Raising Bilingual Children: An Interview with Professor Christof Demont-Heinrich
I’ve been lucky enough to be able to interview Christof Demont-Heinrich, Associate Professor of Media, Film & Media Studies at the University of Denver about his views on bilingualism, and also his experiences of raising bilingual children.
I first came across Christof on the brilliant sociolinguistics website Language on the Move where I was immediately fascinated by his articles on the costs of raising bilingual children in the United States. What is interesting about Christof is that while his father was German, Christof was raised to speak only English, and learnt German later at university. He now uses the one language one parent approach to teach his two daughters German and English, but as a non-native speaker of German, he has also employed at various times German au pairs, a nanny and then sent his daughters to an international school in the US.
Michelle: Some people from English speaking countries feel that due to English being the (unofficial) lingua franca of the world at present, that being bilingual is unimportant for native English speakers. Why was it important for you to raise your two daughters to be bilingual in the US?
Christof: I believe strongly in the ideal/ethic of meaningful multilingualism for all, including mother tongue speakers of English. I also believe that simply talking about how important multilingualism is — which a lot of well-educated mother tongue speakers of English do — but not actually living that multilingualism in a meaningful way is highly problematic. We need to live that which we preach/believe in, create the social structures and practices we believe in by living them, or they will not come to be. Plain and simple. I recognize this is highly idealistic, of course, and the fact of the matter is that, while a small but also growing percentage of the U.S. population with English as a MT are waking up to the fact that multilingualism has to be lived in order for the ideal to survive, for instance, by building language immersion schools, the vast majority of people for whom English is a MT in the U.S. either have little interest in multilingualism, or, if they do, do not bother to invest themselves significantly in building the social structures and participating actively in the social practices needed to develop multilingualism in a meaningful way.
In short, while I recognize — in a painful way, actually — that instrumental language learning means that very few mother tongue speakers are going to invest in becoming meaningful multilinguals themselves, I want to build a world in which this changes, even if very slowly. I view myself, and the bilingual living and education of my daughters as integral to actively building the multilingual social change I believe in. I’m not so naive as to believe that we, alone, will change much of anything. But if enough people “walk the walk”, then, hopefully, change will happen on an incremental basis. Of course, being somewhat of a natural born pessimist, I often think that what I’m doing is rather hopeless.
Why did you choose the combination English/German?
C: For heritage reasons. My father emigrated to the U.S. from German in the early 1960s. He did not pass his linguistic heritage on to me or my two siblings (my mom is an American who was, when we were kids, an English monolingual). We lived for 8 months in Stuttgart, Germany when I was 7. I went to school then, along with my younger brother, who was 6. I acquired something very close to a native accent as a result of this well-timed experience. However, I never really learned German until college (the late 1980s), when I chose to major in German and I spent a full year studying abroad in Freiburg, Germany.
Why did you choose the one language one parent approach? Would you recommend this approach to other parents who might not be a native speaker of the language?
Everything I have read — and I have read extensively on the topic of raising children bilingual — points toward this being the most effective approach, at least if the goal for the children to use the minority language regularly on an everyday basis and, ideally, acquire high-level spoken fluency in that language (I recognize this is not always the goal for all parents raising their children as multilinguals, that there is a continuum of goals/hopes for the children ranging from a “a few words/sentences” and simply a general appreciation of the minority language to receptive bilingualism only to full-scale, near “equilingualism” for the children. I believe my stubborn and consistent sticking to German — which, as you probably know, is not a first language for me — with my daughters, Alina (7) and Kyra (6) has been absolutely integral to them using German everyday. I’ve seen many situations in which parents, for a variety of understandable reasons, do not stick to one parent one language and, in those case, I see that the children often speak very little German at all. While I think one parent, one language, and sticking to that is absolutely crucial if the goal is high-end spoken fluency and regular use of the minority language and the family situation is one in which only one parent speaks the minority language (that is our situation), I think an even better situation is one in which both parents speak the minority/less powerful language in question, for instance, German in the U.S. In those instances, I would support a two-parent German at home model, frankly.
What have you found most challenging/rewarding?
