“I remember my adult students talking about a time shortly after WWI where Germans stopped speaking their native language due to negative attitudes. I’ve also heard that the notes in City Hall, which were written in German and English, switched to being written only in English at that time. These feelings were little in1929 when the German Language School at Zion Lutheran Church in Baltimore was established,” said, Eva Kelleher the principal of the school for twenty-nine years and a teacher for forty-seven years. “After WWII the negative attitudes came back. Teachers told parents not to teach their children German because it would confuse them. Fortunately, the German School remained.”
Baltimore sentiments towards bilingual and multilingual families, like much of the United States, has ebbed and flowed through the years. Today, Daniel Sturm, a German journalist and a Hamilton resident since 2002, enjoys a community where he and his wife, Angela Jancius, who is American but speaks German fluently can raise daughter, Ruby, to proudly say, “I speak three languages: English, German and Denglish.”
Charm City is home to many families searching to broaden their linguistic and cultural experience. Kami Fletcher, Assistant Professor of History at Delaware State University, and her life partner, Myron Strong, Professor of Sociology at the Community College of Baltimore County, love Baltimore City because it has made it possible for them to raise their sons, Zahir-7 and Jayvyn-9, to speak both Spanish and English even though neither of them speak Spanish. “The rest of the world speaks more than one language, so why not my kids. Spanish is global. This is a life skill,” said Fletcher. “The services we solicit are the various kids programs from Creative Alliance. For example, we went to a bilingual lantern-making workshop. As co-organizer of El Club de Lectura en Español, my sons and I attend the weekly immersion book club at the Southeast Enoch Pratt branch, where they have the largest Spanish book collection in the city.”
But not everyone has access to schools or libraries that hold their target language. Monique, who lives near the Belvedere Square area, raised her daughter to speak both English and Dutch. With all of her family back in Holland and her daughter surrounded with English, Monique depended largely on technology like Skype, Disney movies in Dutch, and ordering Dutch books online. For these families the recipe for creating a multilingual life was: desire + perseverance + an appetite for fun.
Expanding your family’s language skills can be as easy as starting your own story time at home. Keep it simple but most of all keep it fun. According to Linda Baker, Professor of Psychology at the University of Maryland Baltimore County and co-author of Becoming literate in the city: The Baltimore Early Childhood Project, a study that tracked a group of 100 children in Baltimore City over a five-year period, said, “Creating a story time at home is not about skill building. It is about parents connecting with their children around the experience of reading. Parents are building interest and motivation. They are sharing their own way of accessing story telling and reading stories.”
Are you ready? Here are tips from experts throughout the city to help you get started.
How to Create Your Own Multilingual Story Time
Create a Community. Marlyn Norton, the Children’s Librarian at the Southeast Anchor Library, suggests you gage interest through word of mouth. “Ask friends, librarians, teachers, anyone who might be interested or will point you towards resources. What you are building is not just a story time but also a long-term network of support. The time spent sharing stories will be just as important as the time playing and talking afterwards.”
Be Creative. Terry Taylor, Educational Programs Coordinator, and Lisa Crawley, Resource Center Manager at the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African-American History and Culture, which holds monthly story times and cultural events, agreed that story telling should be dynamic. They suggest parents use props, objects, musical instruments, and movement to help children connect with the stories and keep them listening. Don’t forget about your space. “Decorate the reading area to reflect your homeland or the language and culture you are aiming for.”
Use Technology. If you can’t find it in Baltimore you can find in on the Internet. Check out sites like Kid World Citizen for international pen pals; Multilingual Living for expert advise; Duo Lingo that offers free online language classes; talk with an author via Skype an Author Network; find books via the International Children’s Digital Library; track language development for 0-3 with PPOD; and visit our own Enoch Pratt Free Library which has a list of online foreign language resources.
Create Special Moments. In Eva Kheller’s experience; language learning was best acquired when parents found ways to interact with the language through simple books or beautiful picture books. Marlyn Norton picks up on children’s physical cues. “Some days we will not get through a whole book but we will sing a lot of songs.” Daniel Sturm enjoys teaching his daughter jokes in German that create an insiders feel to their language learning. Monique’s daughter would jump into her bed Sunday mornings where they would cuddle and read in Dutch. Kami Fletcher created a Spanish reading log for her son’s to read to her.
Watch & Listen. Stories are as much about reading as about telling. In her research, Professor Linda Baker found that different cultures had a range of approaches to stories, like African American culture, which has a rich history of oral story telling. Go beyond the traditional written model. Find out about your target language story telling tradition. Invite your child and others in the community to create, act out, and tell animated stories with you.