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Continuing German in the Third Generation: An Interview with Veronica Dzugan

Sarah interviews Veronica Dzugan. Veronica is a native German speaker, and, together with her husband, is raising her two children ages 3 and 1 in a bilingual household.


Sarah: Thank you again, I’m so glad you could take the time to chat with me today. It’s very exciting to continue the interview series.

Veronica: They’re actually really enjoyable to read. Everyone has something to give, I suppose, and you just learn by your peers.

Sarah: Absolutely. I’m learning so much from talking to everyone. It’s turned into a really fun activity for me. I definitely appreciate that and I know everyone else does too. We get lots of comments on the interviews

Veronica: Are most of your people bilingual then? I mean, your customers?

Sarah: Yes, kind of a mix. There are a lot of non-native speakers and also some people that have moved from Germany or they were raised bilingual.

Veronica: Which would be me. I was raised bilingually, so it was just natural for me to continue that.

Sarah: So tell me a little bit about your background.

Veronica: Pretty much what I’m doing now with my children was how I was raised. My mother was German-speaking, my father Midwestern but he had had German in college and so he understood German and my grandmother then, my German mother, also lived with us and she did not speak English. So at home and with my mother we always spoke German, my sister and I.

My dad would understand and I remember, growing up, college German will get you dinner table conversations. He was at work and my mom was with us and my grandmother so that’s what I remember, that was just always always German. I don’t really remember him speaking English but I remember basically learning English in school.

I remember going to Kindergarten and first grade and having to take those tests and all that stuff and not doing so well because I didn’t know the English vocabulary for a lot of it. That was because we were predominantly German. Isolated I guess in a lot of ways. But I grew up here.

For me, I’ve been able to, I studied German and look at sort of your background of studying in Germany and looking back and saying, “Those were the good days.” To be over there and studying in the dorms and meeting the Germans. But that was it. I’ve been able to pass really as a native speaker. That was really not a consideration when we were having children. There’s no doubt – plus I think partly, with kids and with animals I always speak German with them. Meet a dog on the street or something and it just seems natural to speak German

Sarah: So you were just able to continue that on when you had your own kids?

Veronica: Yes, just continued, and we did, I think that book is also on your website. I think it’s the Oxford one, with the blue cover, one of your more academic ones on raising bilingual children. They ask you a whole bunch of questions about why you want to do this why is it important to you and my husband and I went through that… My husband speaking Russian and being from a Russian family so we also had to consider are we going to do it trilingual or what are we going to do, but my Russian is not very good. I do consistently German with the children, and he does English and as a family together we pretty much do English. That’s our setup.

Sarah: And how old are your kids again?

Veronica: Almost 3 and almost 1.

Sarah: So what do they speak? Well, your three-year-old, what does she speak?

Veronica: She’s doing great. It’s actually really fun because I spend most of the time with her and what I’m beginning in her – what’s really funny with her is her translating – that’s one of the best things. She had someone over the other day and when she was finished with her business in the bathroom and stuff she’ll be like, “Mama, fertig, Papa, done.” She just sort of has that, she knows, whoever’s there, she says the German in one and then “Papa – done.”

Sarah: It’s great that she switches like that.

Veronica: I’ll tell her to go tell Papa, do something with the air-conditioning and I can hear her and she’ll go downstairs and she’ll say, “Mama says Papa lower air-conditioner” or something. For her, she just goes down and she translates. Even though he would understand the German, we try to be really consistent. And she speaks German to the little one, to her brother, that’s cute.

Sarah: That would be a big help for him.

Veronica: Yes, and I think that’s partly the age where they try to play to be little mommy and whatever so she plays me and so I’m speaking German. What will be interesting is how the two of them, what they’re going to end up speaking together just in a few years. See if they, because it did happen to my sister and I a little bit as we got older we switched to English so now we speak English, which is a shame.

