When Your Germany Born and Raised Child Doesn’t Speak German–and Other Parent Fails.

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I think all parents have moments where they feel like complete and utter failures, and I’m experiencing that right now.  Here’s my issue: My daughter was born in Germany and yet, at 4.5 years old, she can’t speak a lick of German.

Now, here’s where I need to rush into a complete defense of how/why this is possible.  Laken went to a German Kita (daycare) when she was 1.5-3. She had the most wonderful experience there and picked up some of the language (though she often spoke a pigeon mix of English and German because she hadn’t quite separated the two, yet.) Our plan was to send her on to German Kindergarten (which is the equivalent of pre-school over here.) There, she would gain fluency.  Then, we would put her in an American kindergarten on the army base where my husband and I work, and she could continue on developing her German through community activities/lessons/etc.

We discussed our rationale for not sending her to German school, endlessly.  

First of all, German schools have a different schedule than ours, from the daily level to when their summer break is and how long it lasts. So, that would have been a hassle.  Then, we tried to imagine helping Laken out with her math homework a few short years from now. Seeing as my husband is a self-proclaimed math atheist and doesn’t speak German, and my own German does not cover the vocabulary of polynomials, etc, it just seemed like we’d be putting her at a disadvantage.  Finally–in the military, and even in the relatively sturdy position of DoDEA teachers–there’s always the chance that we’ll be flung into the world of a transfer, or base shutdown, and have to move back to the United States. I’m also firmly convinced the government will one day be alerted to the incredibly good deal teachers of military children get and cancel the whole operation.  

Perhaps our biggest reason for not wanting to send Laken to a German school was that we’ve simply heard better things about American schools.  I hate to say that, because I do think Germany is so amazing that I want to hold it up as an example in all sorts of ways but, in the case of education, it’s just the common denominator for what we’d been told.  

They also track students in this country.  In fourth grade the teachers sit down and decide whether a child seems destined to be a lawyer, a doctor, an engineer, or a prostitute and send them to one of three schools after fourth grade geared towards sending the child to the predetermined point B.

I just don’t like that.  It reeks of The Giver, if you’ve ever read that book.  So, we decided to take advantage of the superb German kindergarten system, allow our daughter to become fluent, and unleash her upon the German community in all sorts of playgroups and hip-hop Tanzkuerse, all the while moving through the good old American Common Core, which is a whole other type of hell, but at least one we speak the language and can help out in terms of homework.  Maybe.

Well, you know what they say about the best laid plans.

We had Laken on no less than thirteen waiting lists for German kindergartens throughout Wiesbaden, and I emailed most of them in broken, beggy German to accept our child.  Eventually she was given a spot at a kindergarten run by the same company as the Kita she first went to.

We were beyond happy to be accepted, but in the end it didn’t work out.  The rooms on the first three floors of the center were your typical construction paper laden, sunflower and butterfly-heavy dream, with children’s artwork hung on the walls and wooden toys galore (as Germans don’t gravitate towards the plastic, flashing, noisy ones.) But, the room Laken was assigned to–the Dachgeschoss, aka attic room–was less than ideal.

They attempted to cram 25 children into a tiny, windowless, soulless, art project-less space.  The teachers blithely greeted the kids in the morning before gathering at their own table to eat an adult breakfast and let the kids fend for themselves for the better part of the morning.  Whereas the rooms on the bottom floors had bulletin boards with neat schedules framed with butterfly emojis, laying out the Thursday field trips and the English lessons and dance classes, there didn’t seem to be any plan at all for the room upstairs.  Something was written in brown crayon on a crumpled piece of paper and stuck to the wall.

I kept asking when they’d be taking the famed Thursday field trips, like the kids in all the other rooms were doing, and was told “soon.”

Whenever we picked Laken up, she was tucked away in a little galley where they stored the cots, playing something by herself.  I think she went there to hide, and it broke my heart.

She held onto her Minnie Mouse lunch box like a comfort object. I dissolved inwardly when I led her up the eight flights of stairs to her classroom and saw her chubby little hand gripping the pink handle with no intention of letting go.  Her teachers couldn’t get her to leave it inside during lunchtime. She took it outside with her when all hundred something kids at the center were released to the playground, and carried it close when she ran smack into the middle of a game of soccer played by kids at the neighboring Grundschule. 

They yelled at her in German to get out of the way, and she stopped to suck her thumb and stare at them, uncomprehending. No teacher stepped in to help her.

