Second-language acquisition in children; or, This life is a school

I’ve enrolled my two oldest children in a German elementary school. They have until Christmas to learn German and catch up to the rest of their first- or third-grade classes before the risk of flunking out gets to be too high. So far things are going OK, but it’s been a struggle at times, with my children’s general contentment intermixed with some frustration and unhappiness. An administrator at the new school insisted that all children will successfully learn German, but of the Americans we meet who have tried it, about half report having a great experience and half report failing miserably, with both outcomes sometimes found in the same family. There are no guarantees that our experiment in integration won’t end in disaster. Sometimes I wonder if I’m a bad father for inflicting this on my children.

My wife and I have known for a long time that we would have to dump our children into this situation–far from the home and friends they’ve previously known, where they don’t completely understand what’s going on and where they have to figure out a lot of things on their own. For us, enrolling our children in school here means giving up control over what our children see and learn (although walking through a German train station or past the perfume advertisements in the drugstore windows is an education in itself), and it even means exposing our children to religious views that may differ from or even oppose their own.

But there are really no other options. There are some things that they can only learn here, immersed in a foreign culture, and now, before their minds lose the flexibility of childhood. We tried to prepare our children for the new experience as best we could, but there are limits on how much anyone can learn from textbooks, and on how much our children are willing to learn from their own parents. While our job as parents is not over by any means, the only way our children can make progress now is for them to leave the family sphere and seek out new experiences. In order to learn more, they need situations where they are forced to make use of the things they have been taught.

My children are not totally unprepared for the challenge. Although temperamentally quite different, they’re both bright kids with unique talents. At the same time, the current situation seems custom-designed to provoke their individual weaknesses. They need to learn to work more diligently, and not to get frustrated so easily, to escape from introversion, and to listen to their teachers. If they can use their talents to overcome their weaknesses, the experience will prepare them to do things they can’t even imagine now, but the hard part is for them to recognize their weaknesses in the first place.

My children aren’t completely alone in their challenge. Together they can rely on each other as family while they’re away from home, and I hope they find good friends as well. As their father, I’m very grateful for the other children who make the effort to befriend them and especially for the teachers who are giving them extra time and attention. I really wish, though, that my children would tell their parents more about their day. Their classroom seems to be populated with people named “I forget,” and the course of their day one hour after another of “I can’t remember.” I’ve dealt before with just about every problem they currently face, and I have a lot of useful things I could tell them, if only they would actually do the things I suggest, if only they would listen to what I’m telling them, if only they would ask.

26 comments for “Second-language acquisition in children; or, This life is a school

  1. There is an essay that language fans will probably find interesting: “Why Do People Learn Languages?” Its main thrust is that learning a language takes work that the bulk of people will avoid if they possibly can and that language fans have an exaggerated concept of the value of acquiring a second language.

  2. Do either you or your wife speak German at home? Or speak enough German to help them with their school work?

    Will they be attending German school temporarily, or through high school?

    The half and half statistic seems pretty normal from anecdotal evidence. What you have to realize is that some people are natural language learners and some aren’t. If you discover that your kids are not natural language learners, I would consider not forcing them to continue learning in a language that isn’t their native one.

    I’m no expert!! But I’ve taught second language learners in foreign countries for 16 of the past 19 years, and taken lots of workshops and stuff on the subject, and while no one (the experts in the field) agrees totally on the subject, my personal experience has shown me that some kids get really really depressed when they are forced to learn in one language and then live their life (at home) and watch TV and have fun in their native language. The “school” language can be overwhelming and the learning itself can be stunted.

    For example, if you’re trying to learn a skill like reading and then trying to learn it in a language you don’t know at the same time, well, it’s really tough on the brain, and the brain might not necessarily be able to learn both at once. Another conference I took went to suggested teaching a skill (reading, learning times tables) in the native language first and then transfering it to the new language.

    For those kids who learn languages easily, and make the transfer easily (even without a ton of language support at home) there’s nothing better. I’m in awe of these amazing kids I teach that know 2, 3, or 4 languages by the time they’re 7 or 8 years old!

    Just food for thought.

  3. What are you doing, Jonathan? Using your children as experimental subjects for your research on SLA? ;) (I always thought your emphasis was historical… lol).

    What a neat experience for your kids- and what a nice way to challenge them and build their confidence at a young age that they can accomplish much.

  4. No doubt there will be challenges, but I suspect (and hope) that it will turn out well in the end and be a tremendous educational advantage to your children over the long haul. Good luck, and keep us informed as to their progress.

