"Wind!" proclaim Al and Little L.
I smile like I always do when I hear a German-English cognate. (Nerd alert!) The words look the same, mean the same thing, but are pronounced a little differently.
This morning we have to battle the wind and rain to make it to our 10:30 appointment with Frau Z in the city. Al's speech is a bit delayed, so he visits a therapist once a week to help him make some progress. This is only our second visit and I don't want to be late. I am careful to allot about ten minutes to get out of the house and another ten minutes to walk to the bus stop. I try to get them excited about our trip so that when it's time to leave they'll be eager to put on their raincoats and boots.
"Bus sitze!" I declare.
Literally, I'm saying "bus sit," but what I mean, of course, is, "We're going to ride on the bus later." You may be wondering why I speak to the children like a two year old. Actually, I am wondering the same thing myself. I suppose the answer is two-fold. First, I'm trying to learn German, so I mimic the children's language. This attempt at language acquisition is similar to the way children generally acquire their mother tongue: by mimicking the native speakers around them. Second, when I use their language I am sure to make myself comprehensible. (Yes, I realize how silly my reasoning sounds, so feel free to scoff at me now.)
It's time to start getting them ready, so I call them to the foyer and get them dressed - in record time. They do love riding the bus.
We're out the door and walking down the street. I don't even bother opening the umbrella I've brought because the rain seems to be coming from all directions, even horizontally. We're not getting drenched, but this foul weather is making a ten minute walk seem like eternity.
"Jacke nass," observes Little L.
"Ja, jacke nass," I confirm. Good lord, what's become of me? Have I forgotten how to use verbs? No, blame it on the fact that I forget that jacke is a feminine noun, which affects the way I say "your," so I can't properly say, "Yes, your jacket is wet." I mean, I don't want to say it incorrectly and then have the children start saying it incorrectly. Yeah, saying "jacket wet" is a much better option.
We arrive at Frau Z's office and she immediately sits us down to begin the opening song. Next, she begins to lay down wooden train tracks with Al, offering me commentary along the way. She explains how she helps him solve problems, varies her language, and adds gestures to her instructions - all things I, too, can do with Al.
Then she gives me some advice that makes my day - how to tackle what I call "the third person problem." It's something that anyone who cares for a child must do: refer to oneself in the third person. I cringe every time I do it, but I do it because pronouns can be very complicated for young children. Babies and toddlers need you to refer to yourself as Mommy, so they know that you're "Mommy" and not the "I" pronoun. When it comes to preschoolers, however, it's important to start introducing pronouns, so the children can hear how they are used correctly in conversation. You should never force a child to use pronouns because they will naturally incorporate them into their repertoire in the same way they acquired other nouns.
Frau Z suggests I alternate between saying the pronoun with the third-person reference and just the pronoun. When introducing the pronouns, it's important to make eye contact as well as use gestures. Thus, I can point to myself and say: "I, Amanda, will be in the kitchen cooking" or "I need to cook dinner." I should also do the same when I have a request for the children. "Can you, Little L, help me, please?" Yes! I have the green light to cut that silly third person problem out of my life!
Finally, and by far the best piece of advice she gives me, Frau Z tells me I must to stick to one language: English! She says that from now on I am to see myself as the English language model for the children. They can answer me in either language or a mix of both, but I am to speak to them only in English. She explains that young children relate the concept of language to the people in their lives. If I am mixing the two languages, I will only confuse them.
I leave the session energized and ready to take on my new role. I'm also overcome with a huge sense of responsibility. As the children's au pair, I am a significant influence in their lives. Now, I am more careful about how I speak and conscious of every word choice.
As for how I will ever learn German, I will get there eventually. I mean, who was I kidding hitching my wagon to a pair of preschoolers? Of course, I will continue to learn from them, as they always speak to me in Swiss-German (with a token word in English here and there). But, I'll leave the teaching to Klubschule Migros and the book I borrowed from the library "Assimil: German with ease." For now, I'll practice my two-word sentences with shop clerks and my husband.
Photo credit: Verkehrsbetrieben Schaffhausen http://www.vbsh.ch/
(I can't tell for sure, but I think this is a photo of the #5 bus we take into the city...)