Roya Shahr-Yazdi has a German mother and an Iranian father. She was born and grew up in Berlin. Roya moved to the UK to study at the University of Reading and later the School of Oriental and African Studies in London. Altogether she lived in the UK for ten years and returned to live in Germany in 2005. Her daughter was born in Cologne in 2010. Here she talks about introducing a second language to her daughter and family life in Cologne.
When I was thirteen my parents took me on a holiday trip to Cornwall and I absolutely loved it! After that I went on several language exchange trips to the UK. Although I also studied Italian and spent some holidays in Italy perfecting my language skills when it came to deciding what to do after finishing school it was clear to me from very early on that I wanted to go to university in the UK. I started off at the University of Reading and after finishing my BA I was very happy when I got accepted to study for an MA in London.
I loved living in London as a student: the mix of people from all over the world, the city and all the cultural heritage it had to offer. London truly became my home and English still feels like my second mother tongue. At that point I envisaged myself living, working and ultimately starting a family in the UK. After my one-year MA I started a PhD and after a couple of years came to a gridlock where I just had to take a step back and I decided to take a “retreat” back in Germany. My plan was to return to London, but instead I ended up with a job at a monthly magazine in Cologne, a city which – as a born and bred Berliner – I had not visited before. That was nearly ten years ago. In between then and now I met my husband, changed jobs twice and had my daughter.
Until I was actually pregnant with my daughter I was convinced I would bring up any children of mine bilingual as I myself felt so at home with the English language. Also I grew up bilingually (German and Farsi) up to the age of 4 or 5, when I apparently stopped speaking Farsi for some reason. I don’t remember this, but I always regretted having lost the potential of growing up naturally with two languages. But while I was pregnant with Ella I realized that I could not speak English to by child. I questioned how I could speak to her in English while the rest of my life was conducted almost a hundred percent in German? It just didn’t seem right. German is my mother tongue and I didn’t want to force anything onto Ella, just because I felt I had missed out myself.
Although I never made a point of speaking English to Ella myself, speaking English has become an integral part of her life. She has a very close relationship to my good friend Helen from London, who is her godmother. And because of Helen we always had children’s books around in English. In fact I think her very first “soft toddlers’ book” was in English.
Ella started Kindergarten at the age of two. Bilingual nurseries and schools are quite common in Germany and I did find the idea of giving Ella access to my “second language” via choice of kindergarten quite appealing. In the end the choice we made was more by chance, as a place in a city-run nursery (which are heavily subsidised and cost only a low monthly fee) in our district was not available when we needed it. So we did some research, looked at a handful of different private nurseries (not state-funded and therefore much more expensive), most of which offered bilingual care. We chose Vincerola International Montessori Day Nursery because we were really convinced by the Montessori educational concept and the fact that they used the immersion method for language acquisition. This basically means half of the staff are native English speakers and the other half native German speakers, but they are all equally proficient in the other language. The teachers will always address the children in their own language. Due to this approach the children are introduced to the concept of different languages very naturally. Also the kindergarten attracts a lot of international families who live and work in Cologne. It has given Ella a natural grasp of English and a general understanding of the concept of there being different languages and cultures around.
When I first visited Vincerola I was especially intrigued by the fact that one of the classroom teachers, Achmed who comes from Egypt, is deaf and solely communicates with the children in sign language. When Ella joined the nursery interacting with Achmed was quite a challenge for her and it took her some time to understand that she needed to communicate with him in a completely different way. Four years later it’s absolutely fascinating to see how she has picked up sign language from him and many times becomes his translator when Achmed speaks to parents or other children. She has build a very close relationship with him. Achmed is a true Montessori teacher and his insights into the childrens’ development are really special as he relies much more on observation and emotional input.
Ella will start school after the summer break. There are several options for bilingual/international schools in Cologne, but in the end, we decided to send her to a Montessori Primary School. After getting to know the Montessori method we appreciate the way in which children are given their own time for learning and are stimulated by the specially prepared surroundings and materials. Also, classes are mixed-age, which we hope Ella will benefit from, as she already knows how to read and write and enjoys working with numbers. But the “sacrifice” we are making for choosing the Montessori method is moving Ella into a monolingual education system. Compliant with the German national curriculum at the Montessori school she will have two hours of English language classes each week. This will be standard language teaching rather than immersive. Unfortunately most bilingual (primary and secondary) schools in Germany are still private and therefore ask for steep fees, while state-run primary schools are free of charge and in general have a very high standard. There are some additional options though: we plan a private initiative with a couple of Ella’s friends from nursery who will also attend the Montessori school, where they have fixed afternoon activities each week with a native English speaker. This way we hope to keep her actively engaged in the language. Now we just have to figure out a way to keep her signing as well!
Cologne is Germany’s fourth largest city and offers all the culture and amenities you’d expect, but still feels pretty contained and not as overwhelming as places like Berlin or Hamburg. The city is fairly multicultural and prides itself on being very open and welcoming. An absolute regional highlight for kids and grown-ups is the Cologne Carnival. Next to the famous cathedral, several museums, theatres, the children’s’ opera, there are loads of child-specific activities, festivals, classes, indoor and outdoor playgrounds, making it a very family-friendly city. Also the countryside is “just around the corner” – half an hour car journey will take you to a plethora of outdoor and indoor attractions. Also popular with families are short trips to the Dutch beaches which can be reached in just under three hours.