Question

Hi, 

I’m a Spanish-speaking mother married to a German speaker, living in Germany. Each of us uses our native language when interacting with our 4-month daughter – basically: one parent one language. 

I am now looking at kindergartens for my daughter to go to once she’s one year old. I have found a “bilingual” Spanish-German nearby. This would be perfect for our daughter!

I have recently had the opportunity to visit the facilities and have a chat with the two carers. (It’s a very small crèche) They are both originally from Spanish-speaking countries and have been living in Germany for some years. That is, their level of German is not comparable to that of a native speaker. However, this hasn’t been as concerning to me as the fact that they mix the languages when addressing the children. (This I have observed myself.) And I’m not talking about code-switching, but rather staying an utterance in German followed by the translation into Spanish. I might be wrong, but, to me, that’s a rather unnatural. When talking about their daily routine, they mentioned they do a “morning circle” where they sing songs in German and then their “equivalent” in Spanish, eg first the German version of Frère Jacques and then the Spanish.

When asked about their linguistic approach more in detail, they said that this concept has worked for the kids they’ve got so far (mainly of German parents, who are happy to see their children babbling a couple of Spanish words at home). I was curious to know what they do with children of bilingual families. Their answer was clear: they address them in exactly the same way as monolinguals, that is, mixing languages.

Overall, the crèche is a nice, cosy place and the staff is really friendly. I am however concerned about their approach to bilingualism. Are my concerns grounded or am I exaggerating? Does this model also work for bilingual children? Any advice on the subject would be much appreciated. 

By the way, I am really grateful to Rita and her team for having created this website and newsletter and given bilingualism (multilingualism) the room and voice it deserves. 

Saludos y mil gracias.

Kind regards, 

Beatriz

 

Answer

Dear Beatriz

Thank you for your question and kind feedback. I am glad that you find the site useful!

The term ‘mixing languages’ refers to someone using more than one language in the same sentence and not being aware of which word belongs to which languages.  Small bilingual children quite often go through a phase of mixing their languages until they learn to keep them separate. ‘Code switching’ refers to the phenomenon when a bilingual person consciously uses more than one language when speaking to another bilingual who understands the languages used. ‘Code switching’ is not random, but adheres to a set of rules. From your description, it seems like the carers are neither mixing, nor code-switching, but rather alternating between Spanish and German, or actually speaking both of them. They do this by repeating each sentence they say in the other language. Of practical reasons they use the same approach independent of whether the child already knows both languages or not. I agree that this is not a very natural way to speak, but I cannot see it doing any harm nor confuse the children.

Since you are using the one parent, one language (OPOL) strategy at home, your daughter will have a role model for each language and will already be used to hearing both Spanish and German. She will recognize the languages as “mummy’s language” and “daddy’s language” and be aware that the carers know and use both of these.

However, I can understand your concern – I presume that you would like to see more consistency? It is true, that the less exposure a child gets to a language, the greater the need for consistency is. Recent research has however shown that children even in families where parents switch between languages can still become bilingual, providing there is enough of other chances to hear and interact in the languages the children are learning. By your OPOL approach you are already providing the consistency and to me the crèche sounds like a great option for your daughter – not least because you are happy with other aspects of it.

You did not mention how much time you will be spending with your daughter once she attends the crèche, neither which language you and your husband speak together, i.e. how much “Spanish-only” time she will have. As Spanish is the minority language, you cannot overdo the Spanish exposure – German she will learn in any case. It might be a good idea to create a Family Language Plan, as I describe in my book “Bringing up a Bilingual Child”, so that you get a realistic picture of how much exposure she will get to each language.

Also, are there other parents with a similar language setup whose children already attend the crèche? If yes, it would be a good idea to ask them how they have found their children’s language skills developing.

Please do not hesitate to ask any follow-up questions and it would be lovely to hear what you decide and how you get on.

Kind regards
Rita

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