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Watching my son learn to speak

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As a teacher, it is amazing to see how people acquire language. It is especially amazing to see how babies learn to speak. The transition from "ga-ga" to "let's do this, dad" is a rewarding and exciting aspect of parenthood. What is really interesting is watching a child learn two languages at once.

My son, Elias, was born in February 1997 in Leipzig, Germany. His mother is German, and I am American. Naturally, he is being brought up with both languages being spoken at home, but for the most part his main language is German, this is because everyone speaks it -- especially the children he plays with.

It was difficult for me to teach him English because I was the only one who really spoke it all the time. His mother would speak English to him, but she mixed more, choosing to speak more often in her native tongue. But she read him children's books, and sang songs to him in English, so he was exposed to it a lot. It was fun to watch a conversation between them because when she changed from German into English, he would continue speaking only German. If you didn't know one language or the other, it was like listening in on a telephone conversation.

Because he was acquiring two languages at once, it took him longer to start speaking. He of course would make sounds and imitate what he heard, but stating complete thoughts in sentence form was difficult. He would always mix words and grammar so what came out was "Denglisch" -- a mixture of German and English.

Up until Elias was 4 years old, he would instantly speak German to everybody he met. Even if they spoke English to him first. It was as if he thought everyone could understand him and I was the only one who spoke English in his world. He knew he could speak German to me and I would understand, so other people must be the same way, except I would always demand that he spoke English. But once we stepped onto the plane he knew that the worlds were about to change, and that out there not everyone spoke German. He had already gone back with me about once to twice a year to America to meet his grandparents and his aunts and uncles. When he was in America, he couldn't speak English for the first week or two except for rudimentary sentences. He knew pretty much what people wanted, but he was unable to communicate it back, so I had to interpret for them and explain to him how to say things. Sometimes when he spoke, he mumbled or mixed. But he found that by playing simple word games he could repeat, he could acquire more vocabulary, but more importantly -- interact. He and his grandfather had a game. His grandfather would call him a "wise guy". Elias would reply "No, you're the wise guy." And so on. This was a lot of fun for him.

In the U.S., I would put him together with his cousins who were the same age so that he could interact with them. Elias was able to pick up a lot of new words that way, but that children really don't need many words to communicate. Their excitement, energy, creativity and curiosity as well as company is communication enough to keep them happy. They would always find universal things in common: playing choo-choo train, hide and seek, and so on. I noticed that Elias would imitate what the children said, much to the annoyance of his cousins. I had to explain to them that English is not his first language and that in order for him to learn he had repeat things. After that there was a little understanding.

Now, at almost seven years of age, my son still is unable to create the complicated sentences that a normal "monolingual" child of the same age can create. Simple things which we take for granted like: "as….as" to express equality, or "bigger than", or "neither/nor" are missing from his usage. Also the prepositions tend to be a bit funny. In German, prepositions are used very differently than in English. They typically go to the end of a sentence. Elias will use a preposition where there shouldn't be one at all. For instance: "I touch you on" or "I burn you on" or "I go on the toilet".

He will also form questions or negatives without using the helping verb "do" for instance "I want that not", "I like that not" or "Want you that?" "How much longer takes it?" in other instances the verb comes first in German. Elias reflects that in his language. "Today, go I on the playground." It doesn't matter how many times I correct him. For him, getting the idea out is more important than following the silly grammatical rules I set down for him, whereas, I feel he should speak correctly. I know that just letting him speak is more important for him now and he's learned how to ignore me. I suppose that I will have to wait until he starts reading and writing before he recognizes these little differences. Still, he speaks better English, than I German. This is something which I am a little jealous of, but at the same time, I am proud that he has had such an opportunity at such an early age.
Author: Raymond Romanos