Building Community and Boosting the Success of Many Families
*Marta is originally from Spain. Along with her native language, she speaks German and English. She is an electrical engineer, but is currently taking time off from her career.
*Her husband, Jens, is German. A researcher in the field of medical technology, he is multilingual in German, Spanish, and English.
*They live in Germany with their three children: Carlos, 10.11 years old; Alba, 7.5 years old; and Diego, 4.6 years old.
*Currently, Marta speaks only Spanish with the children while Jens and the kids communicate in both German and Spanish.
Growing up in Spain, Marta began acquiring English from a young age. Every summer, from the age of 9 through her time as a university student, she took part in various activities that fueled her development in this language: summer camps in English, homestays in Ireland, study abroad and work abroad opportunities in the U.S. “From 16 onwards,” she said, “I felt I could speak English well. And I could read books in English without any problems.”
When she was 20, she started to learn German by attending a language course on the weekend. Then, in her last year of college, she came to Germany as part of the Erasmus program, which enables European students to spend a year studying in another European country.
She met Jens at her university in Germany.
“When we first met,” Jens said, “I hardly knew any Spanish. Then shortly after, I decided to study abroad in Spain. I had to improve my Spanish and Marta wanted to improve her German. So we met several times, with only that in mind, to improve our languages. But it ended up being an intensive course that changed both of our lives!”
“I then went back to Spain for a year,” Marta said. “And then I moved to Germany. So I’ve been living here since 2001.”
Jens acknowledged that, in his youth, he had been far more interested in sports than in languages. “I was good at school, especially subjects like mathematics and physics, but in languages, I was only average. So back then, I don’t think I even liked languages very much.”
However, his decision to transfer to the university where he met Marta, in the middle of his college years, led to an “eye-opening experience.” Alongside his relationship with Marta, he developed friendships with other international students, including many students from Spain. “My strategy was to just hang out with them and go to their parties and other activities. Of course, with each other they were only speaking Spanish and I would listen in, but all of them understood German, too, so I could answer in German. And that made it much easier for me at the beginning. So I actually learned Spanish, not so much from textbooks, but by going to parties with all the Spanish people!”
By the time of their wedding—which included guests from 16 countries—Marta and Jens were clearly on a path where their children would be raised in an international spirit while following in their own trilingual footsteps.
Language use, resources, and visitors
Since Spanish is the family’s main minority language, Marta and Jens have long been proactive about providing ample exposure for this language, both in and out of the home. From the very start of their trilingual journey, Marta has been very consistent about using Spanish with the kids. “I always talk to the children in Spanish,” she said. “What I find challenging, though, is when we’re with people who don’t speak Spanish. So what I do is, I say whatever I have to say in both languages. If it’s just for my child, I say it only in Spanish. But if I’m talking to the group, like ‘Okay, wash your hands. We’re eating now,’ then I say it in both languages, Spanish and German.”
Jens noted that Marta’s persistence in using Spanish—even when out in public—has been one of the keys to their family’s success. At the same time, his own ability in Spanish is an important source of support for Marta’s efforts. “At the beginning,” he said, “we made it really separate so she was speaking strictly Spanish and I was speaking strictly German. But then we noticed that, for the majority language, it’s not so important for us to be consistent because the children are getting enough German exposure, anyhow.”
At this point, then, while Marta remains consistent in her use of the minority language—and uses a limited amount of German to include those who don’t understand Spanish—Jens has come to speak both languages more freely with the kids. “With Jens, they feel at ease talking in both languages,” Marta said.
“Yeah, it feels normal,” Jens agreed.
“But I don’t think it feels normal for them to talk to me in German,” Marta said.
Along with this input from the speech of both parents, Marta has also been diligent about enriching their home with resources. “I try to have as many materials in Spanish as I can,” she said. “They don’t watch German TV. They only watch TV or DVDs in Spanish. We don’t have many German books, either. We get German books from the library and I buy a lot of Spanish books. We have a very big Spanish library.”
“I always say we have the biggest library of Spanish kids’ books in this part of the country,” Jens said with a laugh.
Visitors, too, often Spanish or English speakers, are regular sources of input and inspiration for the children. “We’ve always liked having guests at our house,” Marta said. “But since we have kids, it’s become more important. When we hear someone is coming to the area, we tell them, ‘Stay at our place! We have enough room!’ For example, last year, for the whole month of December, we had people staying here.”
“We never went below nine people in this house!” Jens added.
