How German parents in Australia nurture their children's German skills

15.03.2015 Members

Two boys are playing in the park. “I'm hungry”, says the younger one, as he stands up and runs to his mother. “Mama, kann ich einen Apfel haben?” he quietly whispers, making sure his Australian mate doesn’t hear him talking German…

Endless sun, kangaroos in the backyard, a slight smell of sizzling BBQ, and some mates over for a cuppa. It’s one thing to leave good old Germany and settle down in Australia – it’s such an easy-going country offering a high quality of life. Many Germans found their luck Down Under, and some of them found love, too. But what happens when children come into the equation? How do you pass on your German heritage, culture, and particularly your language – without denying your child the chance to integrate well into Australian society?

As a NAATI-certified German translator team, we are very interested in how German immigrants deal with this issue. So to learn more, we contacted Germans in Australia and received some very interesting replies from a total of 29 individuals and families.

For Germans who have made Australia their new home, it can be difficult at times – such as when their children frown when mum or dad talk about their childhood in Germany; about Kastanienmännchen (little figurines made from European chestnuts); extensive Easter-egg hunts; St.-Martins-Züge (Saint Martin’s parades); and private fireworks on the streets on New Year’s Eve. Often the second generation simply doesn’t develop the same relationship with Germany as their parents did, for obvious reasons. It's even trickier when only one partner in a relationship originates from Germany.

There are many reasons why children can benefit from learning German as well as English. For example, it is frequently cited in literature that bilingual children develop a better understanding of languages, have higher creativity, and better chances in the education system. However, there are some disadvantages as well. 

Most Germans in our discussion panel reported that their children learnt both languages. If one partner is Australian, the parents usually talk to the children in their respective languages. 

Amelie Häckl, 30, a police officer (in training) in Armadale (WA), tells us how her three-year-old daughter Lena tries the balancing act between the two languages – depending on the people around her, or the environment, she switches between English and German. For example, Lena only talks German at home, but in childcare she only replies in English, regardless of which language she was addressed in. Amelie assumes that her daughter prefers English, and talks German to her family out of habit.

While German-speaking parents often love to share the language with their children to deepen their relationship, this well-meaning approach might look different from the perspective of a child. The child may feel different/isolated from other children, and might be ashamed of talking a different language. We also get the impression that children often tend to have their own plans, independent of the desire of their parents – they seem to select for themselves which language they want to talk in.

Christine Spiegel, 52, co-owner-manager of Carina’s Cafeteria in South Penrith (NSW), recounts how her daughter Carina at first refused to learn German “so as to not feel isolated from other children”. They arrived in Australia when their daughter was two years old. After a half-year-long stay in Germany later in her childhood, Carina then fell in love with languages – so much so that she now not only talks German fluently, but is also completing an IB diploma with specialisation in Chinese.

Michael Stegherr, 36, a stay-at-home dad in Perth (WA) has two children (aged 5 and 1) who were both born in Australia; but they are learning no less than three languages – German, English and, thanks to his wife, Korean. Michael says that the language of his children is person-related. 

We wondered how German-speaking parents manage to pass on their language in an English-dominated environment. Several people reported that they simply speak German, and buy German books and DVDs. Some also send their children to language courses, or travel to Germany with them. 

Stefanie Först, 45, a freelance graphic designer in Mountain Creek (QLD) has her own strategy: “To make sure that my children learnt German, I've set up a German playgroup with a friend. This way I can ensure that my girl has German friends she can talk to as soon as she starts to speak.”

Looking at the feedback from our panel, most German-speaking parents tell us that German is the first language of their children; however, in a few cases, no efforts whatsoever had worked, and the children only know a few German words. Also, the majority of German parents say that they speak German at home, but English elsewhere. This is due to several reasons such as pure necessity, but also politeness towards others. 

It might be challenging and not always rewarding – but all agree that they at least give it a go. So why is it so important to pass on one’s native language? Irina Schukowski, 40, self-employed in Esperance (WA), looked into the subject at depth when she wrote and published an article about her experiences with her own two children. She gives four reasons why she thinks it is important to raise her children bilingually:

  • My children should be able to talk to their German grandparents.
  • I like to talk German. 
  • We want to pass on our German heritage (children are both German and Australian by birth).
  • It gives them more future career options.

As a multilingual team, dealing with German English translations on a daily basis, we think that, in any case, interaction with other parents or parents-to-be might be a good starting point. We can all learn from each other's thoughts, strategies and experiences, as we are all in the same boat. One thing is for sure – languages can be fun!  

Author / Contact: Maren Dammann 

02 8072 0624