, Indonesia, Macedonia, Malaysia, Mali, Morocco, Oman, Philippines, South Africa, Thailand, Tunisia, and Turkey. This programme increases understanding between people in the United States and people in countries with significant Muslim populations. Students live with host families, attend local high schools, do community service, and complete a capstone project.
- The National Security Language Initiative for Youth (NSLI-Y) offers merit-based scholarships to study one of seven critical foreign languages: Arabic, Chinese (Mandarin), Hindi, Korean, Persian (Tajiki), Russian and Turkish. The NSLI-Y program is designed to immerse participants in the cultural life of the host country, provide formal and informal language practice, and spark a lifetime interest in foreign languages and cultures.
- For more information on exchanges sponsored by the US Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, visit www.exchanges.state.gov or watch this video about US high school student exchanges.
- For information on having an international experience without leaving home, consider hosting a Department of State-sponsored exchange student. Learn more at hosting.state.gov.