Parents as Teachers

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As a German language educator of more than forty years of experience, I knew the intrinsic value of beginning language learning at an early age. Since most US schools do not begin foreign languages with children as early as two years, I decided to bring my children with me when I became a Fulbright Language Teacher in Germany.  The only “formal” training our two children, ages  6 and 2 was a BBC program newly published called Muzzy which had been designed for children.  Daily for six months, our children watched two Muzzy programs and learned basic German phrases and vocabulary.

It is unclear to me why US parents often select Spanish instead of German which is the easiest language for English speakers. German and English belong to the Germanic branch of the Indo-European languages.  Many German words are used regularly in English:  angst, kindergarten, kitsch.  English evolved from German and shares the same linguistic DNA.  In fact 26% of English vocabulary has shared roots with German.  French and Spanish are popular choices, but it is German which is the grandfather language.

Before we went to Germany for our first year living abroad, I sang songs and said prayers before meals in German. My husband and I are multilingual and now our children are as well.  One important difference I noticed in German schools was the emphasis on language learning at an early age.  It is literally child’s play.  I observed our two as they progressed through a German Kindergarten (for 3-5 year olds) and first grade.  Within a couple of months, both could hold their own and speak with  native German children.  For parents not as fortunate as I to have studied, lived and taught in Germany, there are multiple resources online and many of them are free.

Gaby Harsch, MA, Heidi Nossek 20010001

There were four years between my first and second Fulbright Years so my children were then in grades 2 and 5. By this time, it did not take long at all to be back into the language and culture.  Most German children did not even know our daughter was a native American.  My son had similar experiences  and parents and teachers alike wondered how quickly the German students learned and spoke High German.  It was because of how they had been taught at home and what they heard me speak and how Muzzy communicated.

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If you want your children to learn the easiest of languages, German, and it is not offered at your school or when you want to start, I recommend using Muzzy or one of the other great programs online. You as a parent can learn and speak along with your children.  This will give them enormous advantages later in school and in careers. Our daughter, a Registered Nurse, regularly reports of speaking German with some of her patients.  Our son has had use of his foreign language experience as a lawyer.

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Push your local schools to begin teaching German for example in pre-K where it is ideal. German is the most widely spoken native language in Europe and one of three official working languages of the European Union.  In sheer numbers, German is the second most-spoken language on the continent of Europe.  When it comes to native speakers, German remains number one.

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Parents need to do their homework and learn that German universities are free, German companies are global market leaders and Germany is an economic powerhouse. I had firsthand experience studying in Heidelberg at the university for three years.  That experience alone remained with me for a lifetime.  As a parent and having passed on the experience of living in and studying at German schools, I gave our two and education which has remained with them for their young lifetimes.

As a parent and an educator, I decided to offer my own German students the experience of carrying on conversations in German with peers at German schools and did this for almost 25 years. Each time, students reported how great it was and how much alike they are.  What a masterful method to teach tolerance and understanding.


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27 Responses to Parents as Teachers

  1. Karen Craddock Waters;
    Mary Ann- I was very lucky that my daughter went to a bilingual grade school in Fort Collins. When she got to Jr high she was fluent and could understand Spanish. So she wanted to learn French. She already had a trained tongue and brain in another language and picked up French very easily. By the time she rtook French in high school she was helping the teacher with the kids just starting a language. Then went on to Middlebury College where she majored in French and European History. So I totally agree with you that we wait too long to teach languages for the most part.

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  2. Annika Perry says:

    Mary Ann, you and your children had a wonderful opportunity in Germany and I’m not surprised they were taken as native speakers.I came to the UK as a six year old and within a couple of months spoke very well and fluently within half a year! Full immersion in a language is fantastic! Alas, language teaching in the UK is falling dramatically, ever since a foreign language after 14 was made optional – many not taking it to exam level and now foreign language teachers are losing their jobs and a while generation losing the ability to speak another language. As I’ve also studied Spanish to exam level I must say I felt Spanish is much easier for English speakers to learn…here the grammar of German is a major stumbling block for many. An interesting post and lovely to learn about your experiences and hear your suggestions. Warmest wishes 😀❤️

    Liked by 1 person

    • Children’s brains are like sponges, and they learn languages so easily. That’s probably why they speak of it as being child’s play. We are on the same page with immersion in schools and learning languages. You are a great example of learning English at age 6. For me, German grammar is akin to a mathematical game. The experts say that unlike French, Italian and Spanish, both English and German belong to the Germanic branch of the Indo-European language family and are easier to learn. I would have thought your brain would find German easier to learn than Spanish whose grammar can be tricky for some. Like the song: “those were the days, my friend…” It is a mistake to drop the language requirement in the UK and in any school for that matter. How does one even become understanding and tolerant if one cannot speak the language of others? I used to term it the arrogant American attitude when Americans didn’t want to learn another language and simply told others to speak English. Our lives are richer for having lived in Germany and having traveled all in Europe. My children were far ahead of their counterparts in this country because of their exposure early on to life elsewhere in the world. Thank you for your insightful and kind comments today. You certainly understand the entire BIG picture in life of language learning. It was the icing on the cake to be able to teach and live in Germany and bring our children along!