  5. Wunderbar, Jonathan. I would say: keep a detailed diary, and you’ll end up with a great SLA Case Study on Immersion Variables.

  6. Jonathan,

    How similar our experiences are right now! I don’t need to write one blog-word about our new life in Vienna because you’re doing everything we’re doing!

    Like with you, our Jacob doesn’t say a word to us about school. He seems happy enough though and doesn’t mind going. He doesn’t appear to be learning much German though.

    Luckily, school finishes at 12-1, so Rebecca has the whole afternoon to supplement his learning. We call it “mummy-school.” She got hold of the British curriculum and basically makes sure he’s where he should be vis-a-vis English school.

  7. Update: the school called the police about my oldest son today.

    See, he forgot that he had an extra German hour after his last class, so he walked home, so his younger brother went to the German class alone and then wandered over to the office when his brother didn’t show up to walk home with him. The secretary wondered why he didn’t just walk home–it’s 3/4 of a mile–but she was more concerned that no one knew where his older brother was, so the police were called. Luckily my wife showed up soon after with the missing child in tow.

    SLA is, unfortunately, not my field, but I do have a personal stake now in what works and what doesn’t.

    Meems, we’re expecting to be here two years, long enough to justify the pain, and both my wife and I are competent speakers. Our kids are both good enough students that the core curriculum isn’t terribly new, leaving mostly the new language as the primary challenge, as well as some of the unique features of the German elementary school–writing with a fountain pen is required after second grade, for example, and neat penmanship is considered important. Coming from a school that cared more about neatly filling in standardized test bubbles, it’s a painful but useful lesson for my kids.

    John Mansfield, thanks for the link to the essay. I don’t agree with some of the particulars, but most of it is quite good and the overall point is correct: learning another language is very difficult. If you’re wondering what makes it worth it for us, I refer you to this page. (About the actual value of learning a second language: isn’t that an ongoing concern of yours? I’ll try to work up a response with a Mormon angle some time.)

    Mr. Rascal, thank you for paying attention. Close reading has its rewards.

  8. I attended kindergarten in Kaiserslautern, Germany.

    (A regular conversation I would have with the German kids — they would ask me “how do you say kindergarten in English?” and I would reply, “kindergarten.” And they would say, “no, it’s child garden.” And I would say, “no, it’s kindergarten.”)

    (They also taught us all sorts of cool rhymes, like Ein, Zwei, Polizei.)

    One day after class I didn’t show up at home. A search party was sent out. It turns out that I had seen some construction going on, and being a curious five-year-old, I was standing there and watching the big cement trucks at the construction site.

    If that’s any indication of trajectory, your child is likely to become either a blogger, a lawyer, or both. Truly an “Abandon hope, all ye who enter here” prognosis.

  9. SLA is my field and it sounds like you guys will be fine. It is important, as Meems said, that your kids have a strong background in their native language and if their academic skills are sounds, transferring should be fine, especially since German and English share so many cognates. I would encourage you guys to speak English at home–your kids will be exhausted otherwise–but of course offer help with German homework. How is Church?

  10. Learning a second language is a lot of work and some value, depending on what you do with it. Living in another country, where they speak another language, and being able to communicate in the local language, for a couple of years or so, is absolutely priceless and one of the most mind-expanding and enriching things one can do. Language, disconnected from culture, studied in the superficial way many students do in high school or whatever, can be disappointing, but language as a way of accessing another culture! There is something really valuable!

  11. When we lived overseas, we didn’t put our children into the local public schools for lots of reasons. While sink-or-swim works with some children, most need some support, and public schools in Kyrgyzstan didn’t give non-Russian or non-Kyrgyz speakers any help. I’d be far more inclined to send my children to public school in western Europe though (if I could get over my hang-ups about public school in general).

    They still learned quite a bit of Russian from playing with the kids outside our apartment building (they had to; usually the most English anyone knew didn’t go beyond counting to ten and chatting about the weather) and I think it was still a valuable experience even though they didn’t come away as fluent Russian speakers.

    I’m sure things will go well for you. I’m just glad I’m not in the middle of that decision again. It’s not an easy one to make.

  12. My oldest are in 1st and 3rd grade. I don’t get much info about their day either. With my daughter I noticed that she would open up more at bedtime (stall tactic?). Keep your ears open and try to figure out when they seem to be willing to talk.
    Try dinner table conversation like “The best part of my day was _______. The worst part of my day was _____.”
    Try a family council about problems and fixing them. Have everyone tell about one challenge and come up with a plan on how to fix it.