Marta admitted that hosting visitors can also be tiring, but both of them agreed that these experiences are still well worth the effort not only for the contributions they make to the children’s language ability and lives, but also for the sheer enjoyment they bring to the whole family and their guests.
Creating a minority language community
Outside the home as well, they have been able to take advantage of local opportunities to engage their children in Spanish—or even create new opportunities for themselves and other Spanish-speaking families. The municipal government maintains a program of Spanish classes for native Spanish-speaking children, which all three kids have been attending, while the oldest, Carlos, is now at a middle school which has a strong program in language learning, including Spanish and English.
At the same time, Marta has been extremely proactive about creating community. When Carlos was 18 months old, she reached out to friends with kids of around the same age and formed a play group for Spanish-speaking parents and their children. Though it began as a small group for small children that met at her house, it has grown over the years and continues to meet weekly—in large rented rooms in the city’s Red Cross building—more than a decade later. Today, in fact, the play group welcomes families with young children of all ages to engage in indoor activities in Spanish and has even produced a spin-off group—a sports group—that meets at a different time for outdoor fun.
However, as Marta noted, while the meetings of the group are intended to be playful gatherings, she has also had to be firm about maintaining the basic purpose of the group as a “monolingual” domain for its members. “We have the rule that you have to speak Spanish,” she said. “So the children have to have Spanish at home. Sometimes there are people with children who are learning Spanish at home and they want to come into the group, but I have to be strict. I have to play the bad cop and tell them, ‘I’m sorry, but this group isn’t for your child.’ I explain that, in the group, they have to speak Spanish all the time because this is the only place where our children can hear only Spanish. So no German is allowed. The children need to speak Spanish.”
“If there’s any German,” Jens said, “there’s a danger of having a breakout of German during that special hour of the week and then it becomes pointless.”
“I think they should understand that this isn’t a Spanish school,” Marta continued. “Because otherwise, it doesn’t make any sense. It breaks all the effort.”
Marta’s efforts to create community have also expanded beyond the play group itself by organizing special Spanish activities and events for families from the group and other Spanish-speaking families in the area. Over the years she has helped spearhead a variety of fun gatherings that have brought the same kind of benefits as the play group to all the participants. These activities and events have included barbecues, storytelling shows, music classes, guided tours of the city and surrounding nature, screenings of Spanish movies at a local cinema, a festival of the world’s Spanish-speaking countries, and even an annual Christmas event on an old steam train. “There’s a Christmas train in December,” Marta said, “and we reserve one big wagon for the Spanish community. Then we go together and sing Spanish carols and Saint Nicholas comes on the train and gives all the kids little gifts. It’s become a tradition that we do every year.”
Of course, there’s also the more trying side to creating community. Organizing a play group or a special activity or event—as with hosting visitors in your home—requires a commitment of time and energy. Yet the payoff, as Marta’s story shows, can be enormously rewarding for so many. This is why, she explained, her eyes are always open to fresh possibilities for creating community, and she pursues new ideas “whenever I see someone who can do something in Spanish!”
Spending regular time in Spain, too
On top of all the productive efforts Marta and Jens are making in Germany to support their children’s Spanish side, regular trips to Spain are a central part of their lifestyle, too. Taking advantage of the proximity between the two countries, “we try to go to Spain as often as we can,” Marta said.
“That’s four times a year, for at least a week,” Jens said. “But sometimes even two weeks. I think we’re very lucky. Marta’s parents can easily accommodate us so it’s really a pleasure to be there.” He added how fortunate he was that his company allows him to do his work remotely from Spain for a few days each year so that, combined with his vacation time, he’s able to join Marta and the kids on every trip.
“And when we come back to Germany,” Marta said. “I always notice that their Spanish is stronger. Now and then they ask me, ‘Why do I have to speak in Spanish to you if you also understand German?’ But I always tell them, ‘In Spain, all of our family and friends don’t speak German. If you don’t use your Spanish every day, you’ll forget it and then you won’t be able to talk to them.’ And since they all love going to Spain, this is a big motivation for them.”
Jens continued, “So usually three out of four times a year, we go to see the family and then it’s clear to the kids that they have to speak Spanish to have a good time with them. Then the fourth time we go to a big summer camp that Marta’s parents have been going to for almost 40 years, which has grown into a group of newborns to senior citizens. And at this camp there are peers in every age group so the children have a lot of Spanish-speaking friends of the same age. This is also very important for making the point that Spanish is relevant for them.”
“And when they come home from the summer camp,” Marta said, “their Spanish is better because they talk like children their age. Otherwise, they’re learning mostly from me and, since I’m a grown-up, I don’t speak the slang that children speak.”