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  3. John Mayers: I enjoyed this post. I remember watching Muzzy in Fr Bradley’s German class in 7th grade. Another thing about German is it very phonetic with just a few diphthongs that require a unique, not always intuitive sound, and unlike English, there are fewer grammatical exceptions. I agree I found German much easier to grasp than Italian, for example. It’s a shame we don’t have a need to speak German in this country. As you know it’s very difficult to become fluent in a language unless you are completely immersed in it like you and your family were back in Germany. Lastly, by studying German I really began to understand English grammar on a deeper level. Thanks for sharing!

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    • Thank you for your kind remarks. Muzzy was a special and very good children’s program. You had an excellent command of German and the German grammar as I recall. You impressed me when you went into a third year college class on German grammar at the University of Rochester after you graduated and left German 5 with me. German is simply easier to learn than French, Italian and Spanish which are Romance languages. We need to dispel the myth that German is difficult. It is not, and you and I both know it. I appreciate your time and comment, John. Alles Gute. Liebe Grüße!

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  4. Suzanne Dietrich Bradley: Loved Muzzy!

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    • Sometimes even seniors clamored to watch Muzzy again. John Mayers just wrote about loving this program in your German class in 7th grade. It would have been fun to introduce this to all the district elementary classes! Thanks for commenting.

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  5. What marvelous experiences you gave your children!

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Ernst-Arno.Bode@t-online.de says:

    Liebe Mary Ann,
    das Engagement ,wie Du und deine Familie in deinem Leben die Förderung der deutschen Sprache und des deutschen Kulturgutes betrieben hast begeistert und ruft bei mir höchste Anerkennung aus.
    Sprache ist nicht nur ein Mittel der Verständigung ,sondern trägt wesentlich dazu bei einander zu verstehen. Viele Konflikte könnte man vermeiden,wenn man des Anderen Sprache richtig verstehen könnte.Dich und Deine Familie hat das Bemühen um Sprache und Verständigung in brillianter Weise geprägt. Es ist eine große Freude deine Berichte zu lesen ,und von deiner Lebenserfahrung zu profitieren.Mit deiner schrifstellerischen Gabe und den Schilderungen deiner Familiengeschichte verstehst Du es ausgezeichnet deine Leser zu begeistern. Ein faszinierender Bericht über die Vorteile der Mehsprachlichkeit .Ein plastisches Beispiel für Völkerverständigung.
    Dir und deiner Familie alle guten Wünsche
    Dein Arno

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    • Lieber Arno,
      Ich habe immer an Sprache und Kultur als Partner geglaubt. Nicht nur habe ich die deutsche Sprache gelehrt, sondern auch die Kultur. Man kann andere Menschen nicht verstehen, ohne im Land zu leben und die Sprache zu atmen. Ich war sehr glücklich, die Fulbright Teacher Exchange Stipendien zweimal zu erhalten und unsere beiden Kinder mitzubringen. Sie lernten mehr als die Sprache, als wir in Deutschland lebten. Es ist jetzt mit ihnen für ein Leben lang. Sie können die Sprache als ein Geschenk für ihre Kinder eines Tages geben. Wir lernen Toleranz und Verständnis, indem wir andere Völker, Sprachen, Kultur und Länder kennen lernen. Ein schönes Wochenende wünsche ich Dir. Deine Mary Ann

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  8. Very interesting article. When I was in high school, German was offered as well as French. By then, I was too old for it to be natural. I slogged through French and took Russian in college. I rarely use either so I wouldn’t say I’m conversant at all!

    You wondered why American schools start second languages so late–probably for the reason both of my second languages are rusty: We don’t use them much. The US is surrounded by itself and oceans. A chunk of Canada speaks English. That leaves Mexico which is likely why we pick Spanish as a second language.

    That’s all changing as the world gets smaller. Quite interesting to read your thoughts.

    Liked by 1 person

    • When we learn a foreign language, we also learn the culture, the peoples and the countries. It broadens horizons, and we become more understanding and tolerant individuals. Besides travel, we can also video conference in many forms. It might surprise you to know that German was not offered in my high school so I began it my freshman year of college where it was a 5 credit hr. class at the U. of Colorado, Boulder. In addition to daily classes, we were expected to spend two hours daily in the language lab. Since it was 5 hrs. of credit, believe me, I spent all the time and then some. We had no book until Thanksgiving. We were expected to listen and repeat. I was fortunate to have a native German instructor. I managed to get 5 degrees in German both in Germany and in the US: BA, Zertifikat, Diplom, MA and Ph.D. After my initial 3 years in Heidelberg, the language has been with me a lifetime. Even though there may be fewer opportunities to use the language, I still speak it daily and my children use it at work sometimes. Wherever I travel, e.g., the Grand Canyon, I hear German spoken and can strike up a conversation. I listen to online news and Deutsch Welle offers a wealth of videos, news reports, some even read at slow speed, and resources to learn German there. My second year of college was when I began French, much in the same say as German. I have split minors between French and history. I had three years of Latin in high school and learned Middle High German and Old Norse in grad school. Every opportunity I get to use my languages, I do. My children are also trilingual as is my husband plus he also knows some Czech and Slovak. American schools do not value foreign languages. This means that our young people are at a disadvantage in world business, science, etc. I am a firm believer in learning them whether or not people do not see intrinsic value. Our brains think differently when we have foreign languages and our students score higher on tests especially verbal ability. I am confident you would soon start using French or even Russian given the opportunity.

