When is the perfect time to begin speaking German with your baby?
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by Sarah Mueller
A study by the University of Ottawa reports that even newborns prefer listening to speech over non-speech sounds. Language acquisition begins months before birth and babies are born preferring the language they heard in the womb.
Of course you probably knew that your baby can recognize the sound of your voice over others and that she is listening to you. But did you know just how closely she listens? This study finds that young infants can even distinguish the sound of native vs. non-native consonants that adults may have difficulty with. Babies are wired to learn language!
It may seem cliché but babies are truly miraculous in how they change and develop over the course of the first year. This is why the day your baby is born is the perfect time to start a lifetime of bilingualism with her.
When you begin bilingualism during babyhood, you have many advantages over people who start later.
You will build good habits early.
You’ll figure out how you’re going to use German in your home and around your family. This is a big adjustment if you’ve spoken mostly English up to this point. Most importantly, you’ll get in the habit of speaking German to your child. I’ve spoken exclusively German with all three of my children up to about age 2 and a half. In fact, I frequently speak to strange babies in German – it’s just my instinct to speak German to small people! Luckily they don’t seem to mind. It’s a lot harder to start speaking German with an older child.
Babies love to learn.
A baby’s brain doesn’t know what’s important, so it tries to make sense of everything. This results in lightning fast learning. At no other point in her life will she master so many skills and make such enormous strides in development. Once she gets older, she’ll learn to distinguish between things that are important to her and those that are not. At that point, she may be much more resistant to learning the “hard” stuff.
Speaking German with your baby will give you time to establish a good support system.
If you spend a little time setting goals, you’ll see the areas where you may need extra help. Do you have a local German-speaking community? Can you plan regular trips to Germany? Will German relatives come to visit often? Do you have enough German exposure to accomplish the goals you’re planning for? These are all extremely useful components of a bilingual family plan and it’s helpful to have them in place early in your child’s life.
Plus, when you start speaking German with a baby, you have that much more time to reach your language goals.
You may get sidetracked along the way and things may not always go according to plan but if you start with an infant, you have many years available to bring your child to the level of fluency you hope for.
So how is this done? With babies, it’s super simple.
You don’t have to worry about them understanding you or any translating which you might have to do with older children. Just use German whenever you speak to them. As you immerse your baby in German, you may find that your own German improves. If you can’t do it all the time, pick a few times of the day to use German and try and increase from there.
You may find it helpful to spend some time setting goals and consider how you’ll get a monolingual spouse involved.
Playing German music at playtime and reading German books at bedtime is a great way to make things fun and also get you in a German mindset. You may also learn some new words in the process.
You may even find that others around you start to pick up a few German words here and there.
Doesn’t it seem strange to speak to tiny baby in German, especially if no other German speakers are around?
Well, yes, it may feel weird at first. If you’ve committed to raising your child bilingually and you’re not a native German speaker, it may be a little hard to get the habit established. You’ll have a whole new vocabulary to learn. How do you say “How’s my sweet little munchkin?” in German anyway? :) You’ll need to learn some new lullabies and terms of endearment. You probably didn’t learn this stuff in German class or on a trip to Europe! Even if you grew up in a bilingual household, you may have forgotten the German “baby-ese” that is so necessary for little ones.
Babies need to be spoken to, even when they’re too little to understand.
They need to hear language, language directed at them, to help them make sense of the world around them. And if you’re raising a bilingual baby, then you might as well start as soon as possible.
A bilingual example
Jessica Giering (read our interview) has spoken German with her triplets since they were born. They are now interacting at an age-appropriate level in German and English. Jessica says, “It was challenging at first to remember to speak German to them but after a few weeks, it just came naturally.”
The sooner the better.
So don’t put it off until she’s older and has “established” the English language in her brain. A baby’s is biologically wired for languages and you can take advantage of that when you immerse her in German from the start.
What’s the best thing about speaking German with your baby?
She’ll think that everything you say is brilliant! An appreciative audience is always a good thing.
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