When we get back as a family we do all get back into German but when my sister and I chit-chat it’s in English, even though when we were young it was always in German. I think that’s because we’re here. That’s the hard part. We’re here, we hear English. And when she’s out with her little playmates and friends I think that’s when it gets to be a little more difficult, and that’s going to be happening more and more. She picks up their phrases, and then she wants to practice, I don’t know how that works. Again, yours are older, you can give me some insight.

Sarah: Mine are mixed. They’re not quite at that level where they can just chatter away in German, I guess they have a varying level. They understand a lot, but they’re not completely comfortable just chatting away in German. We’re working on it. We’ve got lots of books and we’re starting up with some more formal stuff, hopefully that will help.

Veronica: They’re still young. But it is, you are isolated a little bit, just our little family and when we go visit my side of the family, but other than that there’s not little cliques of German-speaking people here that I can find.

Sarah: Yes, it’s definitely a challenge to try and get others that are available to help speak German.

Veronica: Which is why something like Bobo is so wonderful – I can put in the CD and she can hear this wonderful German voice. And I do read those “especially for non-natives” – I mean it is difficult. You’re trying to get exposure, I think that’s the main thing that you want at that age and it’s as much exposure as she can get. She needs it. And for me too to be able to hear some German.

Sarah: Right, it’s good for everybody, even if it is Bobo. It’s still useful.

Veronica: It’s wonderful, super.

Sarah: Did she like the new CDs that I sent over?

Veronica: Yes, we’ve got one in the car and in the living room, we use Bobo all the time. She knows the words to the song, too. That again is because I’d never heard of Bobo until you did one of your little blog things on it. It just sounded great when you wrote about it.

Sarah: Yes, I have not found anything to top it! It’s funny -

Veronica: Yes, it’s wonderful!

Sarah: That combination of the very simple dialogue and the variety of activities – there’s nothing to compare.

Veronica: And the age group is super, if I had come across it next year or even last year maybe it wouldn’t… it’s just perfect for two-year-olds. Yeah, I’m very excited about Bobo now! Now a part of her life, so…

Sarah: I’m so glad, that’s good. You told me a little bit, but why did you want your kids to speak German?

Veronica: Probably emphasis to speak a foreign language. German because that’s what I have. And partly because it’s part of who I am, I think that’s one of the big things. She is, she’s German, she’s Russian, and I want her to be more than just the blonde hair and blue eyes and just look German. I think language just goes along with all that and I think it would be a disservice to her – she can make up her own mind then. I got that from my mother. She’s going to do her part, I’m going to do my part to make sure that she’s exposed and has everything that can possibly be found here, in addition to my being consistent and really trying to get her in the language. And then at some point teaching, I guess that’s going to be the next step, when she has to start school, but just exposure and then, that’s part of her identity. I think it would be a shame and you hear that a lot and it is an effort, it is difficult to find resources.

But definitely one of the things as parents you can really do as a great advantage for your children. We could have chosen Russian, but I don’t speak it and I’m with her most of the time. For me, I just really enjoy it. It would be foreign for me to be speaking English with her. I speak German with her and I’m just really happy we’ve been able to do it this way. Just in general, it’s great when all of a sudden she can speak it and understand a foreign language, even if you’re not that fluent yet in speaking, but still can understand.

Sarah: It’s a good thing in life, definitely. How far are you hoping that she gets? Have you identified how fluent you hope she’ll eventually become?

Veronica: I’ve been very lucky – I ended up studying it in school and then teaching and all that, it’s sort of something that’s definitely a part of me and she may be interested in something other than that, but if she keeps going and if I don’t get too rusty – all of a sudden with a family you don’t have your trips to Germany and things – but I would hope that she would be considered fluent. She has sort of the native speaker as far as pronunciation and all that, so I don’t see why not.  It would be wonderful if she could find a friend or someone down here that she could speak to other than me. That would be just wonderful, but in the meantime it’s going to be Bobo. (laughs)

Sarah: We used to have like a playgroup listing and I know a lot of people did actually find friends there. I had to take it offline a couple of years ago. We had a lot of spam through it. I am going to be rebuilding that. Note: we now have the playgroup postings online again!