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  9. Thank you very much!
    Wonderful pictures, and a very good recommendation! I recollect memories of my own childhood when I see these pictures.
    I regret a little that in our country the Kindergarten is not run as preschool. As a child, you learn languages much more easily and with even more joy.
    Best greetings to NY. 😉 Michael

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    • Greetings Michael,
      It is so good to hear from you, and I appreciate your kind words about the photos. Germany and the Germans remain fondly in our hearts.

      All the best to you and your readers,

      Mary Ann Niemczura, Ph.D.

      Liked by 1 person

      • The same to me Mrs. Niemczura! Good to have someone who holds the position in the USA for Germany.. 😉 i think we here in Germany have to learn much more about the concept of freedom of the USA. Actually the refugees are seen as a problem, but i think they are a chance not going back to the times your ancestors left Europe.
        Thank you very much for the wishes. Also the best to you and your whole family. Kindly, Michael

        Liked by 1 person

      • Thanks, Michael. Time marches on and change provides us with a new framework for tolerance and understanding. It is not easy dealing with others who may not speak your language. Somehow we manage to survive and thrive. Freedom of choice is a big deal for the US. We hold our values near to our hearts and stand up for them. It is not always easy with so much fake news around. Where there’s a will, there’s a way. Be strong. Have faith and be kind to others. Your kind words warm my heart. Not a day passes when I do not recall my time spent in Germany both as a student In Heidelberg and later as a Fulbright Exchange Teacher. Enjoy the weekend. ^__^

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      • Thank you also for your kind words, and the possibility meeting someone from the States who knows Germany as its best. Also best wishes for the weekend to all of you. ,-) Michael

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      • Home is where the heart is. A piece of my heart remained in Germany all these years later. I was fortunate to have a career which brought me such happiness (and hard work!). Enjoy the weekend with a good book and a walk in nature. It must be beautiful this time of year. 🙂

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    • Well, I loved your Kindergarten for 3-5 yr. olds. It is so good to mix up the ages this way. Our daughter was not old enough for the US Kindergarten when she returned from Germany and thus did one year of preschool but it was only 2X per week and not every day. We managed somehow. Children’s brains are like sponges, and they quickly learn languages. You are correct.

      Greetings from Upstate New York to your readers,

      Mary Ann Niemczura, Ph.D.
      https://drniemczura.wordpress.com

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      • Oh yes, but sometimes i have to critisizee – maybe only here “at the end of Germany LOL – that the Kindergarten is only for “storange” of the kids. Here they dont learn anything exept playing. But really the full time Kindergarten is one of the best inventions of Germany. ,-) Kindly, Michael

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      • I am a firm believer in play for children. I find that we organize too many things like sports for kids. Why? Let them play for fun and learn to negotiate disputes with others. We have too many helicopter parents in the US and their children don’t know how to think for themselves and problem solve because their parents did everything for them. I think I understand what you were saying. Also I compared education in Scandinavia and believe the Danish have a lot of music, movement and play before introducing reading as late as age 8. Our daughter loved German Kindergarten or Kita. German schools are far ahead of US elementary schools with early language education too. Kudos to you.

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      • OK, you are the professional 😉
        But surely, you can exaggerate pre-schooling. But our children here in rural areas would need a little more learning. We had in the place until the beginning of the 1990er years no so designated library. For real! Even at the Gymnasium I was on, I was almost kept away from books. Only at the university did I see enough books to satisfy my knowledge. LOL Best greetings, Michael

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      • Our daughter experienced Kindergarten in Schweindorf, a village of 300 near the Bavarian border and Baden-Württemberg. She had just celebrated her third birthday. For her it was a cultural shock and a new language. I really did nothing to intervene after a conference with me was requested. I was told she remained by herself in the back of the room and did not interact with the others. I explained she was just learning her mother tongue, now lived in a foreign country and had to quickly learn German. It was sink or swim. I simply recommended that she needed time to adjust and assimilate. After two months, she was playing and conversing with the children. After a few months, she attended the entire day and by the end of the year, she wanted her Vati to come and live with us in Germany! As for books, we always had books on hand at home, and I am aware that stories were read aloud in Kindergarten. She just loved the Pixi Bücher which were perfect for little hands. When I taught in Berlin at the Oberschule, I had to select books for the grade 12 students to read. That was 1994-95, and I was the first live American these students had seen in the Eastern part of Berlin. It was difficult to get them to volunteer in class since it was explained to me that under communism, no one volunteered. I too learned a lot that year. I have a passion for German and for teaching and was told by the Fulbright folks, that these students would long remember me/us when we had left Germany. I did not expect accolades from my students but demonstrated the fun I had in teaching them English. It is too bad that you were kept away from books. At least you made up for lost time at the university. Have a great day and happy reading to you! Mary Ann 🙂

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