Hanging on to German in the USA

Hanging on to German in the USAI wasn’t sure of the best way to enter the Language-on-the-Move community. I’ve decided simply to start by telling you a little bit about me and my ongoing quest to capture something that, due to a complex set of social forces, was taken away from me in childhood: The opportunity to achieve, in relatively effortless fashion, deep and meaningful bilingualism.

I’m a professor at the University of Denver whose research focuses on the global hegemony of English and, more specifically, on the ways in which this intensifying global social phenomenon intersects with multilingualism and multilingual practice, or, in the case of English speaking elites from countries such as the United States and Australia, comparative lack thereof.

I’m also a parent working hard to raise two children, Alina, 6, and Kyra, 5, as German-English bilinguals. I’ll concentrate on this experience here and likely in future entries. I do so through the lens of critical thinking that informs my research, my scholarly writing, and pretty much my whole life.

I’m working with my wife, Christine, an English monolingual who has acquired moderate receptive German-English bilingualism in the past six years, to raise our daughters as bilinguals because of a deep and abiding belief in the value of active multilingual living and practice.

We chose German due to my German heritage. My father emigrated to the U.S. in the early 1960s and met my mother, who is American. However, for a variety of reasons – most notably the culture of linguistic assimilation and, to a lesser extent, lingering anti-German sentiment in a post World War II U.S. – he chose not to pass his linguistic heritage on to his three children.

So far, we’ve had pretty good success in our drive to raise Alina and Kyra as meaningful German-English bilinguals – by meaningful, I mean bilinguals who can, and do, speak both German and English on a regular basis. In fact, despite multiple and powerful social forces working against us, to my amazement, Alina and Kyra are currently German dominant. That is, they speak German not only to me – we are using the one-parent, one language model – but to each other, pretty much 100 percent of the time.

All of this:

  • Without the benefit of a bilingual upbringing myself – I learned German in college, on my own, although thanks to a short stint as a seven-year-old at a school in Stuttgart, Germany I do have something pretty close to a “native” accent.
  • In an English-dominant country deeply steeped – like pretty much all “modern” nation-states – in the ideology of monolingualism and which sits smack in the middle of the global hegemony of English, social factors which mitigate strongly against meaningful public investment in multilingualism.
  • Against a backdrop of German collective identity which, thanks in large part to the historical legacy of World War II, arguably is steeped — at least among German educational elites of the type to which I am both related and most likely to come into contact with – in a unique anti-nationality, or an almost unparalleled desire to throw off the traditional markers of national identity, including language, in favor of a global, cosmopolitan identity that has, of course, become thoroughly wrapped up in English.
  • Absolutely no public educational infrastructure that supports German language learning at a young age, a fact which has forced us to send Alina and Kyra to a private language immersion school and, more broadly, spend what, in the long-run, could turn out to be hundreds of thousands of dollars out of our own pockets in what stands as a telling, real-life example of the true economic cost of lost linguistic heritage.

My long-term goal is to get Alina and Kyra to the point where: a) they far exceed my own German abilities, which are quite strong verbally, but rather weak in terms of written language; b) they can pass the Groβes Deutsches Sprachdiplom (GDS),  which would allow them, if they so choose, to study at a German university.

I’m not sure we’re going to succeed in getting Alina and Kyra to that point. One of the biggest forces working against us is the sheer cost of making up for the total lack of meaningful public education language teaching infrastructure in German where we live. There is limited access to language immersion education in Spanish, Mandarin and French right now in the Denver, Colorado area – but no public German immersion programs, although I’m working to try and change this.  The theme of the actual economic cost of the ethic of subtractive language learning in one, real-life instance – my own – is one I’ll pick up in a future entry on languageonthemove.

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
  • Thank you, Christof, and welcome to Language-on-the-Move! I think if you get them past the usual hurdles, children actually love their languages. When my daughter was 4, she would refuse to speak German in public in Australia, saying: “Mummy, German hurts my throat!” 😉 … a few years on, now at 9, she loves to show off her languages and consistently speaks German in the presence of others. Some of her friends express these pangs of envy when they come to our house and hear her speak German. I’ve overheard them say things like “You are so lucky to be able to speak a language!” It always cracks me up the way they don’t think English is a language … her French teacher does the same and admonished her the other day that she should do better because “you have a language background.”

  • Jean Cho

    Christof, thank you for the great posting, which is very relevant to my life project of raising my 3-year-old boy as a bilingual. His bilinguality was reasonably good until he turned 2, when he started going to a English childcare centre and English became suddenly dominant. He is now behaving like a typical migrant teenager – answering back in English when I talk to him in Korean 🙁 I absolutely agree to your point about no (or little depending on where you live) public education infrastruture that supports languages other than English and hope that things will turn around in my generation. BTW, Ingrid, your comment “They don’t think English is a language” is so true. Whenever I introduce myself as an interpreter, some local people ask me which language interpreter I am. I used to wonder why they looked still puzzled after I said “I am a Korean interpreter” and soon realized they were looking for something else (e.g. Japanese-Korean), since English doesn’t need to be interpreted!

  • khan

    Thanks very much indeed for sharing such valuable first hand experiences of raising children bilingually interlaced with analysis that helped me see the nature of links between society and bilingualism. Your post reminds me of Heller’s and Ingrid’s work in the area. They take a truly socio-political approach to bilingualism which then intersects with global politics.
    As a student of sociolinguistics, I often say, to the dismay of many of my respected professors, that world history tell us that the fate of the languages have never been permanent and that they have nearly always been tied to political power of the times.
    Best wishes for Aline and Kyra for their wonderful journey of experiencing two civilizations, cultures, modes of thinking and expression. I would like to read more of your blogs. Thanks once again.
    karachi Pakistan

  • Hongyan

    Christof, thank you for the interesting posting! Raising bilingual kids is rewarding on a long run. My daughter came to Sydney 3 years ago at the age of 6 and started her English-Chinese bilingual overseas life. Before she came here, she just finished Kindy in China and knew some very simple Chinese characters, Pinyin system and easy English words of fruits. I have been very strict with her bilingual learning, especially Chinese, which made both of us suffered at the beginning. I don’t worry about her English at all but I keep telling her that she can’t study in China if her Chinese is not good. Learning Chinese and Math textbooks everyday after school has been family routine. She is now quite interested in both languages. She has got awareness of comparing the words and expressions of Chinese and English. She tries to pronounce English in OZ and UK accent! She once told me she wanted to learn French, Japanese and Korean because English is NOT ENOUGH for her to be an international kid!