German teacher raising children to be bilingual

Jun. 08, 2013 @ 05:21 AM

On a gray-but-warm afternoon this week, Nina Propst was doing the same thing other 3-year-olds across the county were likely doing.

Freshly in from a bike ride, Nina sat in front of her parents’ television, bag of crackers in hand, watching as the typical children’s-show riot of color spread across the screen.

There was just one difference: Every line and lyric in the show was in German.

Nina’s father, Jim Propst, teaches German at West Caldwell High School. Since Nina was born, he has been teaching her German almost entirely through immersion – and he’s now doing the same with her 10-month-old sister, Brie.

More than any structured program, Nina and Brie hear German at home through everyday activities: songs and rhymes, German shows (accessed through Google TV), and plenty of conversation.

This summer, the Propsts are taking both kids out of day care so they can focus on even more immersion – playing and learning through picture books, crafts and other tools.

Propst and his wife, Gina, are raising their kids to be bilingual in the hopes of exposing them to a raft of opportunities, both now and in the future. Research has shown that bilingual people have an easier time understanding complex concepts and using logic, and develop strong emotional ties more readily. Bilingual adults also have more job opportunities and earn more money, on average.

The Propsts hope their children will be better-equipped for a globalized workforce, and better prepared to learn other languages, having already mastered two.

And the same research that trumpets the benefits of bilingualism usually comes with a caveat: It’s easier if you do it early.

Young children absorb information more quickly and completely than even their pre-teen peers, and most of the time, they do so through play and don’t even realize they’re learning. Many agree that leads to quicker, more confident learning, not as studded by hesitance and fear of failure as later learning experiences.

Jim Propst, who has taught both middle- and high-school German, has found that’s true even earlier on. Sixth-graders, he said, have by far the easiest time learning a foreign language.

“They don’t have that conception that they’re going to walk in and know the language,” he said. “They don’t even know that they’re learning it.”

That’s been the case with Nina and Brie, too.

“Exposing them young,” Gina Propst said, “it’s like they’re a sponge.”

At 3, Nina is fully bilingual – fluent in both English and German. Occasionally, she’ll speak English at home, but if her father responds to her sentence with the German word "was?" – which in English is “what?” – then she’ll switch back into German. She’ll also sometimes say things like, “I want to TV watch” – speaking English words but with German sentence structure.

Early on, Gina – who understands some German but isn’t fluent – occasionally found herself at home with a crying child speaking a foreign language. She’d call Jim and put Nina on the phone, and he’d translate and figure out what she wanted.

Now, Nina can tell the difference between who does and doesn’t speak German. She knows her dad will understand a German sentence but her mom might not. There’s one German teacher at her day care, and she knows she can speak the language to her but not the other teachers.

In addition to the other opportunities afforded by bilingualism, Jim hopes learning a second language early will give his daughters a chance to focus on other things.

“If she has both languages, she can concentrate on engineering,” he said.

“Or,” Gina chimed in, “she could be a German teacher.”