Multilingual family: The challenges and how we're addressing them (or not)

Credit: Martin Vorel via Pixabay

As a multilingual family following the one-person-one-language (OPOL) approach, we are happy to celebrate any success. But there are certainly some challenges in our set-up. Here they are, and what we're doing to try to address them (or not). 

The challenges

These are the challenges we're facing right now.

☑ Not having a family language

This is especially tough for poor Papa, as he doesn't understand any Japanese, whereas I understand enough basic German to follow his conversations with the kids. Fortunately, Husband is dedicated to the cause and so he's bravely sticking to our OPOL set-up.

With Engineer, it's not a problem; he's picked up enough German that he happily converses with Papa and only turns to me when he's really stuck for a word:

  1. Engineer to me in Japanese: "Mama, how do you say xyz in German?"
  2. Me to Husband in English: "How do you say xyz in German?"
  3. Husband to Engineer in German: "Oh you want to say xyz?"

But for whatever reason, Tigerlily doesn't have as much German at command, so lately she just turns to me and says "Mama, can you tell Papa this?"

It's increasingly problematic as a family as the children grow and want to talk about more sophisticated things...but we can only keep trying!

☑ Needing more exposure to German

Both Husband and I want our kids to have more German. But the reality is that Husband is going to be at work until relatively late every evening and the kids will see him at dinner if they are lucky; otherwise at bedtime. Plus weekends. We have to work within this constraint.

☑ Reading and writing!

This is a big one. We'd like the kids to eventually move to international school (Japanese schools usually only go up to 9th grade overseas, when compulsory education ends), preferably at a German school, so they do need to learn to read and write in German or English.

Without consciously setting aside time and some kind of routine to work on it, there's little chance that the kids will be able to practice reading and especially writing.

What we're trying to do

So these are our attempts to address these challenges.

☑ Limiting screen time to German programming

Tigerlily and Entropy love screen time, so we are requiring that they only watch German videos to expose them to more German.

It's passive exposure, which is far from ideal and with questionable effectiveness, but we're hoping it's better than nothing. Maybe it will at least solidify the words that the kids already know...?

Plus, I think it can be interesting to see customs and lifestyles that may be typical/normal for the West, but not so in Thailand (or Japan)—even simple things like the color of taxis!

Here's the list of media that I'm working from. At the moment, I'm particularly liking the simplicity of the German in Caillou for the 4-y.o.

We're also trying a language learning app that seems to be helping Entropy learn some words like the colors.

☑ Making use of German podcasts

In an attempt to make use of the time we spend sitting in cars, I searched for German podcasts for kids to play while we're in traffic. The older kids' favorite is Lach Labor from Bayerischer Rundfunk's radioMicro. (See my media list for a few more podcast ideas.)

Again, it's passive exposure. While it might require a bit more concentration than watching videos, we're not sure what effect it's having.

☑ Husband regularly spending time with each child with teaching materials

After some research, Husband bought the Lesen und Rechtschreiben lernen kit and lately he's trying to use it more consistently with each child...even if bedtime is the only opportunity he has.

Currently, he does (more or less):
  • 5 minutes with the 4-y.o. in identifying 2-3 single letters/sounds and colors
  • 10 min. with the reluctant 8-y.o. in reading consonant-vowel pairs
  • 15+ min. with the 10-y.o. (who's actually interested in German), reading paragraphs and short stories
Or, Husband reads books to the kids with some child participation. For the beginner, the Lesenlernen in 3 Schritten (Loewe) seem to engage even Tigerlily; I love that the first step is for the kids to say out the words when pictures appear in the middle of the sentence, hence building vocabulary.

We'll see how Tigerlily does when she actually has to start reading some words...

Engineer (now 10) is doing fine with the reading, impressing us all, and Husband attempted dictation with him for the first time (using the Lesen and Rechtschreinben lernen materials). Much to our amazement, Engineer could write the simple sentences almost perfectly! So there's great promise on that front.

☑ German at meal times

One evening Husband suddenly declared that we were going to speak German at the dinner table. Which is a great idea (thanks for the advance notice...), as long as he is there. 

When at the table, I try my best to cooperate by also speaking to Husband in my poor German. While my feeble contribution is certainly not teaching the kids any German skills (and usually parents who aren't fluent are told they're better off not trying to speak the language!), I'm hoping to promote the environment of a family mealtime language. And, just maybe, discouraged Tigerlily will be motivated to demonstrate how she can do better than me :p ...although she's yet to take any notice...

As I write this post, it becomes clear to me that the most effective approach is, hands down, Papa spending time and practicing reading/writing with each child on a regular (as much as possible) basis. There's just no getting around it. 

It only serves to underscore how interaction is needed, and that one parent's effort can have an impact on kids' language skills. 

Maybe I should shift my focus away from trying to fill in where Husband isn't around and become more of a cheerleader to encourage Husband to keep it up!

Resources mentioned


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