My son is seven years old, and through various twists of fate he has attended an English language public school and a French immersion public school Canada, and now attends a German/English bilingual private school in Germany. We’ve gone through the language/school transition twice now, both with a major international move and without. While I’m not a speech pathologist, a teacher, or a child psychologist, I have gone through this as a parent a couple of times now. As we adjust to our new life in Germany, I was struck by how many similarities there are between our time settling in to French immersion school and German school.
Here are three things we’ve learned, living through this major change twice now.
Ease into it.
If you have a few months to prepare, use them. Ask the school your child will be attending for some tips and resources in the target language. Download game-like apps to give your child a feel for the vocabulary (we love Gus on the Go in particular). Check the Netflix options for shows in the target language, but look for ones a few age levels younger so the speech is simpler. It’s ideal if it is a show your child likes and knows well already. Pinterest is great for language resources, and so is YouTube (here is my French immersion resources board, and my Learning German board). Obviously don’t throw it all in there at once, but try something every couple of days.
Support, but don’t push it.
Once they start school, it’s tempting to try and speak to them in the target language (if you know it), or expect them to come home with new vocab every day. Don’t forget how exhausting learning a new language is – and if your child is staring in a new school in an immersion situation, they’re doing a new job in a new language too. Keep things as mellow and predictable as you can at home, and keep the extra curricular activities to a minimum until they settle in. Though, if there’s an activity they really love and feel confident doing, definitely go for that. Learning a new language can be a real knock to even confident kids, so anything that bolsters the ego is terrific.
Give it time. Lots of time.
It may seem like they will never speak the language, or that nothing is going in, but be patient. With our son, it takes about six months before little words and phrases start popping out at random. If you can, spend some time learning the language too if you don’t already speak it, and ask them to help you. Kids love teaching their parents something. If you’re really concerned nothing is sticking, talk to their teacher. I really recommend waiting at least six months though – and know that speaking the language is one of the last things to come.
Have you made a language transition with your children? Any tips to share?
This huge park is in the middle of the city, and easy to reach by transit. There are many many playgrounds, and we just stopped at three or four as we wandered. Elliot’s favourite was right next to the big biergarten surrounding the Chinese Tower. You can ride a beautiful carousel from 1905 for €1 a go. Terrifically, no adults are allowed on it, so you can sit for a minute.
Check out the surfers on the Eisbach canal at the far south end of the park. It’s mesmerizing.
If you’re exhausted, you can flag down one of the pedicabs for a ride or a tour. It’s not cheap – €35 or so will get you a tour. A cheaper option is taking out a pedal boat on the lake, it’s €10 for half an hour.
The biergartens serve the usual bratwurst, french fries, soft pretzels (brezeln), sauerkraut, onion salad, and potatoes – as well as giant vats of beer. You can bring your own food as well, so if you’re planning to make a meal of it, swing by a REWE or Edeka beforehand for some vegetables.
Easy to reach by bus, the zoo can easily take up a whole day. There are several playgrounds, and a little mini theme park called Kinderland complete with ride-on cars, a minitrain, a beautiful carousel, and a digger. Kinderland involves buying tokens for the rides, so keep that in mind.
In the middle of the zoo there’s a biergarten right next to the biggest playground. There’s also a sit down restaurant on the terrace above if you’re looking for burgers instead of sausages.
It’s worth checking the schedule of feedings and shows before you head out. The shows are in German, so if you don’t speak the language it’s a bit less interesting. We watched the acrobatic pigeon show, though, and it was fun anyway. The pigeons kept landing on people’s heads!
Our favourites were the Bat Cave, where the bats fly around your head and occasionally bump into you, and watching the penguins zip through the water.
Ask at the entrance gate for a map in English, and one in German to practice your animal names!
We visited Taxisgarten, a local biergarten recommended by my husband’s colleagues. Again, it’s furnished with a playground, and features the usual food options. It’s beautiful on a warm summer evening, with lights strung up in the trees. You can bring some of your own food here too, so bring some extras if your kids are like mine and will only eat Brezel.
Where to find playgrounds >> should you be in Munich and need to find the nearest playground, try this great searchable outdoor playground (spielplatz) database. You can plug in your children’s ages and where you are, it will give you the closest playgrounds. It’s in German – I’m sure you can find your way through, but if you’ve got the Chrome browser with the translation plug-in it makes it very easy.
We originally only spoke English in our family, along with some French because we’re Canadian. Several years ago, we moved to southern Germany near the French border, and all of a sudden, languages became very, very important. I’ve since learned a lot about what helps with language learning and I’ve outlined what’s worked for both my husband and I as adults, and our son, below.
When I first wrote this post, we were just about to move to Germany. Now that we’ve lived here for nearly five years, I wanted to update you on what has worked and what hasn’t for seriously learning another language.
Language learning for kids
First of all, let’s talk about kids learning another language. Before we moved to Germany, our nearly seven year old had been in French immersion, so his reading and writing education had been entirely in French so far. He spoke quite well, and understood loads. We threw him in the deep end when we arrived in Germany and he started at bilingual school – though it turned out bilingual there meant more like 70% German. His first teacher did not speak much English. He’s now five years in, and is around a level C1/C2. The language he speaks with his friends is German, and occasionally when he plays online with English speaking friends, he does an excellent UN translator thing of translating back and forth while playing video games. I won’t lie, it was rocky there for awhile, and the nitty-gritty elements of German grammar are still a bit of a battle at school. Next year, he begins taking French in school as well.
