Raising bilingual kids, an interim report

When we had our kids, we swore we were going to write down everything cute or smart that they said. Every parent says this. But then they started saying so many cute and smart things and we were so busy with the actual parenting part of parenting that we just forgot. Which is unfortunate because, since we raised bilingual kids, they were saying twice as many cute and smart things, and sometimes even on purpose. But we remembered a few.

First off, we always sent them to bi-lingual daycares and schools, and we did that each-parent-exclusively-speaks-their-native-tongue method of bilingual child-rearing. Some academic has probably given it a better name but that’s what I call it: The each-parent-exclusively-speaks-their-native-tongue method of bilingual child-rearing. I spoke English to our kids and my German wife spoke German. I was, ahem, a fascist about it and never broke character. I found it difficult in small groups, like on playgrounds, because I’d be explaining something to my kids in English while some random German kid would stare at me dumbfounded. I would then translate it to German, which always felt super-pretentious.

But, like I said, I was being a fascist about it. Any time they spoke to me in German I would even say, “I don’t understand you” or the now-ridiculous sounding, “How does dad say it?” And they would always then switch to English. Because they’re the most awesome kids on the planet. Still, every time I told them I didn’t understand their German, I expected them to look at me dumbfounded and say, “Dad, I know you understand my German because I just heard you explain to that kid in German that the plastic dumptruck is mine but the pink starfish sand form was already on the playground when we got there.” But they never did. They believed us so wholeheartedly that when they wanted to tell us both something they would first say it in one language and then the other – a habit they still have as teenagers.

Truly bilingual kids

One night, I came in to find my wife and daughter sitting at the kitchen table. My daughter was about four at the time. I said something to her and she started laughing so hard that tears started to run down her cheeks. My wife and I looked at each other confused. “Mama!“ she said to my wife. „Papa spricht deutsch mit mir!” (Dad’s speaking German with me!). I’d been at the beergarden and had probably stayed a bit too long. I switched to English and we all three laughed. We’re still laughing.

Another time we were on vacation in Italy with friends who have two sons. Our friends are Croatian and American but they live in Amsterdam, which means their two sons speak Dutch, English and Croatian. Yes, fluently. Our kids understood that the two boys were multi-lingual but my daughter couldn’t understand that they didn’t speak German.

“Hey,” my wife said to her. “They’re like the kids in your daycare and speak several languages but you have to speak English to them or they won’t understand.”

“I know,” my daughter said. “Just like the kids in the daycare.” And she continued to speak German with them. The odd part was that she would always speak English to their parents. My friend’s sons are nice, caring kids but it frustrated them that they would speak English to her and she would answer in German. So they just started speaking Croatian to her.

She finally switched.

In addition to anecdotes, there were vocabulary oddities. Only recently have my kids started saying „sleepovers“. For years they just anglicized the German übernachten: Overnighting. And they still don’t own any stuffed animals — they’re all cuddle toys (Kuscheltiere). I thought more of it would disappear during two years in Portland but in addition to the cuddle toys and overnighting, they also still ask if something “tastes”. Not “tastes good” or “tastes bad”, just “tastes”. Because in German, if something “tastes” it means it tastes good – you don’t need the adjective. But if it tastes bad, you need a whole sentence – “Es schmeckt mir nicht!” (It doesn’t taste to me!). My son would also like an English equivalent of “und so weiter” (and so on) in English when he doesn’t know how to end a story. Lately he’s started saying, “and whatsoever”, which is close.

But the funniest thing he ever said was one day when I was being a goofy dad, rough housing with him. He was laughing and laughing and said, „Dad! You’re spinning!“ Because in German, acting crazy is a single verb: Spinnen as in, Papa, du spinnst!

There, now I’ve written down some of the cute and smart things my kids said.

