Meerschweinchen und glückliche Fahrt

March 10, 2009, 11:16 AM ·

Last spring I played Beethoven's "Meeresstille und glückliche Fahrt" Op. 112,  with the Arlington Philharmonic.  I was carrying the music with me and the kids saw it briefly.  "Meerschweinchen?"  they asked.  "What's that about a Meerschweinchen?"  Meerschweinchen is the German word for guinea pig.  As in, we have two of them living in our basement.  And when both my kids were younger, in a hopeful attempt to teach them some German, I used to read them this book, Ich bin das kleine Meerschweinchen by Amrei Fechner.

"What does this have to do with a violin blog?" one might reasonably ask.  Well, like everything else about the violin, it all seems to come down to practicing, one way or another.  I started making a deal with my daughter:  some days I would clean the guinea pig cages while she practiced her violin.  The cages are in the basement directly under the rec room, so I (and they) can hear her practice through the ceiling.  I can verify she is doing what she is supposed to be doing while I'm scooping the you-know-what.  My husband thinks I have the raw end of the deal, but I usually don't think so.  I kind of enjoy doing something mindless for 20 minutes, communing with the guinea pigs while being serenaded by "Sitka City."  And I want her to practice without me, to take charge of the journey.

It's possible the whole rewards-for-practice concept is getting a little out of hand, though.  I've read research that points out that if kids get rewarded for everything they do, they may never develop the necessary internal motivation.  I agree that's something to think about.  The issue I wrestle with is that some people don't seem to develop internal motivation no matter what their parents do or did.  Or they develop it on their own schedule according to their own plan, again relatively free of outside influence.  It's called "internal" motivation for a reason.  And while you're waiting for it, you might as well be doing something useful as not.

While I engage in the endless search for violin practice motivators, my (German) husband has been engaged in a parallel search for German language practice motivators.  When we were first married, we had this dream of raising our kids to be bilingual.  I thought this would be nice for them based on my own experience learning German.  Although my ancestors immigrated to the USA from Germany in the 1800's, the language had been completely lost to the Allendoerfer family by the time my brother and I were born in the 1960's and 70's.  Typical monolingual American suburban kids, we had to learn it in school, and had a difficult time when we lived in Berlin for a year during a sabbatical of my father's.  While I did enjoy and got a lot (including, ultimately, my husband) out of the cultural experience of learning a foreign language as a teen and young adult,  it isn't the same as being a native speaker.

However, even with a native speaker or two in the house, it was never as easy as it looked from the outside.  When the subject of bilingual kids came up, well-meaning people would ask, "do you speak German at home?"  and it got to the point where I'd want to invite them over to my house and give them an earful of what I got when I tried to do that:  Why do we have to speak German?  We don't know anyone else who speaks German!  And the killer:  It's boooor-ing!  (In English, of course).

Still the violin practicing, with reward scheme in place, had been (slowly) yielding results.  And then my daughter came up with the next idea on her own.  She wants her ears pierced.  She's been talking about it for ages, even longer than she talked about the guinea pigs before we got them.  Then another friend got her ears pierced over the weekend, and that was the last straw.  She's now willing to speak German every day for 2 months if she can get her ears pierced.  

This morning at breakfast there was a lot of talk about Meerschweinchen, since they are having trouble coming up with new words easily, but they are making a good faith effort.  The words Geige and Bratsche are also getting more use than they ever have before.  And, down below, the guinea pigs are listening to their daily concert.


March 10, 2009 at 06:41 PM ·

Good luck trying to get your kids to speak German.  I spoke nothing but French to mine from birth, and they invariably answered in English, although they understand quite well.  I did not push them to respond in French.  The "Aha" moment came when my 22 year old daughter told me about six months ago that she wanted to communicate with me in French exclusively and asked why I did not force her brother and her to respond in French when they were kids.  Go figure!

March 10, 2009 at 08:17 PM ·


I have a Japanese friend who is fluent in English.  She decided her kid was going to be bilingual so she spoke exclusively English and her husband Japanese to the child.   The little girl became one of the most blanced bilingulas I ever met.    It was sheer hell for the mther. Language wa snot a problem as she was near native speake rlevel,  but young Japanese mothers are often extremely distrustful and unpleasant to anything differnet intruding on their group.  Thus my friend was subject t a great dela of bullying from so called `adults.`   When the child urned five she rejected speaking English because it made her differnet t everyone else.

The closest to 50/50 bilingual I met was a Spanish lady who I wa sconvinced wa sEnglsih for a long time....  She told me that her languages are so evenly matched thta when she wakes up in the mornign her barin cannot decide which to use and she is literally froan mentall for or a minute or so until one circuit decides it will take the lead...



PS is Farht anything to do with prunes? 

March 10, 2009 at 08:26 PM ·

Buri, Only if you eat them while driving. :-)

Karen, Ich finde es echt cool, dass Sie versuchen, mit Ihrem Kindern Deutsch zu reden..... they are very lucky to have such an opportunity, even if they don't realize it now.  What I wouldn't give to have had a similar opportunity while growing up, and how much better my German would be now! Give them a couple of years and they will appreciate it more.  Until then, good luck with the motivation for both German and violin.

