Bilingual play groups help keep cultural connections alive
At a Kinderstube play group, parents sing traditional children's songs and read books in German — and chat about where to find a loaf...
Seattle Times staff reporter
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At a Kinderstube play group, parents sing traditional children's songs and read books in German — and chat about where to find a loaf of good, heavy bread.
Like many play groups, parents say the gatherings are as much about adults making connections as the kids. But local bilingual play groups add a twist: Conversations are in German, Italian, French, Spanish, Japanese, Russian, Vietnamese, Mandarin or Portuguese.
"For us, it was very important to connect with other Germans," said Rüdiger Kinast, who moved to Seattle three years ago with his wife, Valerie, and children Mena, 7, and Nico, 4. They knew the benefits, since Valerie and Mena belonged to an English play group when they lived in Germany. "Being a foreigner in a country, it's good to know other people with the same issues, in the same situations."
Kids get to play without feeling like the "odd one out" for speaking a second language. "It just lets French be part of their life," said Emma Le Du of Seattle, who started a French play group about two years ago.
Bilingual family support
Corey Heller will lead a "Raising Bilingual Children" workshop for parents and caregivers, providing an overview of research on bilingual families, tips and strategies to get started and multilingual activities. 9:30 a.m.-12:30 p.m. April 21, Bellevue Community College (north campus), 10700 Northup Way, Bellevue, $29 (425-564-2263 or http://at-campus.net/bcc2/ems/ course/course.aspx?C=9183&pc= 17&mc=139&s)
Bilingual/Bicultural Family Network, www.biculturalfamily.org (also includes links to the online Multilingual Living magazine, $12)
The Bilingual Family Newsletter, $22 (www.bilingualfamilynewsletter.com )
Bilingual Families Web Page (www.nethelp.no/cindy/biling-fam.html)
Some groups plan cultural outings, make favorite dishes or celebrate holidays to share traditions. "I have a deep-rooted desire to have my children understand where their dad comes from," explained Rainer Heller, who speaks German with his three children. "And not just a touristy understanding but what the culture is really about."
Many couples attracted to the support groups are bicultural. When Corey Heller's oldest son Patrick, now 5, was born, "I couldn't find any specific support for a family like ours," said the Seattle mom. Without a shared community, "families don't know where they fit in exactly. They're between two worlds."
Corey Heller started a bilingual family support group in Seattle several years ago, which morphed into the Bilingual/Bicultural Family Network and specific language play groups. She maintains a Seattle-area mailing list with 200 families; her international list includes 800 bilingual families around the world. She's also the editor of a digital magazine, "Multilingual Living."
Bilingual play groups
Play groups are for families where at least one parent speaks the language fluently and regularly uses it with children.
Grupo de Juego, 206-694-6725
With research now trumpeting the benefits of speaking two languages — and the importance of early exposure — bilingual play groups are growing in popularity. Most limit membership to fluent speakers, rather than those learning a new language.
Many group members also speak English; these families don't face the same challenges as parents struggling to learn the country's primary language. Several parents said they feel outside the political debate over bilingual education since they're just trying to preserve a vital part of their children's heritage.
"We're big on family," said Le Du. "It's essential to me that my children be able to communicate with their grandparents."
In King County, more than a fifth of residents at least 5 years old spoke a language other than English at home, according to the U.S. Census Bureau's 2005 American Community Survey. Of those, nearly a quarter spoke Spanish. In 2005, Washington state ranked 15th in the nation by percentage of non-English speakers at home, census figures show.
The bilingual play groups vary in size; some meet at each other's homes while others gather at a library or park. Most are during the day and target parents of young children, but some, like Kinderstube, also host family evening meetings.
The Chinese play group meets weekly for songs and stories tied to a theme. "They see all the moms speaking and know, 'This is Chinese language time,' " said coordinator Bing Bing Cutter, mom to a 1-year-old son.
Some children who attend the groups are what linguists dub "passive bilingual," meaning they understand the language but don't actively speak it. At evening Kinderstube gatherings, the kids often chat in English as their parents converse in German. Many answer in English to their parents' queries in German.
During a recent visit to Germany, Seattle resident Kirsten Harris was surprised how quickly social necessity encouraged her daughter Amy, 7, to communicate in German. "But when we got back, it only lasted another two days," Harris said of Amy's fluency.
"But it's all in there," Corey Heller said.
While Heller is not a native German speaker, she knew studies show children pick up the language more strongly when both parents use it. So the family (which also includes Marie, 1, and Christoph, 3) speaks German at home, unless Corey's family or non-German friends visit. They download German TV shows from the Internet to supplement regular TV. The kids speak English at their part-time day care.
"One key factor is whether a spouse is able to understand what's going on," said Le Du, whose children are trilingual (her partner speaks Spanish). "It's much easier if there's not a break in communication — no need to translate or have someone left out."
For Heller, it's a way to maintain her love of both her husband's country and her own.
"When we lived in Germany, I missed the States and wanted to talk with other English speakers," she said. "But when we're here, I miss Germany. I'm always torn."
Stephanie Dunnewind: firstname.lastname@example.org or 206-464-2091
Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company
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