Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Wow, I'm Bilingual Too!

You know those moments when you just kind of realize something AGAIN? It is all there in your mind already. It is in your consciousness and in your thoughts, but you read something or hear something or think about something and say, "Wow, I forgot about that!" And your day changes just a bit or maybe even quite profoundly. Do you have those times as well?

The other day I was reading a simply FABULOUS contribution which Fran├žois Grosjean had submitted for a future issue of Multilingual Living Magazine (sorry, MLM readers, you will have to wait until the May-June issue to read it) and was reminded again that I am bilingual as well. This might be obvious from an outsider: "You speak German with your children and your husband and with other German speakers, you lived in Germany for two years. Uh, what more do you need to remind you that you are bilingual?"

Well, this is the catch for me: since language learning is part of a long lifetime continuum, when do we finally say, "Yes, I am bilingual!" vs "I am learning a second language."? When does that movement take place where we step from one state of being (language learner) to another state of existence (bilingual speaker)?

Does it partially depend on personality? I am always expecting more of myself and resist ever making a final statement about my mastering anything (there is always so more to learn!). Does this mean I will never really ever say the words, "I am bilingual" since I will never feel that I have mastered the language well enough to have earned that "status"?

And since I know there is a physiological and emotional difference between having learned a language as part of growing up as a child vs learning it later in life, am I truly a bilingual or simply a person who can speak more than one language (with the assumption that bilingual is reserved for having grown up with two languages)? Is this what holds me back from making what seems to be such a bold statement?

Perhaps it has to do with the fact that saying, "I am bilingual" is giving myself a label vs being labeled from an outside source. For example, I work as a Sr. Software QA Engineer, the title that was given to me for the work I do. I didn't even think about this title and ask myself if it fit or not or if I really felt like a Sr. Software QA Engineer. However, my skills and my tasks match what were defined by the company as what a Sr. Software QA Engineer does, so I don't need to analyze anything. Yet, if you were to meet me at a party and were to ask me what I do, I wouldn't start with my job title. Instead I would engage in a more detailed discussion about the products I work on (text messaging for cell phones in different languages) and use many descriptive words and hands-on examples. And I do the same when someone asks if I speak German. My answer is usually a qualified, "Yes, I speak German. In fact, we speak German at home together even though I am not a native speaker. I still make many mistakes, especially with those darn German articles, but I get by." Get by!? Arghhh. How can I raise my children in German if my German is just passable for basic conversation? Am I not giving people the wrong impression? Shouldn't I hold my head up high and say, "Yes, I am bilingual in English and German!"?

But I just can't. It sounds too confident, too bold and oh so final!

Is it modesty that makes me say that? No, I don't think so. Indeed, I am a very modest person but I think is has more to do with the expectations I set for myself. I feel I haven't reached a point where I FEEL like a bilingual. Will I ever reach that point?

Knowing me, I doubt it.

So, despite the fact that my entry is titled, "Wow, I'm Bilingual Too!" you won't find me using that term to describe myself very often. But you might find me in front of the mirror practicing: "Hi, nice to meet you. My name is Corey. Why yes, I am a bilingual, how ever did you guess?"

Thursday, February 8, 2007

Reading & 'Riting

Thank you Kate for asking what we do at home to help our children explore reading and writing in more than one language! I am really enjoying this stage a lot and really enjoy discussing with others what is and is not working for them, so I hope all of you will leave comments on your experiences! The best information I have received for our biliteracy journey (or parenting in general) has been from other parents sharing their tips and us trying those out which make most sense.

We never did anything in particular to strongly encourage our kids to read. We have always had tons of books around (presents from friends and family, $1 books from library sales, books we check out from the library, etc.). We don't have much money so we rarely have the "top" books around that everyone is raving about. We never had any of the fancy "teach your kids to read" programs or anything like that. We read to our kids every day (simply because we love it) and let them ask a ton of questions (even if sometimes it takes forever to finish the story and I'm worn out by the end) and we ask them a ton of questions. On a side note: this has also been helping me to keep up with children's German vocabulary! I read to the children from English or German books, my husband usually only reads them German books. If we read an English book, we usually discuss it in German. When they are a little older and I feel that their German is more established, I won't be as hestiant about discussing things in English as well as German.