Veronica: That would be just wonderful. For anybody in Louisiana really, I’d try to find them, it would just make a world of difference, to actually be able to communicate with people.

Sarah: Right.

Veronica: I think that’s definitely one of the big challenges and why you really have to make the decision to do this because it’s not only keeping my German up to par and just being able to find resources for her.

Sarah: Yes, to have a community for her. At least at some level.

Veronica: Right, and if you’re in Washington DC or some places where they have a lot of options. It depends on where you are in the country.

Sarah: Right. Have you been able to find everything that you were looking for on the website or was there something that you want to get and you didn’t come across it?

Veronica: Yes, it’s hard to keep track of all your customers, but just sort of an idea of if there’s somebody out here. The website, as far as the store, my husband keeps saying. “Please don’t look at it,” because we always do find something. No, I think everything… there’s some of the new things, right, the things I have not come across and that’s what’s really useful, just the way it’s set up. It’s not just one book at a time, you can see 10, 12 and go for it. One of my personal pet peeves with children’s books, I guess, is I really like the pictures to be nice. I love the Eric Carle books so much. I like the artwork. And so that’s something I’m always looking for. I like the “Augen zu”the little tiger book because the pictures are just wonderful and Bobo too, I like them. And those are just really neat. They’re expensive books, but it’s not just one single person’s book, they are very pretty books. And you do have a number of those.

There are actually some DVDs too that look good, I just have to budget every month to get something, but beyond that, I think that’s only a quarter of what you have because the website, you can get lost, because there’s just so much, I just go from one thing to the next. I think that’s just what’s phenomenal is that you’ve been able to put that together because I don’t have to go through a lot or whatever, I can just start there. The homeschooling thing, I was just kind of browsing and thought, “Hmm, homeschooling.” I never had considered it, but I’m actually giving it more consideration as far as homeschooling for the German aspect. There’s just a lot – I don’t even know where – you’re home page is just the beginning. It tunnels and mazes, and it’s all free, and that’s the other thing. You’ve done all this amazing work to put it all together and it’s, phenomenal.

Sarah: Wow, thank you so much! That’s fantastic to hear! I did put a lot of time into it, I’m really trying to focus on the whole community aspect and figuring out what do people need, and how can I help you be successful, you know, what can I do to help you be a little bit more successful raising your kids bilingually? That’s so exciting to hear that you’re seeing that.

Veronica: Yes, and just get ideas. Part of my complaints are going from being a working person to staying at home and your brain just kind of goes, so this is one of those things to give you ideas and getting yourself in motion and then she is growing up now, so just to start thinking ahead a little bit. Even just the phrases, those are wonderful, a lot of them are there, but just to come up with a few more. Something that my mother hasn’t necessarily said or that I haven’t heard when I’ve been abroad. Or whatever it is that I haven’t come across when I’m reading. And I don’t have as much time to read anymore. To keep up with whatever’s going on in Germany, I don’t get to do that as much anymore. Graduate school was great for that, but I don’t get a chance to do that now. Now we’re looking at children’s books.

Sarah: Right, you do it in bits and pieces.

Veronica: Yes, and the CDs, I think, that’s probably that the book’s almost more for me now because I still tell her stories and all that so it’s fun to look at the pictures. But for me, too, it’s just important to have the children’s books where I know the vocabulary and just to make sure that’s all there, so later in a few years she can actually read them. But I think the CDs are also, for the oral component of it all, so she has exposure to other voices than mine.

Sarah: Do you have the book So schön wie der Mond?

Veronica: No, I don’t have it. Is that the… I think that the book I ordered was similar to that one or something. That’s the same person with the “Augen zu” right?