March 11, 2009 at 02:28 AM ·

BTW, isn't the Beethoven underappreciated?  We had such fun singing it with Sinfonia da Camera.

March 11, 2009 at 11:42 AM ·

I can imagine it is fun to sing, and it is beautiful to listen to, but the violin part is actually not all that exciting. 

March 11, 2009 at 11:38 AM ·

My Mom knows Russian, and when we were little, she taught us simple things like the animal names.  She didn't push it, and I never studied it myself.  I still remember "kot" and "belka" though!

Also, I gather that most Old Country German was dropped by US immigrants during WW1, due to huge (understandable) social pressures.

Cute guinea pigs...

March 11, 2009 at 01:40 PM ·

Yes, you're absolutely right about the WWI events.  My mother's mother was #6 of 12 kids in a German immigrant family.  Her older brothers spoke German but by the time she was born (in 1917), the family established a policy of speaking English only in their household, so that's how she grew up.

March 11, 2009 at 02:30 PM ·

Dropping the native language has tended to be true of all immigrant groups, not just Germans.  The children, in particular, let it go, but adults tend to also unless they are quite old.  WWI, of course, gave the German-Americans (and some Jews) very good reasons to stop speaking any German.  But, the kids would have in any event just due the melting pot pressure here.

March 11, 2009 at 04:19 PM ·

You're right, I had friends in high school who complained about having to go to Chinese school; we have friends now who spoke only Tamil to their daughter for the first 5 years of her life but when she got to school she announced she wasn't going to speak Tamil anymore, only English.  It happens across ethnic groups.  But my grandmother remembered her parents making a conscious decision to eliminate German, even at home, because of larger societal pressures; it didn't just come from the kids wanting to fit in with their friends socially.

Nowadays, like music education, a second language may not be truly appreciated by some kids until they reach college age, but I think it will be then.

March 11, 2009 at 04:59 PM ·

Sure took my daughter long enough, but her reaction was more than I had anticipated.

My experience with the immigrants in my family (only one of whom I ever knew at all) and the Jewish community generally, is that the langauge of the old country, whether Yiddish, or in the case of my ancestors, Hungarian or German, was used by the immigrant generation when they did not want the next generation to understand something.  Otherwise, it was discarded in favor of learning English.

March 11, 2009 at 07:43 PM ·

Karen - firstly, do guinea pigs like violin music?  Wondering if they react in any way... disturbed squeaking perhaps!?

Secondly I have a guaranteed tip for getting your daughter interested in learning more German and actually using it.  If I were you I'd get online and go looking for some German kids tv programmes DVDs and books.  Then you can for example say:  "Heute, sprechen wir nur auf deutsch!"  Do cool things like watch DVDs in German, help them understand what's going on, (best with German subtitles of course) read a page of a simple German children's book, maybe make a German recipe with the kids helping and you giving them instructions in German...  No English allowed unless it is a real emergency.  If they don't understand something at first, one just repeats it more slowly, or explains in even simpler German, or acts the sentence out in German!  It really works and can be hilariously funny.

This is a cute German site for kids - very well known children's tv programme and maybe you could help them (they sell loads of stuff too...)

I did not learn German at school but other "life factors" meant that I decided in my early 20s that I HAD to become fluent in German.  My lessons from a native German speaker were conducted ONLY in German right from the very start, no English whatsoever.  I later went over to Germany and stayed with a German family, again, only German spoken.  It really was the best way to learn and I am now pretty fluent in the language, I can read German news websites, understand German TV etc which keeps me in trim for when I need to use the language practically in a native speaker environment.   My teacher always said that she would prefer me to have loads of vocabulary and feel happy about simply opening my mouth and speaking German, than to agonise for weeks over specific grammar points and I have to say that has worked well for me as the grammar seemed to come more naturally in that way.

I think if you make learning fun (like violin playing!) then children will realise how cool it is for them to speak another language.  You seem to have contacts in Germany, so perhaps promise them that if they work really hard, when they are old enough they can go and live there for a few weeks over the summer...

March 11, 2009 at 10:02 PM ·

When I was born my mother spoke very little English and everybody from her side of the family spoke none at all so I was forced to understand and respond in Japanese to them (and in English to my father's side of the family).  I also have friends who are bilingual because their parents were immigrants from China, Taiwan, or Korea and similarly spoke to them exclusively in another language.  We all have odd peculiarities in the way we speak the second language though...for example I've picked up my grandfather's hill-billy accent (and "talk like an old person"?) and one of my friends apparently uses feminine phrases in his Chinese. 

In my friends' families where both parents spoke English, even where both of them also spoke a second laguage, the children can't really speak or understand the second language very well.  Probably getting your kids interested in German now would require getting them really into something that's only possible in German.  I remember my mother would read books to me a nightly when I was young, but I was always frustrated that she'd stop at horrible places (the middle of a chapter or wherever she got tired) and I started reading them on my own. 