In terms of challenges, fighting the system, frankly. The entire U.S. public education system is rigged against multilingualism and for monolingualism. Indeed, it’s specifically designed to ensure the erasure of the languages of immigrants who are educated in English only. Because there is only a tiny percentage of public charter schools in the U.S. that offer language immersion program — far less than 1% of schools in the U.S. offer language immersion — and because “our” language, German, is not a powerful language in the U.S. context, we have been forced to send our kids to a private language immersion school. I’ve estimated by the time my daughters are 13, we will have spent $250,000 out of pocket on their bilingual education. This because the American public education system simply does not support bilingualism. Nor does the larger American values system — if we truly valued meaningful, deep multlingualism for all, we would see that reflected in investment in multilingualism in our education system. The monolingual U.S. public education system is nested within a cultural and political environment that is largely indifferent, often very antithetical, to multilingualism, especially actually lived, everyday multilingualism where people actually use multiple languages on an everyday basis in multiple domains outside of the home.
Are there any books or journal articles you would recommend for other parents wanting to raise their children to be bilingual?
I’m going to have to check on this. While I’ve read quite a few, I haven’t kept track of them, for the most part. That’s because my area of research as a professor at the University of Denver focuses primarily on macro-level issues having to do with language, identity, power, culture, globalization, and, especially, the globalization of English as this affects the larger global linguistic configuration of power as well as the question of multilingualism vs. English-centric bilingualism (for those for whom English is a FL) vs. English monolingualism (for those with English as a MT).
Do you want your daughters to spend time living in Germany while they are young? (to become familiar with the German culture as well as the language?)
Yes. In fact, I hope to be spending a sabbatical year at the University of Hamburg with the entire family next year. I hope that everything works out and we are able to do this. Of course, I am aware of the rather large irony that in order to raise my kids as true/meaningful bilinguals I must escape the deep monolingualism of the U.S. education system and place my kids in the largely German monolingual educational environment in German.
Yes, they are clearly learning English in Germany, the students, that is, and they start at a much earlier age than children here do on learning FLs. But in the end, the general environment in Germany, I would say, is still one in which the ideology of monolingualism, in this case monolingualism + English, dominates, e.g. the “modern” nation state model. I ultimately view as the biggest impediment to meaningful and deep multilingualism for large numbers of people around the globe. That is, English isn’t really the problem, it’s the ideology of monolingualism that’s the problem. In global power domains this translates into English only — at academic conferences, etc. However, it could just as easily be another language, had historical circumstances developed differently. And, frankly, I often wish they had (though, clearly, I would not have wanted to see Nazi German triumph — that’s a whole other issue, Germany’s Nazi past, that complicates the whole attempt to raise one’s kids as German-English bilinguals: The vast majority of German educated elites see English as an escape from that past — and I, and my daughters, are literally swimming against all the Germans rushing to English in our attempt to be German-English bilinguals). In any case, if another language had become the global language, then we Americans would be multilingual — because we’d have to be.
Thank you very much Christof!
You can read more about Christof’s views here at Language on the Move.
What a great interview, particularly to someone like myself who is a monolingual American learning German in my 30s, because of my Germany boyfriend. I’ve heard of the one-parent, one-language approach from a German co-worker with a Spanish-speaking wife who are raising their children in a monolingual English culture to be trilingual. It’s nice to see that it does work.
Thanks for your comment Theresa! I’ve met many people who had had this approach work for them, and I hope to post more information about it in the future.
Hi Michelle. My name is Maritere Rodriguez Bellas. I am writing a book on raising bilingual children for Simon and Schuster in the U.S. I would very much like to ask Professor Demont-Heinrich for a comment or two for my book. He would be perfect as the book is for all immigrant parents raising children in the United States and two of the families I interviewed are from Germany! I tried reaching him via the university but I was told he is on sabbatical and I have emailed him but have not received a reply. Not sure if the email address I have is the correct one. Any suggestions would be so appreciated. Please visit my FB page under Maritere Rodriguez Bellas to learn more about me and my book or Linked In. I would like to talk to you more about my project. I can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Let me know if you are interested. Thanks so much for your time and consideration. Best, Mari