    “I’ve dealt before with just about every problem they currently face, and I have a lot of useful things I could tell them, if only they would actually do the things I suggest, if only they would listen to what I’m telling them, if only they would ask. ”
    This is the hardest thing about parenting, I think. I want to give them all the answers and smooth the roads. But my experience doesn’t mean much to them.
    So, I do the best I can to give them the tools, the values, the strategies, the rules or suggestions and then I cross my fingers. They end up having some good experiences and some bad experiences and hopefully learn from both. Letting go really is part of parenting this age group, I think. I’ve been a SAHM and had “control” and I’m losing more and more each year.
    One of the ways I help myself “let go” a little is to realize that in order to grow into a confident adults, they need experiences as children to help them gain that confidence. Which means they need some challenges that they feel like THEY are the ones to worked through them….not just that parents fixed them.
    Make sure your home is a home of love, that your family is a place where they feel important, loved and encouraged.
    Go ahead and tell your stories about things you’ve learned in life. Your kids might enjoy them and the stories might help them down the road.

  13. I went to kindergarten in Argentina at an American school. When a new government took over (I think) they mandated that the school must be half in Spanish. But since I was bilingual (at the time) that was fine. I did think the kids were stupid who didn’t speak Spanish.
    I went to an American school in England and in 5th grade some poor Middle Eastern boy showed up with no English skills. His first year he was very quiet. However, his second year he seemed very comfortable both academically and socially. There is my anecdotal.
    I would also put my kids into school in a language they didn’t speak if they were younger than high school. It takes babies 12-24 months to learn to speak a language and this at the same time as learning to walk and use their hands. I have a hard time seeing the negatives, so please keep us updated because I’d be interested.

  14. Our public school district has a very extensive language immersion program with about 1500 students receiving at least half their school-day instruction is a second language. My son’s school ( is 80%-20% immersion with the smaller English portion of the day taught by an English-only teacher and the rest by a native speaker in the respective target language (French, German, Japanese, or Mandarin; the Spanish-immersion program has two elementary schools of its own). Some of the students have bilingual homes but most do not.

    It’s amazing to watch the littlest ones as they start with their target languages. Even only 6 weeks in they are interacting and understanding the things their teachers tell them. By the time they come back from winter break they are well on their way!

    All courses other than English are taught in the target language. My son learns science, social studies, art, math, etc. all in Japanese. Ditto the kids in French, German, and Mandarin. The teachers are still responsible for teaching the standard NC state curriculum; they just do it via a different language.

    The really interesting twist is that all these students face the same no-child-left-behind tests that their all-English counterparts do. They have to be tested in English, so they are demonstrating their mastery of concepts in a language that is different from the one in which they were taught. Even at that, more than 90% test at grade-level or above.

    I may be a little biased, but if you have access to early-childhood language immersion classes for your child, do it! It will pay off!

  15. I think your children will do beautifully–especially as they make friends at their school. I didn’t learn Spanish until I was 19. It took me a full six months to get over hating Guatemala, where Dad had dragged us. When my heart finally opened, my mind did as well. Your kids are still young enough that the wonderful and mysterious “Language Acquisition Device” is still functioning in their brains. And your most recent post reveals that they have the second most valuable tool in learning a foreign language: spontaneity, often translated as the ability to get into trouble anywhere in the world.

    My little sister, six at the time, lived in China with my parents and became completely fluent. (On a train ride, a porter brought a huge meal to my folks’ car. When Dad protested that he hadn’t ordered it, my sister announced in perfect Chinese that it was she who had placed the order, thank you very much.)
    Back in Provo, my sis (Carol) found a lonely Chinese girl on the playground of Wasatch Elementary and started speaking to her in Chinese. The other kids paid close attention and mocked Carol relentlessly. She vowed that day that she would never again speak Chinese–and she kept the vow. She is now in her thirties and can’t remember a word of it.

  16. Negatives (#16)? What about a public school system that uses corporal punishment? Or one that mandates a variety of unnecessary vaccinations (that they administer themselves)? Or one where the teachers accept bribes? Or one with unqualified teachers who aren’t paid enough to support a family, even at third-world prices? Or a school that is completely unequipped to deal with children who don’t know the language? There are unquestionably many public schools throughout the world where I would never consider sending my children, no matter what language they learned.

    But it sounds like Jonathan’s family has found a good school where a lot of those concerns wouldn’t be a problem. And many English-speaking families living in non-English-speaking countries have access to good public schools.