March 11, 2009 at 10:46 PM ·

Yes languages are easy to lose! I am very lucky to have had my english grand-mother as a babysitter when I was young!  Many of my fellow Quebekers who do not have contact with english people are not even able to speak or write despite a few poor compulsory english lessons at school! Listen to the english programs and of course is a big motivation to improve my english!  I can speak to say everything I want in english but if you would here me speak, you would all burst out laughing because my french accent is terrible.  I speak with a over articulated english because french is a very articulated language like spanish or Italian (many R's)!  One funny thing though, when I was little, I have always said Da (like in russian but we did not know any russians) instead of yes!   I was very stuburn and I stoped when the other kids laughted of me at school!   Any meaning to this?  I just think Da is more of a natural sound for a baby than oui!

CUTE GUINEA PIGS! ADORABLE!  You can always post them to me if you get sick of them!  They will be like at home since I will play violin for them... lol


March 11, 2009 at 11:13 PM ·

My sister married an Austrian, so she had the opposite problem - getting her kids to speak English!  1 month per summer at grandmother's cured that - they HAD to speak the language, and even more so, to play with local children.  The two oldest are quite good in English, and the youngest is O.K., but not as good as the two oldest.

On practicing the violin - until my daughter was a freshman in high school, I'd play with her.  Once she was in 7th grade, I made practicing fun by getting the other part from the conductor (if she was playing 2nd violin, I got the 1st part), and vice-versa.   Now she is quite motivated and practices on her own.

March 12, 2009 at 08:57 AM ·

Anne-Marie, do you want the gray and white one?  She's kind of a psycho . . .

The brown and black one is cute, and friendly--coos and cuddles and likes to be held.  But the other one is very high strung and runs around the basement in circles when we let her out of the cage.  She also nips.

It's still too cold for them to go outside in a run, but I think they'll like that when the snow is finally gone.

March 12, 2009 at 09:00 AM ·

Rosalind, they actually don't seem to notice the violin/viola music that much.  It's not very loud through the ceiling.  They usually do squeak excitedly when someone comes downstairs no matter what.  The prospect of hay to eat is more exciting than music, I think.

We have movies, books, computer games, videos, in German--gifts from my father in law and a few of our former (German) au pairs.  There was a period of the kids watching Barbie Schwanensee and Barbie Princess and the Pauper in German, but my daughter has outgrown that, and my son is now old enough he wouldn't be caught dead watching Barbie anything, either.  For him, Star Wars would be something he'd be excited to watch in German.  The German characters, like "die Maus" and Pumuckl, seem to be hard for them to get into for some reason.  The cultural differences play a larger role than one might expect. 

I learned to speak German (what I can) in college.  I took an intensive course and I worked in a lab in Essen during the summer.  I lived with a German family.  I finally started to dream in German and think in it during that summer.  My accent is not too bad, except I have the American "r".  And I only speak Hochdeutch, I can't speak (or understand) Swiss or even Bavarian.  But it's been >20 years and I've lost a lot of that.  Even my husband, who is a native German speaker, tends to find English easier nowadays.  He has a German colleague at work, and when they're at work (software engineering) they speak English to each other because all the work vocabulary they need is there in English.

That's the dirty little secret, I guess.  In order to really keep the kids motivated to speak another language, the adults also have to do it!  I referred to cleaning the Meerschweinchen cages as "die Kaefig putzen" and my husband laughed because that wasn't right.  I wasn't actually scrubbing them, I was just scooping them out.  Which is not "putzen," but "sauber machen."

I was just thinking, the rules state that postings to the site should be in English, so thanks Laurie for not making me change the title!

March 12, 2009 at 12:21 PM ·

Your Guinea pigs are cute. 

About raising bilingual kids, you have to use the language daily.  Speak German at home, when you're out shopping, etc.  I would also suggest they start reading (easy to start with) children's books in German and progress to writing the language.   Keep them reading/writing/speaking the language onto adulthood.  If they stop using it, they'll lose it.

Another reason to get serious about attending four year colleges are required to have four years of a foreign language in high school.   You'll be giving them an advantage and they may be able to test out of beginning German courses.  But they need to speak, read and write it.  Have fun!

March 12, 2009 at 02:29 PM ·

Guten Tag,

Plse do not give up.  I speak English at home, and my husband speaks French.  Both my kids are going to French school (because of our laws)  My daughter did not want to speak English , but around 16, she suddenly spoke English to me.  She started working, most , well all her friends are anglophone.  And you know what, she speaks English very well.  So do ot give up.  Kids learn, if they are exposed, they just learn.  Lucky them!

Good luck! Auf Wiedershen


March 12, 2009 at 07:58 PM ·

Oh, I'll take anyone ! (joke)     They are so cute!


March 13, 2009 at 02:23 AM ·


You might consider combining studying German with music.  Many of the urtext versions I have have introductions and critical commentary in German.  I also have several editions of music where the notations are in German rather than Italian. 

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