Q&A: How can a teenager who understands the family’s minority language also learn to speak it?

by | Nov 17, 2016 | Coaches, Q&A How to motivate a bilingual / multilingual child to speak a family language, Rita R | 0 comments

How can a teenager who understands a parent’s minority language also learn to speak it?




My father was born and raised in Germany. He came to America when he was 17. When people hear that he is from Germany, they ask if I speak German as well. Unfortunately, he never spoke to me and my siblings in German when we were small, so though we can understand some German, we are definitely not by any means fluent.

I am almost 17 and would like to know the language of my heritage before I go off in the world. What are ways my father can immerse us in the language so we can pick it up faster?

Please help!


Dear Brianna

Thank you so much for your question – it made my heart jump of joy! I often get questions from parents whose teenage children are not keen on learning the family’s minority language, so it is very refreshing to hear from someone like you who wants to learn it.

You have a great head start since you already have a certain level of understandingof German and, most importantly, a willingness to pick up your father’s native language. As you do understand some German, I would recommend that you ask your father to speak it with you as much as possible. Since he has not spoken German with you before, it will initially feel a bit odd for him, but explain to him how important this is for you and that it is vital this happens before you move away from home. You will most likely have to remind him now and then until he gets used to this new routine!

When your father speaks German with you, use whatever German you know to answer – start with simple sentences. For example, if your father asks (in German) “Where are the car keys?”, then you could answer either “I don’t know where the car keys are” or “The car keys are there”. In this way, you repeat what your father says (which helps you to remember the words) and add a little bit to the sentence. If you don’t know a word, ask your father for help.

I wouldn’t put too much emphasis on getting all the grammar (cases, tenses, word order etc.) right from the start – it is more important that you get more confident in using whatever German you already know.  The more you use the language, the quicker you will learn. When you gain more confidence in using German, you will naturally want it to be right and you can then learn the finer details of the language.

In addition to your father speaking German with you, I would also recommend that you use online tools aimed for adult learners. Try for example Duolingo, which is free and allows you to proceed at your own pace. Also check out Schubert Verlag’s free online exercises, and the Goethe Institut, which has lots of free resources. There are many more sites online!

Many German-speaking TV-channels can be streamed online – if you find the language too difficult, check for ones where you can switch on English subtitles and read them when necessary. If you feel the language level is about right, see if you can have German subtitles, as this would help you to learn to read and write German as well.

Another idea is to participate in an online “language buddy” scheme, where you would be paired up with a German-speaker of your age who wants to learn English. You would help him or her with their English and they would in turn teach you German. Do a search for ‘language buddy’ or ‘conversation exchange’ to find sites that offer this service.

Wishing you a successful language learning journey!

Kind regards

Rita Rosenback

Rita Rosenback

Rita is an author, Family Language Coach, blogger and speaker, who was born into a bilingual family on the Swedish-speaking west coast of Finland. After studying languages in Finland and Germany she worked as a university teacher, translator, interpreter and manager of multinational teams. Rita is now a full-time writer and coach and has been living in the U.K. since 1998. Rita is the mother of two grown-up multilingual daughters, who are the inspiration for her book: “Bringing up a Bilingual Child”, an easy-to-read guide for parents, where she navigates the reader across the “Seven Cs of Multilingual Parenting: Communication, Confidence, Commitment, Consistency, Creativity, Culture and Celebration”. Currently English and Swedish are Rita’s main languages, but she instantly switches to Finnish or German or to her Finland-Swedish dialect when the opportunity presents itself (and when push comes to shove, she can communicate in a very basic Punjabi). Rita is the creator and driving force of this website, and she gives talks and holds workshops for parents and teachers on the topic of bilingual children. She also coaches families on how to make the most of their languages and raise their children to become confident speakers of the chosen languages.


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