Sarah: Um, I don’t think so, actually, no. I will send you that book, you’re going to love it. It’s got the most beautiful illustrations. It’s a little girl, she’s got a balloon on the cover. She gets a balloon and she takes it home and her mother ties a spoon on it so it doesn’t float away and she plays with it and has tea with it, and then it flies up into the tree. And she’s very sad, but at the end of the book, she can look out the window and it looks like the moon. We were talking about beautiful books and that was the one that kind of popped into my head. It’s got a really nice story, it’s not very long, my two-year-old can even understand it, now he’s heard it a couple of times. It’s just beautifully drawn – I think it’s actually translated from Japanese.

Veronica: That sounds perfect. That’s the thing about having the beautiful books – it’s nice to have books that we can enjoy too. I mean, everyone has different tastes. You get wrapped up in the German itself, I think I’m just seeing the culture, and the history and the music. One of my other passions is music. I think that you have to know the culture and the language, it is just part of it. I want her to be exposed to it.

Sarah: Not just the grammar and vocabulary.

Veronica: Right, and I know that’s coming, but that will probably be in the next few years. We’ll see how she is with the – um – I just caught her today “Du bringst Schaf hoch.” It’s not quite English, it’s not quite German. But she’s putting the words together and I’m not concerned about that yet. And I do it just like when I was teaching, I don’t necessarily correct her, when I respond or whatever, I’ll just say it correctly. She’ll hear it enough times that she’ll get it. I’m not going to sit down and have lessons with her yet. That will be somewhere along the line.

Sarah: It’s much easier if you do it that way too.

Veronica: I guess one other thing for the website – you are so generous too, you have a link to ebay on one of your pages.

Sarah: Oh, right.

Veronica: I was thinking that if someone has some of these books and let’s say they don’t need them anymore, maybe you could start a gently used book area or something if somebody wanted to buy used books. That would be another service. That’s you know, if the kids are not crazy with their books, and they’re nice or somebody who doesn’t have the money to buy a new book they could at least be able to get the used book. I guess that’s another little chore for you to keep up with and have, but could possible be something.

Veronica: And the next thing on your website, probably trying to learn the alphabet and I think there are a couple of books that I’ve seen that really focus on that, something about letters in a tree or something like that. That looks interesting, but when I get down to actually trying to find the book that I want I can just email you or ask for your recommendation. I think that’s going to be easy to do and I’ll find something that I like. I think that they’ll be some specific books I’ll be looking for in the future. But it looks like you’ve got them all. Just try to narrow it down and see which one will be best for our situation.

Sarah: Yes, we’re also working on a whole series for learning to read, teaching kids to read and write because it seems like that is something people need pulled together for them. Because they are not going to use exactly the same stuff as they would use in Germany if they went to school but they may need something a little bit more advanced, something like a Kindergarten sort of thing. Depending on their age. We’re probably going to have some stuff – I’ve got some articles I’ve been working on for that, and I’ll try to find some books that will work out. Good stuff.

Veronica: That’s wonderful, I think it’s great that people are doing it. I mean, for me it seems second nature but for other people I think that they really do have to put even more effort into it and that’s amazing.

Sarah: Right, yes, there are people that are really spending a lot of time and really educating themselves. It’s nice if you can just open your mouth and the words come out, that’s fantastic.

Veronica: Right, that’s where I found that I was sort of just translating in my head – that’s another thing I’ve been able to find are the rhymes, I’ve got that little “Hallo Füße, Schöne Grüsse”, it has little rhymes and it’s a great little book and I’ve just copied them out of the book. Like, for example, there’s a little one on brushing teeth and she loves it! And so every time we brush our teeth now she points, she’s says, “Come on, read it” and the little one when you’re taking a bath. And those are the little things that – we go to the library hour and she hears little rhymes in English but it’s nice to have them in German, and those are ones I don’t really remember from growing up. Hoppe, hoppe Reiter, and there’s some old ones, but there’s so many new ones, somebody probably made these up and should get credit for having some great little rhymes. Partly because I was just translating in my head as I was reading the English books, but I’ve realized that sometimes I didn’t remember what an ostrich was or what some of these animals. Wouldn’t it be nice to actually read a book in German where someone else has gone to the trouble to make words rhyme? And have it sound good and make sure they’re correct. Yes, so anyway, was there anything else?

