Losing Language

It was inevitable. Our German was bound to get worse upon departure. The first year, mine seemed to remain intact. I was still feeling pretty German, and I spoke German almost daily with our German preschool teachers, with other German-speaking parents, and with our German babysitter. Sometimes even with my German husband. We’re in the second year though, and after spending the Christmas holidays with my non-German speaking family, I finally felt that the Yanks had won. Throw on top of that, a struggle to integrate a third language (Korean), and the quality of Deutsch in this house has worsened.

I’ve been thinking a lot about this as we have entered the school entry process. Part of San Diego life is that the schools are not very good south of the I-8 or as some argue south of the CA-56. What this local freeway speak means is that the closer to downtown you are, the worse the school quality tends to be. There are a few public schools which are good. And in this mix, you also have charter schools, which before I left the US in 2000, didn’t mean a whole lot to me. Basically, these are independent schools which are funded by the local school district but have their charters approved on a regular basis by their local school board. The quality is variable, but they tend to be a good option because of a high level of parent involvement.

Interestingly enough, one of the best charter schools in San Diego, Albert Einstein Academies, is a German dual immersion IB program. Our children have been going to Die Rasselbande, the German immersion preschool, which is practically part of the same community as Einstein since so many siblings are at both schools. Except that it hasn’t been certain if we get to remain in this community. As you can gather, because of the hit or miss quality of schools here, it is pretty competitive to get a spot at Einstein. Our advantage has been that 25% of the precious Kindergarten spots go to German-language speaking children. For the first time this year though, there will be more German-speaking Pre -Kindergarteners graduating from Die Rasselbande than there are German-speaking Kindergarten spots at Einstein. Parents have been concerned; they’ve been lingering in the parking lot after drop off exchanging stories in hushed voices. First it was concern over whether or not the same charter would be approved at Einstein. Would the number of German-speaking spots then be changed or even abolished? Then it was fervent head counting of the kids who had guaranteed spots: siblings and children of staff. It was unsettling for all that this was a process that no one could control. Everything was based on a lottery system.

Each child that had applied as a German speaker had to go through a language assessment. Apparently the assessment was based on the SOPA method. If you know anything about this method, I’d love to hear more since a Google search at the time of our assessment rendered few results. The key for getting in was to be assessed as a native rather than fluent German speaker. Native speakers got first priority in the lottery and then fluent speakers. We felt confident that our little girl would still manage to be considered a native German speaker. She was after all born in Germany and had gone to a Kindergarten in Germany for two years before entering the German preschool here in San Diego. On top of that, her father as well as her German babysitter have continued to only speak German with her at home.

It was no surprise to us that she barely spoke at the fifteen-minute assessment though. We know our daughter. She is a quiet observer at first who needs some time to warm up, and the environment was hardly conducive for a shy child to come out of her shell and chat in any language. (It was at the school where she had never been, sitting at a table with two woman she had never met, one of whom spoke with a Swiss accent that she was unfamiliar with.) Luckily, we were invited to submit a video and were given a sheet with talking points on what we should talk about on the video. My husband, no techno-genius, had to record a number of times before we finally agreed on which video to submit. While watching it, I was shocked by how much our daughter’s German had slipped. I had heard her speaking all the time with Steffi, our babysitter, with my husband and with her teachers, and although her German was not nearly as eloquent and varied as it was in Germany, she was still articulate and natural. But, she otherwise speaks mostly English – with her friends at Die Rasselbande, with her younger sister, with her American family (with whom she used to speak German to everyone’s frustration), and with me. In the video, I noticed that she wasn’t quite finishing sentences. You know, like forgetting that final verb in the Nebens√§tze. And she was mixing in English words such as “aliens” and “hairclip.” At least she didn’t say “pretenden” or “geslipped” as she has done in her regular speech.

This whole somewhat stressful process has made me scratch my head. What else could I possibly do to keep my child’s German from slipping? I’m committed to taking the kids back to Deutschland every year, but other than prolonged stays, what else could be done? I wish I could find her a little German friend who didn’t speak any English, but that’s not very realistic. I guess this is an inevitability to leaving DE. Our American happy ending though is that our daughter was indeed assessed as a native speaker and has a spot at Einstein.

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