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But We Don’t Speak German … Should I Send My Child to GIS?

by GIS parent alum and supporter Laurie Shertz, who's daughter Kira attended GIS from Preschool to 5th grade, graduating in 2014

You may be wondering if GIS is the school for your family if you don't speak German.

My answer: Absolutely.

We didn’t speak German either. When our daughter was three, we looked for preschools and knew having her in an immersion program was an attractive benefit. We looked at the usual suspects but didn’t even realize that tucked in an office building in Beaverton was a school that would change our family.

It turned out, we didn’t need to speak German. The teachers do, and therefore so do the children.

When we first walked into GIS, it was immediately welcoming and comfortable. Frau Williams had a pillar in the middle of her room, which she had decorated to resemble a palm tree. The large green canopy spread onto the ceiling, and a mommy monkey and baby monkey clung to their tree home. Our daughter was mesmerized. 

I took German in junior high school in the ’80s. The one time my mom took me to Germany to meet our family there, I confidently strode into the experience believing I’d be just fine. The first night in a restaurant when I almost ordered goose because I couldn’t read the menu was a big lesson in fluency and humility. I would try to send letters to my Tante Elsie, the most loving woman I’d ever met, and even she laughed at how bad my German was.

After starting school at GIS, Kira would come home singing songs in German. There were items for which she knew the German word and not the English word. Where her friend in a local preschool had a snowman winter party, Kira learned about Hanukkah, Kwanza, St. Nikolaus, and Christmas that first winter. She got to dress in costumes twice: once for Halloween and again in the spring for Fasching. She loved it. Her German grew exponentially every day. I picked up a few additional words here and there and happily exchanged “Guten Morgens” with other parents at drop-off.

Over the kindergarten Christmas break, Kira brought home a little packet intended to be fun homework to keep the kids thinking about German over the holiday. I couldn’t read the directions. Kira insisted she couldn’t either and was angry I couldn’t help her. I was disappointed.

I signed up for the adult German class at GIS on Tuesday evenings. Some of it felt familiar. Whew, what a relief. However, the nuances of learning a language as an adult were very different: suddenly, parts of speech both made sense and became important. Dative case does crazy things to German, turning feminine to masculine and masculine to a whole new world of endings. Genitive? Don’t get me started. Too many S’s for my liking.

But it was fun. And suddenly Kira and I had a secret language. Things she didn’t want to discuss in English became cool to discuss auf Deutsch. The first time we discussed going to Germany, Kira cried. Apparently, we did not adequately explain to her this funny different special thing she did at school was actually a THING everywhere in this magical land called Germany. Off we went.

My newfound German skills were again humbling, but we managed. At one store, the sales clerk asked me a question. Excuse me? She repeated herself. Embarrassed, and clueless as to what she said, I said, “Nein, Danke,” smiled, and walked away. Kira tugged on my sleeve, “Mommy, you lied. She asked if we were on vacation, and you said no, and we are on vacation.” Kira understood perfectly.

Now the game was afoot. I went to Munich for two weeks to study at Goethe Institute. By myself. For two weeks. No carpool. No one to cook for but myself, in one of the most glamorous cities in the world. In student housing that resembled a dorm room decorated by Ikea. It was heaven. And the best part? I realized that by virtue of having Goethe Institute in Munich that meant that everyone in Munich had tacitly agreed to support my German learning expedition. In stores, I was helpless. I needed a lot of help from the sales staff.

“Tell me about this fountain pen, do you prefer this brand or this one? Is peacock blue ink too much in a business setting? Must one use King’s blue?”

At the chocolate store, “The chocolate is from Switzerland? Where? When was it made? What is the percentage of cocoa? Is it organic?”

In the restaurant, “I’m not sure which to have, the spaetzle or the wurst salat, which do you recommend? Is there a German wine that might go with it?”

When I got back, much to my to my daughter’s chagrin, I spotted and corrected some errors in her German. When speaking in the past tense, if you move to do something you use the verb for “is” and if there is no movement, “to have,” as in, I was going shopping, but I have eaten dinner. Or at least roughly. Since she was still only six, she spoke by Gefühl, or the feeling of the language, not by the strict construction rules I was trying to learn.

A year later, we were itching to go back, so I did. I mailed our German family a letter. We had not spoken with them since my grandmother and aunt had died nearly five years previously. They wrote back that they would love for us to visit, and it would be at the home where my great grandfather was born. Where my great grandmother was born up the street, which is across from the church where the two were married. 

Kira walked the streets of her ancestors. She had a sense of place. And our German family? They were astonished that Kira sounded like a native German speaker and they finally understood me well enough that I no longer was teased about the terrible German of my youth.

On a train in Germany a teacher overheard Kira chatting with one of her students and asked Kira why she wasn’t in school? Kira answered that she was on vacation, but the teacher said there were no vacations in German schools at that time. Kira told her she went to school in America. The teacher looked at us wide eyed and we smiled.

Do you have to learn German to send your child to GIS? Nope. My husband didn’t. Kira really never needed my help with homework after that first kindergarten Christmas anyway. Truthfully, she probably did understand the directions just fine but didn’t want to do homework on holiday break. However, our family is all the richer for the experience. My German cousin stayed with us for two months and had an internship while exploring Portland. We have returned to Germany to visit our family several times and Kira now takes German in high school, online through a college program. She may well study abroad, at least for a semester.

That Christmas homework? It’s turned into brown paper packages, yes, tied up with strings, with our very favorite German Christmas cookies, tea, and chocolates, sent lovingly from the family with whom we have reconnected.

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