By Lucie Maucher
When you’re planning to move overseas with children, one of the questions you’ll surely have is “How long will it take the children to learn the language?” Although my son Simon was born in Sydney, we moved to Switzerland just before his first birthday. While we were in Switzerland, Simon had hardly any exposure to English as we speak German at home. He did, however, continue to grow up in a bilingual environment as he spoke High German at home and Swiss German at day care. We moved back to Sydney when Simon was just over three (just at the age where language and expressing his thoughts had become quite important to him), and we were intrigued to see how he would cope. The decision to enrol him at FROEBEL was based on many factors, but primarily on their bilingual concept. We hoped it would make the transition easier for him and that it would also help him understand that our world is neither monolingual nor monocultural.
In the end, it was a rollercoaster journey through different phases that ended with Simon speaking fluent English from one day to the next, coincidentally almost one year to the day we had arrived in Sydney. The phases we noted with Simon were:
Phase I: Curiosity
Simon was excited to move to Australia and knew that people in Australia spoke English. In the first weeks, he happily repeated English words after us and it became a game for him to say words in three languages (“ferry” in English, “Fähre” in German and “Fahri” in Swiss German).
Phase II: Fear
When he started at FROEBEL St Leonards, Simon was obviously relieved to have a German Educator of Trust and some German-speaking children to play with. But I can only imagine he must have felt very lost when he was surrounded by so many English-speaking children that did not understand him. We could definitely feel his fear on days we dropped him off and he could not see any German speakers around. This was the hardest phase for us as parents.
Phase III: Denial
While he settled in nicely at Preschool within a couple of weeks and built close relationships with all of the educators, Simon entered a phase of complete denial with the English language. He refused to say a single word in English and wouldn’t let us speak to him or read books to him in English. Although we tried to expose him to English outside of day care with fun activities like swimming, sports lessons and play dates, he would not even try saying simple things like “hello” or “good bye”.
Phase IV: Acceptance and Understanding
It must have been approximately one month later that Simon showed signs understanding some bits of English. At Preschool, educators told us he followed instructions in English, he definitely picked up the context when watching Australian children’s shows, and overall, he seemed more at ease with English. However, he still refused to speak a single word in English (yes, he can be stubborn). I think in a way he just assumed everyone could or should understand German. In his defence, with so many similar words it was often confusing for him to know if he really had to speak English. His swimming instructor for example understood perfectly when he responded that “grün” (green) was his favourite colour.
Phase V: Practice makes perfect.
Over the next months we caught him using English words and even sentences while he was playing on his own. As soon as he noticed we were listening though, he stopped. We always tried to record it, but it didn’t work out very well (clever child vs slow parent). During this phase, Simon became more and more interested in English books both at home and at day care, and we could tell that he actually understood every single word.
Phase VI: And…… switch!
It was on a Wednesday in August when Simon’s Preschool educators excitedly reported that he had started speaking English to the other children. The next day when we walked home from day care he started speaking English to me – fluently and with a beautiful accent (thankfully far away from the German accent!!), and continued speaking English the whole evening as if it was how he always spoke. Just like that. Just because he was ready!
And this is where we are now. Simon is still a little shy with people he is not familiar with and he wouldn’t start chatting with them straight away, but then again, this is his usual self. Being a more introverted child, and apparently a hopeless perfectionist, he is not often the one to start talking with new people, even in German. At Preschool, however, everyone is surprised how chatty he can be (we aren’t, we know his monologues from home very well 😉).
We are so pleased that we never rushed him during this journey and thankful to all the Preschool educators and children at FROEBEL St Leonards for helping him settle in and for giving him the time he needed to become confident with his second language.
Now we’re facing the opposite extreme – Simon is often not so keen to speak German at all! We’re having to set a new house rule – “zu Hause nur Deutsch!” (Only German at home!).