Strategies that helped my son learn
None of these little tools will replace speaking the language regularly or school in that language, but they all helped a bit.
We are huge fans of the app for young kids, Gus on the Go. It’s available in 30 languages, and they do a great job of helping kids learn early vocabulary. There’s a next level app called Gus on the Go Stories now for French, Spanish, Greek, and Hebrew. These apps were developed by a lovely multilingual family, and we’ve been using and recommending them for years. On their website, they have lots of free language printables too.
Other strategies for helping our son with learning German included:
Putting subtitles on any TV shows or films he watched, and letting him watch a bit more if it was in German
Finding comics he liked in German
Listening to audiobooks in German, often of stories he already knew so he had some context
Suggesting he ‘help’ us with our German reading (which did actually help, by the way)
Language learning for adults
My husband and I tried loads of apps, including Duolingo, Rosetta Stone, and Busuu. If I’m completely honest, it did not prepare us as well as we had hoped for living in Germany. Nothing really compares to a proper language class, and if you’re looking to learn seriously to use it in daily life, work, or school, you will need to go beyond apps. I will say apps are helpful as a supplement to your class learning when it comes to things like flashcards and drilling specific elements that you can’t remember (*cough* German articles *cough*) – the screenshot above is from the app I use called Der Die Das.
There is an in-between world of podcasts, and upon reflection German Pod 101 was more helpful than the hours I spent on Duolingo. You want to find a podcast/audio lesson series that uses native speakers so you’re not learning wonky pronunciation that you will have to unlearn later.
When we arrived in Germany, we had a set number of private language lessons with Berlitz, and those were great. If you’re relocating through an employer, definitely negotiate language lessons as part of your package, for both you and your partner. However, it was too pricey to continue on our own. I looked around for German classes, but in our small town there wasn’t anything that didn’t require a commitment of full-day or half-day classes every weekday. I found Lingoda online, and they have been without a doubt the best way of learning a language when you want flexible classes but still need to properly learn. I wrote an in-depth review of my experience with Lingoda. Full disclosure: after writing that review, Lingoda contacted me to write blog posts for them about language learning, for which I get paid and a bonus of some free lessons, but I also still pay my monthly fee so I can do more. Take that how you will! There are other companies taking this approach now, and I think it’s a good one as we’re all more used to having conversations online. Look for small class sizes and native-speaking teachers.
Strategies that have worked for me
You really have to approach learning a language as a continual process, rather than something with an endpoint, as well as recognising there will be times you get more intense about it, and times you let it slide. It’s fine. I’ve learned that rounding out my language learning by approaching it from different angles has made it easier to keep at least some language learning going even when I haven’t booked a class in awhile.
Make a playlist of songs in your target language, and learn the lyrics – SING ALONG – this has helped my pronunciation more than anything else (here is my ever-evolving German singalong playlist, for example)
Find a good TV series or two in your target language – not dubbed, but written and filmed in your target language, that way you will get actual slang and what people really say, it’s fine if you pause it every 20 seconds to look something up, you will get it eventually
If you’re not ready for that, start with films and TV you know in your language dubbed into your target language, and watch with the subtitles (not in English) – start with kids shows if adult stuff is too quick, but I find action films are pretty simple when it comes to dialogue
Start following social accounts in your target language – language learning accounts if you like, but also just regular people you would normally follow – if that’s chefs or costumers, whatever, just find the relative hashtags in your target language
Find comics or magazines, something with lots of visual cues, in your target language, again look for subjects you’re interested in anyway
In the end, learning a language takes effort, and you need to put the effort in yourself. No app, lesson plan or music playlist will magically make another language appear in your brain fully formed – no matter how much I wish I could zap that German adjective declension straight into my grey matter. I also want to say here that you can definitely do it, don’t let anyone tell you you’re not good at languages or some crap like that. It’s a skill, like slicing onions quickly or woodworking. You learn it, step by step. Some methods work well for some people and some don’t, so keep trying things until you find something, or a combination of things, that works for you.
For someone who doesn’t like to travel, I move a lot.
Back and forth across Canada a couple of times, then to England for seven years, and then back to Vancouver for five years, and in a little over two months we’re moving to Germany.
We’re lucky in that both our move to England and this move to Germany has been through relocation programs with my husband’s company. Though the first time we did this, we were in our mid-twenties. Now we’re older, and have a child. A few more moving parts to the whole thing.
I had never been to Germany when I said yes to this move. After many years in England, I knew a little bit what to expect. And the opportunity to live in Europe again, for our son to live there and gain a wider understanding of the world – it was just too good to pass up. I am again giving up a job and a network. My mum is here. You would think, as a person with anxiety issues, doing something as bonkers as volunteering to move across the world to a country I have never seen that speaks a language I don’t know would be completely off the table.
Trust me, there are moments my anxiety takes over and I think I must be completely nuts to do this. But I think that’s normal human anxiety talking, rather than my extra special brand of worrying.
Somehow, this is okay. More than okay, an adventure. So follow along as we prepare for yet another giant move, and I fill you in on our second round expat journey.