English dominates at German camp in USA

Eierlaufen (egg-and-spoon race) at German Camp, USA

My two daughters – whom my wife and I are raising as English-German bilinguals in the USA – have been going to German camp for a good portion of the 2012 summer vacation.

Only trouble is, they’re not speaking much, if any, German with anyone other than: a) each other (which they do at home anyway); b) the German camp summer instructors.

That’s because 95 percent of the other children, who range in age from 5 to 10 years old, enrolled in the camp spend nearly 100 percent of their time speaking English with one another. This despite the best efforts of the camp director, whom I admire very much and who has herself successfully raised two young adult English-German bilinguals in the USA, to keep the camp goers focused on German.

Why so much English in a German language camp?

There are a lot of reasons:

  • Children at different German levels. A few, such as my children, are highly fluent in German while others are complete German language beginners.
  • Different hopes, goals, approaches, and German abilities among the parents. So, for instance, in my own, and a few other cases, there’s strong commitment to the so-called one parent, one language approach (I speak only German to my daughters, my wife speaks only English to them). In other cases, parents, including many German-speaking parents, spend most of their time speaking English to their kids with a little bit of German interspersed.
  • School. My kids are the only ones in the camp — which has fluctuated between 10 and 20 participants over the past four weeks — enrolled in a German language immersion program during the year. The rest are in monolingual English-speaking schools – which leads me to the next, perhaps biggest, reason, there’s so little German, and so much English, spoken by children enrolled in a German language camp here in Colorado, USA…
  • Socialization. Social norms, expectations, rules, and practices are, for the most part, exclusively monolingual in the USA. This is especially true in the public school system, where the emphasis is actually on erasing home languages children bring to school rather than on growing, and fostering, actually lived and regularly practiced multilingualism.
  • Monolingual ideology and practice. With the exception of immigrant enclaves located mostly in urban America, actually lived, everyday life in most places in the USA, is, for most people, monolingual. The expectation is that virtually everywhere you go you will speak English – and no other languages. So, who can blame the kids if, after being thoroughly socialized into this expectation by larger American society, they would do anything other than speak English to each other in German camp?

It’s cliché, but nevertheless true that if you don’t use a language, you lose it. And there are simply not enough places and spaces in largely monolingual contemporary America for most of the people truly dedicated to actually lived multilingualism to practice that “other” language on a regular and everyday basis.

Yes, there are some outside-of-the-dominant-English-norm spaces and places created by motivated individuals and/or groups, for instance, the German camp both my kids are attending. But these don’t exist in a social vacuum. They – and those who participate in them – are heavily influenced by the wider social landscape. That landscape is not especially conducive to fostering the sort of deep, regularly practiced multilingualism I want my daughters to experience.

Indeed, among the American white collar elite with English as a mother tongue — arguably the group of American English mother tongue speakers most likely to favor multilingualism — there’s far more rhetoric about the importance of multilingualism than real commitment to, much less actually lived and practiced, multilingualism.

That’s too bad. And it’s definitely not good for the comparatively few, though seemingly also growing, number of American parents, many of them highly educated first-generation immigrants, who don’t want their kids to end up in the place I’m in after my German dad chose monolingual assimilation for his children: Fighting for the rest of one’s life to acquire a high level fluency in a language other than English while, for a variety of reasons, most beyond one’s own control, never actually ever quite being able to achieve that elusive goal.

Author Christof Demont-Heinrich

A lifelong interest in language and writing motivated in large part by a desire to learn my father’s mother tongue, German, has played a large role in my professional and educational trajectory. I spent my junior year of college studying in Freiburg, Germany. After graduating from Allegheny College with a B.A. in German, I worked as a print journalist for eight years in the Boston area.

I moved to Colorado in August of 1996 so that I could attend Colorado State University where I earned an M.A. in English (1998). After a couple years of working as an adjunct faculty member at CSU and the University of Northern Colorado, I began a Ph.D. program at the University of Colorado, Boulder School of Journalism and Mass Communication in the fall of 2000. I completed my dissertation in December of 2005. I started a tenure-track position at the University of Denver in the fall of 2005 where I am now an Associate Professor in the Department of Media, Film & Journalism Studies.

My general research interests are in linguistic and cultural dimensions of globalization, transnational and national identity, and the relation between media discourse and hegemony.

More posts by Christof Demont-Heinrich
  • Thanks, Christoph! In addition to an American socialization, I think you’ve also got to blame German 😉 … as you know the language has been less well maintained in recent decades and in Anglophone environments than most other migrant languages …

    • True — and, as you know, I’d like to begin systematically looking at this question, the official promotion and maintenance of German in the USA by Germany 🙂

  • Victoria

    Is that is what you’re doing, Christof? I’ve just been doing a quick search about that as well and found on the German Federal Foreign Office webiste that more than 270 Million Euro are spent on supporting the German language abroad, particularly on German international schools. http://www.auswaertiges-amt.de/sid_2721F02016655E72F52B1C5E28404C53/DE/Aussenpolitik/KulturDialog/Sprache/DeutscheSprache_node.html#doc334940bodyText1 These are then recognised as private schools and get even more funding from local governments. Anythings else, for example early childhood education, does not get any support – neither from Germany nor from local agencies. Support for the German language on a public level starts at the school level only – quite contrary to what is supposed to achieve best results according to research findings.(Note: by that I’m not even implying a critival period…)

  • It is difficult to maintain a high degree of multilingualism in large societies with a high level of communication and integration between people. An individual can probably work hard enough to become bilingual or multilingual, but it is not easy at all for him/her to create the kind of environment conducive to ‘living’ a second or third language. Therefore, you will have to keep investing even more in your children’s education if you wish for them to ‘live’ in German as much as they are living in English.

    • Thank you for your comment. You are right, at least judging based on my own experience trying to raise English-German bilingual children in the USA. I wish I knew more about societies in which large numbers of people actually live multilingualism on a regular, everyday basis. Perhaps those of us stuck in societies such as American society where the everyday expectation for the majority of people is that multilingualism will not be lived on an everyday basis anywhere outside of the private home domain and who would like to see this change could learn something valuable from those societies in which multilingualism is actually lived, and practiced, every day, across life domains, and not relegated — one might even say banished — to the home/private domain.

  • Amy

    Christof, did you see this article in the New York Times awhile back? http://www.nytimes.com/2012/04/15/education/edlife/german-in-a-multicultural-world.html?pagewanted=1&_r=1