When our oldest was around 16 or 17 months old, my mother purchased him one of those Alphabet Puzzles. I complained to her saying that he was far too young and would only lose all of the pieces (or I'd be picking them up all of the time). However, that puzzle was a hit and my son learned many of the letters of the alphabet. A few months later, my sister-in-law and her friend visited from Germany and brought with them two additional puzzles, this time with the letters of the names of our oldest and his newborn brother. Again, our oldest was completely fascinated with the letters and by the time the summer was over, he knew all of the letters of the alphabet (now in German) by heart and could put all of the puzzles together! I was a little amazed. When we went to California for my grandmother's funeral (after a battle with Esophageal cancer), our oldest would call out the names of letters everywhere he saw them. It was truly fascinating to me.

It is important to note that our son was first introduced to the letters in English (with my mother) and then further learning was done in German (our German family and ourselves). Looking back at it, there didn't seem to be much confusion at the time. He simply chose the name for the letter that came first to his mind and that seemed to satisfy him. We didn't pressure him either way and I believe it all just seemed like a game to our son. He would get wide-eyed reactions and praises from adults either way. Some people would correct him if he said the German "Ah" for the letter "A" but since he was so young, I don't think anyone really cared either way. Plus, until we could talk with him about the differences between English and German, it felt a little useless to be correcting him.

We also didn't have any knowledge about not introducing the name of the letter rather than the sound of the letter. I recall a conversation with a German family member who said that this is what they are doing in school now and that we should not be teaching our son the names of the letters! I worried a bit and my husband and I even had a bit of a discussion about it. Luckily my husband is very level-headed and said, "Let's not worry about it either way. He is having fun and is learning something. He is only a year old, for goodness sakes!" And he was so correct. We just let things go and in the end it has been fine. Besides, every few years there seems to appear a new and better way to teach children how to read. New books are purchased, parents are informed of the new method and that is that. Personally I don't think there is anything wrong with this (other than the horrible waste of natural resources on getting rid of the old books and printing out millions of new books) but I know that there are many ways to approach learning so I try to just use what I have at my disposal.

Later when our oldest learned to write, he would ask us how to spell something and we'd say something like, "Bee, Eee, Eee" for the word "bee" and he'd ask, "Which Eeee? The one with the three lines or the one with the dot?" Basically he was asking, is it the English "E" letter or the German "I" letter. The same with the letter "A" in English and "E" in German, both with similar names. He'd say, "The one like this?" and he'd draw an "A" in the air, "Or the one with the three lines?" This way of distinguishing between letters was his idea and it has worked wonderfully. His brother, who can also write now, is doing the same in terms of distinguishing between letters that sound the same. One could argue that they could know which letter we are providing based on the language of our conversation at the moment. But it just isn't that simple. Since we are often mixing the languages of the words being spelled and the language of the letters to spell the words, it can get a little confusing, so it is easier for my kids to just ask me which I mean.

Learning his letters early did not mean that our oldest learned to read any earlier. This is what I find so interesting. Just because a child seems to show accelerated ability in one area doesn't necessarily mean that he will just move right onto the next step without missing a beat. All we can do is introduce and see where our children are at and if they are interested and ready. The concept of reading words would take a few more years to "kick in" for our oldest. Again, we never pushed him. We would point to the words as we read them and if this annoyed him, we would stop. Then a few days later we'd try again. We'd pull out a learning to read book (in Germany there are many that have pictures instead of words which the kids can call out - this helps them get a sense of words as meanings on the page and that they follow a certain sequence) and if it was too cumbersome or if the kids just wanted to space out and listen, then we'd just read the words out. Being that I am not a native speaker, we'd have a great time together trying to figure out what the picture was exactly and then looking it up at the back of the book. Mama: "Ohhhh, it isn't a cabbage, it is a lettuce!" The kids: "No way, let's look at the picture again. A lettuce?" Mama: "Yea, look here. It could be an Iceburg lettuce, right? The kind that is in a ball shape. Rather than a Romaine lettuce which has the longer, darker leaves, right?" Kids: "Oh right, Iceburg lettuce, of course. Ok, that makes sense." The kids aren't really reading but they are having a tremendously fun time and I hope they also learn that if you don't have the answer, that is ok. Look it up in the back and talk about it. What fun!