The holy trininty of hazelnut spreads – Nutella, Nudossi & Nusspli

Thanks to the necessity of store-brand knock-offs, there are infinite numbers of chocolatey hazelnut spreads in Germany (and beyond) these days. Some are more hazelnutty, others are more chocolatey and some are just a cloying goo that begs the question of why they were ever produced (usually served at downmarket hotels and corporate breakfast buffets). But for me, only three hazelnut spreads have made it into the canon of hazelnut spreads – Nutella, Nudossi and Nusspli. The complexities of familial politics mean that only Nutella ever lands on our table but, thanks to this blogpost, we will now, for a time, also have the other two. And by “complexities” I mean “my children’s preference”. Though it rarely shows up on list of things that are über-German, Nutella is as much a part of the German experience as airing out a room, Oktoberfest and white asparagus. If there’s no hazelnut spread on the breakfast table, then you can be sure it’s not an authentic German breakfast.

Hazelnut spreads – Nutella

Nutella is the undisputed king, nay, emperor of hazelnut spreads, if only because Nutella invented Nutella, which later became known as hazelnut spreads. In post-war Europe, chocolate was hard to come by so Pietro Ferrerro threw in a little hazelnut and first created a hazelnutty loaf that his son would refine into Nutella in the ‘60s. Or at least that’s the way Nutella tells it. I first encountered Nutella on my first-ever morning in Germany and, after my first taste, wondered why anyone would ever live anywhere else. For years I thought the Germans had invented Nutella, and I acted as a Nutella evangelical. It was in my role as Nutella evangelic that I discovered a funny phenomenon – every North America Nutella lover I met thought it was invented in whatever country they first encountered it. People claimed it was invented by the French, the Danish and even the Czechs. At the time, I argued that it was invented by the Germans. Everyone was wrong!

We all now know it’s from Italy, like so many good things. Sometimes I think that country has so much goodness that they have to occasionally elect odd governments just to even out their reputation. Good on indulgence, bad in politics, or something.

Hazelnut spreads – Nudossi

For a brief period I once dated a woman who grew up in East Germany and she introduced me to Nudossi. “It’s the East German Nutella!” she said. She loved it as a kid and no other hazelnut spreads were allowed on her breakfast table. I didn’t argue, though I found it a bit oily. I’ve bought it occasionally since and didn’t think much about it. But it turns out Nudossi has an interesting post-Berlin Wall history that serves as a warning to be careful what you joke about – a lesson I wish I’d learned earlier. I once worked for a fast-growing publisher in Denver and joked during a staff meeting that we’d soon have enough people to field a softball team. Two weeks later I was on the pitching mound. My brother also once joked at a Christmas party that if his Boulder, Colorado software company wanted to expand to Europe, he was their man. He now lives in Amsterdam.

Anyway, a guy named Karl-Heinz Hartmann bought a factory in Radebeul, near Dresden, to produce Stollen (a marzipany Christmas cake) and during a press conference about his plans, a reporter asked him if the factory wasn’t the place where Nudossi had been produced. “Of course,” he said. “And it’ll be back.” He was just joking, according to Die Zeit. But he made good on the joke (like me on the softball diamond and my brother and his wooden clogs). The company has had some hiccups but is now successful – Nudossi supposedly has twice as much hazelnut as Nutella and the company even makes a non-palm-oil version.

Nudossi was first produced in 1970, if Wikipedia can be believed, again because of the lack of cacao in East Germany. Production ended temporarily in 1994 when Vadossi, its manufacturer, went bankrupt. The rights to the name were originally picked up by regional broadcaster MDR, but Hartmann was able to get them back after he made that prophetic joke.

Hazelnut spreads – Nusspli

When I was an exchange student, my host family swore by Nusspli. You would think they’d never heard of Nutella (and lord knows if back then, when the Wall was still up, if you could even get Nudossi in the West). To me, it tastes more hazelnutty. At the time, I thought this was why Nusspli was the hazelnut-spread-of-choice in their home but in researching this article I think it might be regional – Zentis, which makes the stuff, is based in Aachen and we were just a short car trip from the place. Like Nudossi, Nusspli didn’t appear until the 70s, along with Kraftwerk and the VW Golf (which was called the Rabbit in the US).

Great, now I’m hungry.