  17. Bilingual children, raised in two languages from birth, do not naturally translate between the two languages, particularly when young. It’s just not how it’s mapped. I can hold up an item and ask in Language A what it is and get an answer in A. I can hold the same item up in Language B and ask what it is, and get an answer in B. But if I say in A, “what do you call this in B?” I’ll probably get some kind of nonsequiter evasion.

    So, when you quiz your kids about the names of their friends, and the activities of their German day, be sure you ask them in German. In addition to using JKS’s good socio-linguistically-approved questions.

    [Linguistics seems to provoke a lot of Gee-Whiz urban legends. My source is my memories of Susan Curtiss’ 1990 Child Language Acquisition class. If I’m off on this, blame the Gee-Whiz of my 20s, and not the redoubtable Dr. Curtiss.]

  18. Even for young children in immersion, a Christmas target would require a very rapid pace. (Especially for the third-grader, which in my experience seems to be a horrible time to learn a new language.)

    #20 Johnna: “Bilingual children, raised in two languages from birth, do not naturally translate between the two languages, particularly when young.”
    Translating does happen–it just takes a little longer, and it might not always be correct, even though they could say it correctly in both languages, but it’s not quite like many say.
    But the resulting comment is a good point–speaking in German may “trigger” more of a response; at least, letting them know they are free to respond in either language at any time, may definitely help.

    Jonathan, did they share a lot with you about their school days, before Germany?

    Sometimes the most important part of being a father is playing with them and having fun. When you do that, they often naturally start talking more. When you enjoy the conversations, and they feel it, they are even more inclined to continue. When you are always listening for good/bad, to always interject/ add something (boring), etc., sometimes it dampers conversation.

    I hope they’re invovled in sports or good exercise, too–that would definitely help.
    As would calls to grandmas and grandpas (on a computer with google talk, skype, etc.).

    You might want to look into TPR Storytelling-type things, Brain Gym/ educational kinesiology, etc. Also, speaking a language, and being competent to study in a language, can be very different, especially in the upper grades.

    #19 Erica–if you talk with the school, many of those problems can be avoided/ exchanged–including punishment, vaccines, etc. It’s amazing how being foreign can be helpful sometimes, and it’s also amazing what parent-teacher communication, and parent help, can also do.

    The only negative that I think of, is a lasting negative attitude.

  19. Jonathan, I can\’t add much advice about bilingual education, but I think you may have had a broader point in mind with the post. Very nice allegory on many levels. I\’ve been thinking about it for the past few days. Thanks for reminding me to report back, and to ask for help when I need it, especially when I have no idea what is going on or what anyone is talking about in this crazy \”school.\”

  20. Regarding Language A and Language B.
    I grew up bilingual with Spanish and English. I spoke English with my parents and brothers and sisters, and spoke Spanish at church, at preschool, at half of kindergarten, with our maid, and with others.
    When I left South America at age 6 I lost my Spanish fairly quickly and lost it completely. My parents tried, but I flat out refused to speak Spanish with them. It was just too ridiculous to my six year old self. You don’t speak Spanish with your parents, duh!

  21. Grego, I suppose most of my contact with overseas public schools has been in third-world countries in Asia and Africa, and there simply isn’t a lot I can do about underfunded schools and no resources no matter how much I communicate with the school. I’d rather homeschool (even illegally) and donate to charities that support education in poor countries. There are some things that aren’t worth exposing children to on a daily basis. And I wish there were more I could do so that so many children around the world didn’t have to be exposed to those things just to get an education.

  22. Dear Jonathan, dear collegues;

    I feel we are discussing here a fascinating process of second language acquisition, which on the other hand strucks the people involved in it hard emotionally. I appreciate very much your original post, as well as some of the subsequent comments by others, as I find myself in a similar situation being a father of Mateusz (4) who has recently joined a kindergarden in Leipzig. We are polish, and Mateusz speaks polish pretty well (he has also attended a kindergarden in Poland for 8 months). Lacking proper words in english, I would say, I feel completely the same way you described about the whole experience my son is going through. Everyday I bring him to the kindergarden in the morning and see him joining the group of german children – sometimes with eagerness sometimes with tears in his eyes. I\’ve also been thinking if I am not destroying his childhood by causing such a dramatic change in his environment so early on. He was pretty social in the polish kindergarden, yet now he seems much more introverted.

    In my opinion it will be hard to judge his progress (or the progress of your children) in the first few weeks/months. (Although I do notice, after first two months, his attempts to mimic closely the german pronunciation; if he says a word in german, he does so better than I have ever managed to). Also, I believe the process will accelerate in time (it will probably be easier for him to learn the language once he can express his basic desires and understand the simplest rules set by other children – so that he would be able to engage and play with others while respecting the delicate equilibrium of kids\’ games which are sometimes set verbally).