Last year (when our oldest was 4) we purchased a few "learning to read" books based on the phonic method (words that have the same sounds) since he expressed an interest to learn to read. Because I can't make a purchase without first checking out everything I can get my hands on (which includes reading a million reviews and analyzing my children's individual educational needs from many different angles), I spent quite a few days looking into everything I could find. In the end, I pretty much just purchased what seemed to fit my son's interests best and which seemed the most logical learning-to-read approach to me: the "Now I'm Reading" series. I purchased a Pre-Reading book for our younger son and a Level 1 book for my oldest. The pictures are really fun and the stories start with a short sentence and then build upon that based on the specific "sound" that the story is focused on. Each time the child can read the story himself, then he can place an "incentive sticker" on the main page until the 4 stickers are used up.

Our oldest seemed very interested in the books when we first got home after purchasing them but after the first page of the first book, he resisted and refused to take any interest in the books other than just looking at the pictures and asking what this or the other word was. So, we let him just look through them and then put them on the shelf, pointed out to him where the books were located and left it at that. It wasn't until we got back from Germany many months later that he pulled the books down from the shelf and said, "Ok, I'd like to learn to read now." And that was that. He worked through each and every one of the books in a matter of a few weeks. Since then we have checked our more phonics books from the library and he has read through each of them (with our help at first). In addition to the phonics, there are the "sight words" that he learns along the way (for example, the word "the") which he doesn't try to sound out, he just knows now.

A large part of the process is also memorizing the books by heart, which is why we make sure to introduce new books on a regular basis but still continue with the "easy" ones that he has been able to learn. This way he is encouraged by what he can do easily and is more willing to try a new one.

Once our oldest showed such an interest in learning to read, we collected what we had for learning to read in German. Unfortunately, there is a very small selection of books that really work at our son's age since the assumption is that children are much older when they learn to read and the concepts and texts are aimed at children who are a little older. However, we purchased a fabulous book from Alphabet Garten, "Meine liebe Fibel" which does a great job of introducing the letters and providing fun activities. We are doing pretty much the same things in German as we have been doing in English, guided, of course, by the letters provided in the Fibel book. We also brought a bunch (over 300 lbs) of books back from Germany so that we can switch between different books and activities to keep things interesting.

A set of books ("Jo Jo Fibel") that we really like was given to us by the local elementary school which my husband used to attend. Since they are undergoing a whole new way to teach reading, they have a bunch of books that are no longer of use. They were kind enough to give us some! One that we really like is the "Jo Jo Fibel" Arbeitsheft. It goes with the whole set of "Jo Jo Fibel" books but the Arbeitsheft is full of workbook activities which get our son reading and writing and learning phonics. My husband copied the pages so that we can use them over and over again for each child. Since my husband got the kids started in German homeschooling activities, it is funny how often they think I can't possibly help them when they have questions with their German homeschooling work. On the one hand it is great for me since I can do other things. :-)

One day while we were in Toys R Us purchasing a birthday gift, we came across the "School Zone" books which are packed with workbook activities that my kids LOVE! When people ask why my kids beg to "do homeschooling" it is because of books like these. We purchased the Preschool and Kindergarten books for the boys and took them with us when we went to Germany. The boys were simply ecstatic about them and the whole family got involved in helping them with their homeschooling (even though the text is in English). The books cover all kinds of skills that children are supposed to be learning in school: opposites, comparisons, writing, first letters, and much, much more. I'm just sad that our kids got through the books so quickly since it is hard to fine more that are so much fun and such a good price ($10) for so many pages (over 300)!