I tried to convince myself Laken would do fine there until one day when I was leaving the kindergarten side by side with the mother of the smallest child in the room.  She cried all eight flights down the stairs about how awful it made her feel to leave her child there, and how she was looking for somewhere (anywhere) else for her daughter, and that was my definitive breaking point, too.  If even the Germans parents weren’t stoic about the situation, I most certainly couldn’t be.

That moment, coupled with the conversation I had with another teacher who worked at the center (who was attending a birthday party we were at) who let me know that we should try to get Laken in another room because these teachers were notably mean to the kids–so much so that this teacher confronted them over a scene she witnessed in the cafeteria.

Yeah, no.

So, we put Laken in the Child Development Center on base and it has been more or less a great experience.  We are on the same vacation schedule. She’s learning site words. She’s made friends. I know she’s in an environment where the teachers take profound measures to ensure her physical safety, whereas at German kindergarten kids are a bit more on the trial and error system. In other words, go ahead and try out climbing that tree–but when you faceplant on the concrete, you’ll have learned your error and the stitches are an unfortunate bonus.

But.

Even though I know we made the best decision for our child at the time, I can’t help but feel like I’ve set up our daughter for failure. It’s so easy, so easy, in the military community, to live an isolationist life.  The military base can be like a giant, beige-colored bubble of at-home perks to include everything from Kellogg’s cereals to English movies.

I know many people–I’d venture to say most of the military families here–who have settled in Germany and restricted themselves entirely to that bubble.  It’s a tempting, cozy little existence and very easy to fall back on.

I realize that this problem might seem highly solve-able.  Why not sign your daughter up for activities now, anyway? That’s where she’ll learn German! Get a German tutor! Have her watch German cartoons! Make German friends!

All of these things are falling flat in my attempts to make up for the fact that, in our decision to send Laken to American school, we are potentially cutting her off from the society she was born into on the macro level.

I’ve looked up all child-centered activities in the Rheingau area–from table tennis to programs at the local Feuerwehr (fire station.) Everything starts at a time too early in the day for us. Because German schools let out earlier, activities start earlier and there simply isn’t anything we could be around for.  We had a German babysitter, but she just had a baby and tackling my child’s linguistic deficiencies has taken a lower rung on the priority ladder. We do watch German cartoons on a daily basis and, while Laken stares at them while happily eating her mermaid shaped Fruit Loops, I don’t think the take-aways are significant.

As for making neighborhood friends…the house we just bought is on a quiet street where I’d say the average resident is 97.  

Twice we were at a local playground, though, and I convinced my child–my brave, present, eager baby–to approach a group of kids and say, “Hallo! Mein Name ist Laken!” with hopes that would lead to all sorts of things, presumably inclusion on the teeter totter and then a lifetime of neighborhood friendship and language aptitude.

Sadly, in both cases the children stared at my daughter like she was some kind of walking virus, and then they stared over at me as I gamely explained in German that, “This is Laken and she’s four and she wanted to introduce herself because she’d just love to play with you?!” only to be told in no uncertain, gutteral terms that they weren’t interested.

Ugh.

I think the point of this whole rant is that at certain points, as a parent or as an adult, we’re more aware than ever of the Butterfly Effect our choices might have.  And, the fear that this Butterfly Effect might take a horrific trajectory for the people we love the most, who aren’t yet capable of making their own major life decisions, is terrifying.  

My greatest fear is that Laken will one day look at me and ask why I didn’t do more to make sure she didn’t feel isolated from the country she was born in.  Just writing those words makes me want to cry.

I already find myself in situations where I have to defend Laken for this choice we made.  For example, her primary physician is fond of making comments like, “What a shame it would be if she grew up here and didn’t speak the language!” YES, I KNOW THAT, AND AM LOSING MY MIND OVER THIS FACT BUT BY ALL MEANS, MAKE A COMMENT.  Or, when we went back to the States for Christmas I got lots of questions like, “So, does she just know to switch from German to English whenever you come home?” And, there’s a part of me that wants to LIE and say yes, that’s exactly what happens. Just like I sometimes want to lie when people ask how long I’ve been living in Germany for and I want to cut the number of years I give them in half to make it sound like my language is more appropriately fluent than it is.

At the same time, I do believe that as parents we have to make carefully evaluated calls that feel like the very best ones for our families at the time.  A friend once pointed out to me, and this makes sense, that if things are easier on the parents and stress is kept to a minimum, the kids will benefit from that.

It’s just hard to know sometimes if the choices that seem like the best fit for us, are necessarily the best ones for our children. 

Sometimes, as in this case, I’m just not sure.