    I gather the information on his feelings about the kindergarden from the things he spontaneously says to different people … (my wife, grandparents, friends) and he says a lot! (He rarely says anything useful when directly asked) The picture I get is more or less this: he does not like going to the kindergarden, because of the language barrier, and would rather stay home; he gets involved at least with some of the games/activities there (he can name one friend by name now; the others he knew, unfortunately – went to school in september) – although he keeps guessing what the rules are – and sometimes backs off from these games as they get too frustrating for him (because of miscommunication). Some of his guesses are surprisingly correct, while others are not (I believe his wrong guesses alienate him in the group – to some extent).

    I have also noticed, that he has an intuition as to when to turn on the \”second language\”; he does so with relation to places (in kindergarden) and people (teachers, kids and other people he knows who speak german). From what I\’ve heard this is general: the initial attachment of language to places/people; I generally donot attempt to talk with him in german although he aften asks me for the meaning of the german words he remembered (but he repetedly forgets this meaning). We visit our parents and friends in poland once in a while, and also call them frequently. (He is 4, and I\’m happy he now understands, that we have just left poland, and not, that the place had disappeared; the people he knew are still there, the home, his room, everything – is still there – just 7 hours drive from our current place).

    We have met many international children with their parents at playgrounds here in Leipzig. In my opinion learning that there are other languages, other cultures, and other ways of life is one of the most beautiful experiences. If I might suggest something – Jonathan – don\’t push your children too much, dont set goals for them; after all – if they manage to acquire a good knowledge of german language and culture during your stay here – it would probably be more important than any other knowledge they could acquire during the two years you said you are going to be in germany. I understand you would like to help your kids as much as possible – and so do I wish to do for my Mateusz – but as it often happens, it is hard to tell what helps and what does not. I do really appreciate your post and the wise subsequent comments, some of which apparently came from people who have knowledge of the subject. Being aware and learning from others will probably prove to be the best way to help our families…

  23. My brother and I came from Germany to the United States when we were 7 and 9 years old. We spoke German at home because neither parent spoke English. We arrived in Brigham City in July, but had very little contact with English speakers except at Church meetings. When we started school in September, we were asked to sit quietly in the same second grade classroom and try to understand. We were not expected to say or write anything. We had almost no interaction with the other children, but we were able to speak to each other in German. By the time Christmas rolled around, I was put in the fourth grade. To be honest, neither my brother nor I remember any stress or discomfort in learning English. We were academically ahead of our peers, and so our only task was to understand what was going on. I think it worked out because no production demands were placed on us, and because we knew that we were going to live in the United States. We certainly were not expected to write with fountain pens, or to have good penmanship.

    Since that time, I have read many SLA studies and have, in fact, taught SLA courses at the university level, both in the US and in Germany. It seems when children understand that learning the target language is a required to succeed academically and to make friends, most children can pick up a second language effortlessly if the production demands are limited in the initial phases of acquisition. A stressfilled second language environment frustrates many children and can cause a breakdown over time.

    Children do have different learning styles, as has been pointed out. We traveled widely while our own children were pre-schoolers, so they often heard us communicate in other languages. Our daughter started in a tri-lingual kindergarten and ended up in a 100% French speaking environment in CA (a school for children of French expats) by the time she was in the first grade. She really wanted to start school, but was not old enough to attend our public school; the language of instruction did not seem to concern here. She had no French-speaking friends, but made the transition into a new language and a challenging academic environment without stress, using the context ot the classroom to understand, I believe. She stayed in the French school for five years, later did an IB using French and English, and still has near-native French ability today. She is also conversationally flluent in Russian and Ukrainian, having lived in Ukraine. After the first grade in an American school, my son wanted to join his sister at the French school in the second grade. For the entire year, our boy survived the 100% immersion environment without understanding very much, without having learned the academic subjects, and without learning to speak French. Consequently, he repeated the second grade in an American grade school. Later, he took 6 more years of French, 2 years of Latin, and went to a Ukrainian Saturday school for 6 years. Most recently, he completed two years of college German in one year, spent four month in Vienna as part of a BYU program. Today, he is able to communicate effortlessly in German about academic topics. His French is still not great. He was motivated to learn German, but has no reason to communicate in French.

    In summary, statistically most people in the world are bilingual. They speak one language in their public life and another in their private lives. Bilingualism is natural. In my experience, people generally learn languages because they need them to do important things and to build important relationships, and children retain these second languages only as long they need them.

Comments are closed.