Sarah: Did you have anything that you wanted to add just as encouragement for someone who’s contemplating it or wondering if it’s going to be a lot of work to do the bilingual thing?

Veronica: Yes, I guess that sure there’s a little bit of work, but it’s been such a reward. The rewards I guess are much greater than sort of the troubles that you go through. It’s just been wonderful basically to be able to be a part of two different countries in my life. I mean, I feel completely at home in Germany and German-speaking countries, and I feel at home here.

Again, the language is just the beginning; I think you’ve got such a greater appreciation for people, for cultures, and all that once you get into language. And of course literature has always been the next step after that. There’s nothing to lose, really, and I think that’s one of the things – the great risk, are you not going to be able to, is your English not going to be good enough or this and that. But it doesn’t have to be; it will be good enough. All you’re doing is adding something.

I always use the Goethe quote, the “You don’t know your own language really until you learn a second language.” And if they get far enough along to really be going at the grammar and the different parts of speech and things. Sure, whatever, you learn that in your sixth grade English class, but how incredible to actually have gotten that from a different language. And then how much easier Latin will be or any other language you want to pick up. And it’s just fun! I think it’s just fun, and my goodness, German fairy tales, it’s all about children, they’re the ones with all those children’s stories that everybody knows about. Disneyworld wouldn’t exist without the Grimm brothers.

Sarah: That’s so true! Absolutely.

Veronica: There’s so much material. I think it would be much more difficult if we had gone with the Russian or something, to find materials. Spanish would be easier, but there’s some great stuff. You do all the work in finding the stuff for us and then we just click on a mouse and we can buy it!

Sarah: I’ll do the finding; you do the ordering. (laughs)

Veronica: That’s where you come in. For people certainly to write in and see which books they like and why, I think that’s really helpful, just to narrow it down and see what’s helpful. I guess the mini Lesemaus Bücher, I just ordered a set of those, one of your people said those have been great. We’ll just give them a try, see how they do.

Sarah: Yes, those are fun. I love those little books.

Veronica: There’s some great stuff out there.

Sarah: Very good. Well, I won’t keep you from your children any longer, I guess they’ve been very cooperative.

Veronica: Yes, they fell asleep.

Sarah: Now you can enjoy some quiet time.

Veronica: Yes, I’ll go browse the website again. I’m just really glad I came across you, and I know I came across you a few years ago but the little one was still young and I wasn’t really looking for anything seriously. But a few months back, I thought I really need to find some texts and it was pretty much your website that I was so impressed by. All the extra information.

Sarah: Well, thank you again, I really appreciate your time!

Veronica: Sure, thanks Sarah!


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2 comments to Continuing German in the Third Generation: An Interview with Veronica Dzugan

  • Wonderful story! I’m so glad you are finding resources that your son has enjoyed – let us know if you have some special requests. As for other parents raising bilingual kids with autism, I don’t know of any research. BUT, have you checked out Multilingual Living? (www.multilingualliving.org) Corey has brought together a wide variety of resources, articles and forums, so there might be something there for you. We wish you great success with “Deutsch mit Mama”!

  • Ferrel Rose

    I read this interview with great interest–so many of the resources mentioned–Eric Carle, Bobo, music, Hoppe, hoppe reiter–have done wonders for my son. When he was diagnosed with autism at age 3, there was much debate about whether to continue to raise him bilingually. At age 11 now he still has significant speech delays in English, but he continues to love and practice his German with me daily, even insisting on “Deutsch mit Mama.” I am convinced that he has better language skills in English than he otherwise would have had without the exposure to and love of a second language. I have been trying to find literature on autism and bilingualism, but none seems to be available. I’d be really interested in finding other parents who are raising kids with autism bilingually. They must be out there!

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