For a great general book in German, we have been enjoying the "Mein buntes Vorschulwissen" book. It has a long list of skills which are covered in a fun, colorful way. The pictures are great fun and we have fun just going through the book until the kids get tired out. The best thing about the book is that is has ready-made open-ended questions to keep the discussion going. There are some right and wrong answers to things but there is always room to discuss why, which, as far as I'm concerned, is the most important part of learning - the contemplating of ideas and reasoning things out. The desperation of our students to just "get the right answer" above all else is so depressing to me.

The very first photo is of the kids "doing homeschooling" but as my son pointed out today, "Mama, right now we aren't doing homeschooling. We are just coloring." Little does he know that he is learning A LOT about numbers and math as he does his color-by-number books that I got from the clearance section from "Half Price Books" a few weeks ago! These are the little treats that make it all so much fun!

What about our second and third children? What is the status on their learning to read progress? Well, our middle child (3 years old) totally follows in his brother's footsteps and has been writing up a storm. He doesn't write all of the letters correctly but he is loving his new-found ability. He hasn't shown much interest in reading but has been doing some neat pre-reading things like "reading" books to his older brother and younger sister with his own retelling of it. He sits in the middle with his siblings on either side and, in a very mature voice, "reads" them each page at a time and discusses with them what they see on the pages.

Our youngest, age 1, loves to hang out with the boys and imitates whatever the are doing so I can tell she isn't too far behind, limited only by the fact that she is still trying to master speaking. ;-)

Tuesday, February 6, 2007

Little Bits of Life

Before falling into bed for the night, I pry loose the following from my daughter's hands as she sleeps:

one baby comb
one mini Tonka truck
one plastic pony
one metal race car

In the middle of the night, my 3 year-old cries in his sleep. His father and I wake up and call out to him to crawl into bed with us. Eventually we all drift off again.

4:30 AM the alarm clock start to sound. I hit the snooze button once, then again and again. At 5:00 I get up, get dressed, pet the cat, brush my teeth, brush my hair, grab my coat and backpack and hat, slip on my shoes and head into the fog. My bus arrives at around 5:30 and by 6:00 I am sitting at my desk at work. It is still dark outside and the office is silent. By 6:30, a colleague or two start to arrive and the day slowly builds as voices echo throughout the floor.

Yesterday, after I arrived at work, the fire alarm went off. They were doing some alarm testing (which no one warned us about) so another woman and I stood in the cold in front of our building waiting for it to finish. Across the street we saw three vans with long satellite antennas sending off the top news story: a man across the street was holding someone hostage in his apartment building. It had already been going on for 5 hours. She and I watched as police cars emerged and disappeared up and down the streets. How ironic that we were forced outside by a fire drill to stand outside on the sidewalk , in the cold, across from a crime scene. At around 6:30 the alarm stopped and we went back in. I sat back at my desk and continued working. I never took the time to find out what happened to the hostage or the hostage-taker.

While we stood outside, one man came out and in a burly voice and a sarcastic smile said, "So, did they kill the guy already?" It seemed funny at the time. Later that day, the thought of it nauseated me.

Monday, February 5, 2007


I read Lilian's blog today and couldn't help but take The Neurotic Test. Lilian, are you really a Neat Freak? That is hilarious!

I am completely surprised that I came up as Well-Adjusted. What, the heck!? I am certain that I am at least partially neurotic - in fact, I bite my nails to the very stub just for the heck of it. But hey, thanks Neurotic test, I'm feeling well-adjusted already! In fact, I don't even feel like biting my fingernails right now! Gosh, maybe I am well-adjusted. YIPPEE!!!


