Being a German-learner in Germany, you want German immersion; you want to be in the thick of it. But you also need that level of German immersion that makes it comprehensible, so you’re not drowning. And when you’re socialising with adults this isn’t always easy. And if your gracious German host sees you struggling, they will probably switch to English, pulling you out of ‘the water’ completely.
What should I do?
I discovered the alternative, as long as you are of a generation where your German friends have started having children…
Yes, German children are a fantastic resource for the German learner, for a number of reasons. I’ll touch on two case studies here: the inquisitive one-year-old, and the precocious five-year-old.
One set of German friends has an inquisitive one-year-old. Sure, she doesn’t know much German herself. (Or English for that matter … so there’s no risk of being pulled out of the immersion tank there.) But, what you have here is a willing listener. So, become the babysitter of the moment, and decide that you are the GERMAN babysitter.
You are only going to speak German to the child. This is great because the types of things we normally say to a one-year-old are pretty simple things anyway. ‘How are you?’ ‘What is this?’ ‘Here we go!’ You play with the child and just keep running through those forms. Change the pronouns. Point at things a lot. Explain what’s going on simply. As long as you keep it fun, they are going to love it, the parents get a bit of a break to socialise, and you can keep drilling set phrases repetition after repetition after repetition.
One-year-olds just don’t get bored of this. They may get hungry. Or tired. Or … needing a nappy change. But then it’s time to hand them back… That’s not your department. You’ll both get plenty out of it before this happens anyway.
Move forward with your German
If you run out of drills to go through before a hand-back is required, there’s something else you can do. This one-year-old is probably going to have a whole shelf full of books in German that you can probably read. Read about the seasons, a train, or a book on farm animals. Point out the things to your child. If you get stuck on something, ask a German adult for some input. They’ll tend to think it’s great fun and stay in German to respond.
Next, there’s the precocious five-year-old. These kids also have plenty of stamina for chatter. Get ready for some great comprehensible input. Most children around this age have already started learning English, and they are going to be fascinated by someone who speaks only English. They can look at you with a kind of curious intensity as if you are a different species altogether. If you are in a situation where the adult you are paired off with can’t speak much English, and you’ve pretty much run dry of small talk you can manage, switch to the child. Ask them some of those introductory questions, and all the hobby-interest questions you covered early on. They love to talk about themselves and what they like and what they don’t like … much more than adults do.
In their excitement, they might talk a bit too quickly, but ask them to slow down and even that becomes a game.
Talking of games, they will often be quite used to games from learning simple English. For example, I spent over an hour doing what amounted to a language-exchange by simply playing ‘What’s that animal?’ The five-year-old would start giving me attributes of an animal in German (colour, size, how many legs…) and I would have to try and work it out. Sometimes, you realise what the animal is, but you don’t know the German word for it, so you just try and describe more attributes until it’s obvious you know it, and then she tells you the German word. Then I’d do the same in English for her.
The parents might try to apologise for their children occupying you like this, so let them know just how useful they are being for you, and maybe get them a Kinder Überraschung as a thank you.
It’s a win-win situation for everyone: great for your German immersion, and a great way to help your very helpful German friends at the same time … and put some smiles on some little faces.
Written by Jeremy Davis