I guess the bottom line is that we have to make these calls using our best possible foresight at the time.  Yes, I want my child to speak German, but I don’t want her to hide in a classroom closet all day in order to (possibly) achieve that goal.  Yes, I want my child to be included in this culture, but not at the expense of being entirely alone in comprehending the demands of her school work as she gets older.

Parenting requires us to make life decisions for people who are not yet capable of doing that for themselves. It can be so hard  to do this, but the best we can do is go with our gut instincts, pick a path, and then be entirely in charge of padding any negativity in the Butterfly Effect that follows.

I suppose as long as we do that last thing, we’re doing well by our children.

But, man, it’s hard to feel like I’ve failed at providing my daughter with one skill that should be totally easy for her right now.

8 thoughts on “When Your Germany Born and Raised Child Doesn’t Speak German–and Other Parent Fails.

  1. This is a great post. Do not worry too much though. Your daughter is still very young. My daughter went to a French kindergarten in Germany so there were many bilingual kids there and each child deals with it in a different way. Some will speak both languages very soon, other will start to speak very late and other will concentrate on one preferred language.
    To be honest, my daughter does speak both languages very well now but when she was as old as your daughter, she definitely did not. Actually neither French people nor German people would understand her. My younger son is also having difficulties with both languages.

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    • Thank you so much for your comment and I apologize for the delayed reply! I completely agree with you…it does seem like language comes to kids at different paces and times. I worry so much about my daughter, but I didn’t become fluent in German until my late 20’s, so I know it’s possible at any stage of life and she will have all kinds of opportunities as a child. That’s awesome that your daughter can speak both, and I’m sure your son will get there, too! It’s just such a neat opportunity to have in Europe…such a benefit to be bilingual!!!

      Liked by 1 person

      • Totally agree with you. This is a great opportunity to be able to speak two languages. We just have to remember that it is not always easy. We are always told that little children learn languages super fast and super easily but it is not quite true.

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  2. It is so clear how much you love and care for you child and want the best for her. There’s still so much time for her to be all the things she can be, and (not sure how much this counts from an internet person the other side of the world who doesn’t even have kids but) I think you’re doing great. That kindy did not sound like a good fit at all.

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    • Thank you so much for your comment and I’m SO SORRY for the delayed reply!! I got hit with the plague last week. Anyway, your words really made my day and I appreciate what you said. Even though it wasn’t the plan for her to be almost five and not fluent in the language, that kindergarten truly wasn’t a good fit so we had to go to plan B. I guess my biggest fear is for her to feel like an outsider in the country where she was born. It can be so easy to live on the fringes as an expat and not really belong anywhere. I don’t want that for my daughter! But there is still plenty of time to get it together and I’m just a massive worrywart, haha. Thanks again!!!

      Liked by 1 person

      • Hey, no problem 🙂 and I really don’t consider this a late reply. I can be much slower getting to comments myself! I hope you recover from your plague quickly.

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  3. Wanting the best for your child is such a great thing and there’s not much I can say beyond that because I don’t have kids so I don’t feel like it’s appropriate for me to judge how other people raise their kids–except possibly in cases like yours where my judgment is that you’re doing the best you can.
    And I feel like so many of the challenges you’re dealing with are unique. That’s probably true for every parent. There are general rules but for the most part I get the feeling that my friends with kids feel like they’re in a tree they don’t remember climbing and they’re desperately trying to avoid a faceplant and stitches. And it’s dark twenty-three hours a day.
    Anyway I’m intrigued that your husband is a math atheist. I have trouble with math myself, which is why I work in an accounting department, but that’s another story. It never occurred to me that simply refusing to believe in math was an option and I’m grateful to him for showing me the way. And I admire both of you for wanting Laken to get a good education and not saying, “Just look up the answers in the back of the book, that’s what we did when we were your age” which is what I’d probably do if I were a parent.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Please, please forgive me for taking this long to respond to your AWESOME comment!!! I haven’t logged in to WordPress in a few weeks (which shows my pathetic level of dedication as a blogger at this stage in my life!) Anyway, your comments are always a perfect mix of thoughtful commentary and humor. They’re simply the best. And, I never fail to laugh when you say, “but that’s another story.” You are too much! Thanks for everything you said. Parenthood is definitely the most stressful and wonderful thing on the planet. It’s this constant zinging between every possible emotion. At the end of the day, I just want my child to grow up without feeling like I messed her up. As for math atheism, it’s totally a thing! I’ve subscribed to the theory as well and I feel so much better about the world!!! I very much enjoy YOUR blog, may I add, and will leave a comment soon!!!! Laken’s almost five now, so I’m giving myself until she turns six before I become a contributing member of society again. 😁

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