You scored 50 anxiety, 43 awkwardness, and 40 neuroticism!
You scored low in all categories--so there's no need to worry! Not that you were worrying, anyway. You are so Well-Adjusted that I almost feel the need to worry for you.

Your low anxiety score implies that you are able to relax, can enjoy the here and now, and have a healthy amount of self-confidence.

Your low awkwardness score implies that you are socially capable, are personable and charming, and probably go to parties and have fun.

Your low neuroticism score implies that you don't exhibit subtle neurotic behaviors--your nails are probably an acceptable length, your pencils aren't covered with bite marks, and your bookcase isn't arranged alphabetically by genre. Congrats!

See the other results!


The Neat Freak

The Dork

The Geek



The Subtle Neurotic

The True Neurotic

Link: The Neurotic Test written by littlelostsnail on OkCupid Free Online Dating, home of the The Dating Persona Test

Thursday, February 1, 2007

Homeschooling by Ferry

The most important thing I have learned in homeschooling my children is to try and make it as enjoyable as possible - for everyone. This doesn't mean I don't encourage my kids to finish a project they started or to try out something new. It simply means I look for ways for them to learn things via less obtrusive, boring, dry ways. It is a total hoax that learning must be a struggle, a fight, and something that makes us want to get away from as fast as possible. It is like those people at work who always pretend that they are busy and have something "really, really important to do" so that others will leave them alone - always trying to get out of work, get out of one more task. What they are really doing is making their lives very stressful and are limiting themselves from truly enjoying their work.

My goal is to help my children respect learning by the very fact that they see the power of it and the sheer joy it can bring. To learn something new gives us courage and strength and widens a world which before may have seemed small, limiting and frightening. I hope my children will see learning as an avenue for having fun and making life worth living. But, as usual, I digress...

What I really wanted to write about was our homeschooling day today, which you'd have a hard time separating from just being a really wonderful day. Of course, I chose not to take my camera so I don't have photos to include...HERE are some that I quickly found via a google search.

Basically today we used all kinds of skills: math, vocabulary, social studies, history, physics, and much more while having a wonderful time.

First we rode the bus downtown, really just for the heck of it. We headed out at around 11:00 AM. Homeschool Topic #1: Among other things, we read all of the bus numbers as they came along, we read the price of my bus ticket ($1.25 off peak) and we discussed the different colors or cars as they drove by - all while we waited for our bus.

We started by making our way to Pike Place Market. A visit to the market is always a joy. The unique shops and wacky people just bring us all down to earth and remind us of our humanity! We purchased some mini donuts at the market but since I didn't have any cash (only checks and a credit card) the lady said, "Listen, this costs $2 and rather than writing out a check, the next time you are at the grocery store, donate $2 to the local homeless shelter. They really need that money this time of year and haven't been getting many donations." What??

Ok, let me share something that I have noticed my whole life: those who have very little and who are just making ends meet are often the most generous people around. Is that not just totally ironic? Why does it take living near the edge of poverty to make us more compassionate, more sympathetic, more humble? Homeschool Topic #2: My kids and I talked a lot about money and homelessness and shelters and how we will donate much more than $2 to a homeless shelter the next time we go shopping - and why. And why we are going to purchase a Real Change the next time we see someone selling one (I haven't purchased one for a while). We talked about what it is like to live without a home and without money to buy food and why we are so thankful that we have such a comfortable life. We talked about THINGS and why we want to learn to live with less of them and how they can make a person focus more on the things and less on humanity. Ok, we used different vocabulary since we are talking about a 5, 3 and 1 year old, but that was the gist of it.

We then walked to the end of Pike Market (where I used to work before AOL purchased our company and we moved to Lake Union) and looked out at the Puget Sound and the Olympic Mountains in the distant. Homeschool Topic #3: We discussed how mountains are formed and why the Olympic still had snow on them even though Seattle didn't. We talked about what was on the other side of the mountains and how the waterways were formed between us and the Olympics. We also talked about sound (since highway 99 was right below us and was very loud) and why when we walked back from the railing, it was much more quiet.