She went on to emphasize that the immersion of these camp vacations not only advances the children’s language development, it also deepens their connection to the Spanish culture. “For example, this summer they learned a lot of jokes and they’re now telling them all the time. They also learn the songs that the Spanish people sing and how the culture works, how they greet each other, how they have fun. So it’s the language, but it’s much more than that, too.”
Staying resourceful to address challenges
While the family has clearly experienced a lot of rewarding success on their journey to date—and will no doubt experience similar success with English in the future—this doesn’t mean that Marta and Jens have no concerns regarding the road ahead. Even the most successful parents face certain challenges that they must navigate as effectively as they can in order to maximize their children’s language development.
“I’m happy with their progress,” Marta said. “The one that worries me, though, is Alba because I see, from her personality, that she’s a very social child. She always wants to be with friends and 99% of the time these are German-speaking friends. On the other hand, her social skills are an advantage in Spain because she’s also social in Spain. But, of course, the majority of the time, we’re here. And she’s not very keen on reading, either. So the Spanish in her life is much less than Carlos and Diego. Maybe later she’ll develop an interest in books, I don’t know. But I can see that she’s different and I need to find other strategies that appeal to her.”
Marta’s words underscore the importance of matching our efforts, as effectively as we can, with the personalities and interests of each child. At the same time, these efforts will naturally need to evolve as our children grow. “The thing is with children,” she said, “they change. You have your routines and things, and then the child changes and you have to adapt. So I think that as a parent, not only with languages but with everything, you have to keep being creative and ask yourself: ‘What can I do?’”
An inspiring example of success
This key question is clearly in the forefront of Marta’s mind, from day to day, and continues to drive her ongoing efforts. A good example of this took place at the last summer camp in Spain when she asked the Spanish children what their favorite books and movies were in order to come up with fresh resources for her own kids. “You always have to have new inspiration,” she said. “So I made a list of all the books and films.”
Marta’s proactive nature, combined with her children’s strong bilingual ability, has made her a role model for other families with a bilingual aim. Her actions not only fuel her own family’s progress, the example of their success, along with the opportunities and advice she offers to others, is helping to inspire greater progress among other families, too.
“Sometimes it’s hard,” she said. “Sometimes it feels like a lot of effort for a little result. But every little thing you do counts. And keep asking yourself: ‘Why is it worth it? Why is this important to me?’ For me, my main motivation is that my children can talk to my family and that, if they want, they can go to my country and feel at home.”
“I think it’s very helpful to look for people with the same goal,” Jens said, “because you can put the efforts on many people’s shoulders. The other big strategy is to combine what you like with what is useful. For example, Marta likes reading books, so for her, it’s a lot of fun to read aloud to them every evening for a full hour or longer, in her language. So you do fun things that you really like, and they really like, and that also serve your purpose.”
“If you do it like a school environment where they’re just sitting and learning, it’s harder,” Marta said. “I was thinking, if Diego doesn’t want to go to the play group on Wednesdays, ‘Okay, what do I do?’ I have my Plan B. If he doesn’t want to go, I could invite two families from the group that have children of Diego’s age, and we could do things together at home, maybe not every week, but every couple of weeks. I was thinking, what’s the most important thing that Diego gets from the play group? And for me, it’s friends that speak Spanish, friends from Spanish-speaking families.”
Marta paused, and smiled. “He likes the play group now so the problem is solved. But I told the other moms, ‘We can do it anyway!’”
AFTERWORD: I was fortunate to get a first-hand look at the impressive power of creating community when I paid a visit to Marta and her family and tagged along for a meeting of her long-running minority language play group. In all, there were about 30 parents and children in attendance, separated into two rooms by age and involved in playful activities that both the parents and their kids were clearly enjoying. While I was there for only that one afternoon, to think that this play group has been actively meeting, week after week, for years makes the group a shining example of how initiative and persistence can produce tremendous benefits for so many families: in language development, cultural understanding, mutual support, and friendship. In fact, this influence, as Marta noted, extends to families of other minority languages, too, and even monolingual families, inspiring them to enhance their own experiences of languages and cultures. From a bird’s-eye view, gazing down on humanity as a whole, this also means that more bridges are being built between more people. “I think we bilingual families are not only influencing our kids and their lives,” she said, “but also making a more tolerant and open world for other people around us.” Thus, our own efforts to raise bilingual kids can end up radiating out into the world much farther than we might ever imagine from the first small steps we take. The truth is, these efforts can even impact the world itself.