We then walked down to the waterfront and purchased hotdogs and then soft serve ice cream cones. Not much of a healthy lunch. I think the kids would probably have received something healthier in school... but well, that is the whole fun of homeschooling - I know what they are eating and can add more veggies to dinner. ;-) Homeschool Topic #4: We discussed why there were so many boats and why it smelled so funny (the oil on the wood). We talked about the remodel of the Aquarium and why they might have decided to remodel it. We talked about the finances involved to do such a remodel and the support of the local businesses and communities. We also talked about why ice cream drips and how turning it every few licks really helps keep it from falling on your hand.

The highlight of the day was when we decided to take a ferry ride from the waterfront to Bainbridge Island. It cost a little over $6 for me to ride (the kids were free) but that included the ride back as well. We rode along with mainly commuters who where heading home early after work. We got to see the beautiful Seattle skyline and the kids called out, "The Space Needle, the Space Needle" when they spotted it. Homeschool Topic #5: We talked a lot about water and why the ferry made uniform waves and why the ferry rocked from side to side sometimes. We talked about the wind and why it was so strong when we walked on the sides of the ferry and not so much in the middle behind the walls. We talked about why the wind could knock us over if it was strong enough and why it was sometimes hard to breath when the wind was so strong against our faces. We watched the seagulls keep up with us as they flew along and talked about why it seemed that they flew in place. The ferry ride took around 30 minutes so we had a lot to talk about.

When we arrived on Bainbridge Island, P saw a DHL truck and said, "Oh, they have those in Germany. Mama, do the people here on this island speak English or German?" After an internal chuckle, I said, "We are still in the United States, in fact, we are still in the Seattle area. To get to Germany we'd have to fly in a plane. Most people here on this island speak English." C heard the part about flying in a plane (but seemed to have missed the rest) and so for the rest of the day he kept asking when we'd get to fly in a plane and that I said we'd be flying in a plane. Needless to say, he is fascinated with the seaplanes which you can find everywhere in Seattle.

On Bainbridge Island we walked along the footpath to the little downtown. Homeschool Topic #6: Along the way was a memorial and we learned about why the island was named Bainbridge. P talked about this history again later after dinner (which delighted me since it made me realize just how much he retained!) and the boys were filled with images of great battle ships and being captured during wartime. We talked about history in general and how long ago Bainbridge was alive and how American Indians were probably living on the island long before Europeans arrived.

M fell asleep in the stroller and the boys played in the playground across from the post office until it was time to catch the ferry back. Homeschool Topic #7: Having fun without talking about anything. Doing recess! When the kids slid down the extra tall slide, it was all about just sliding.

We were all a little worn out from our long day and spent much of the ferry and bus rides back just spacing out. Those quiet times together after a full day of conversation and learning are simply delicious. Homeschool Topic #8: Providing time for just doing nothing. Since we are homeschooling, it means we can help work this into our schedule. We don't have any school bells and there are not prescribed times to focus on specific topics. So, when we are all just mellow, it is time to sit back and just let the day pass. No need to talk, no need to do anything other than just be.

All in all, since we arrived home at around 5:30, we were out and about for 6 and a half hours. Not bad for a homeschooling day!

Later, after we were all settled in for the night, I realized just how much learning we had actually done throughout the day. And me? Often people ask how I can handle homeschooling. Well, I felt completely refreshed from the wonderful ferry rides and could only think of how much I truly love homeschooling.

Homeschooling Topic #9:
Taking time to pat ourselves on the back. Whether we are homeschooling or not, we need to remind ourselves just how much our children ARE learning from us and that we can always fill in what appear to be gaps along the way. And it IS ok to be having a wonderful time homeschooling!! Let yourself bask in the joy and elation that it brings. It doesn't have to be drudgery to be working.