I’d been living in Germany for about two years — stumbling through the language in classrooms, with private tutors, and at several internships — when I figured I was ready for the next step. I needed somewhere I could practice German without feeling like I was being judged. I needed to speak without being tested, make mistakes without being graded. If fear of embarrassment was what was holding me back, I reasoned, I needed to learn from the only native German speakers who might actually know less German than I did. That’s when I figured out the perfect way to accomplish all of this: I would become a babysitter.
Okay, that isn’t exactly how it happened. But at the time, it seemed like a stroke of genius. A friend of mine had been babysitting for a German family for a year and wanted me to take over. She invited me to hang out on the playground with her two little girls, and I was charmed in seconds. It’s a good thing their mother didn’t ask whether I’d had any past babysitting experience, though, because I hadn’t. She saw this as a chance for me to teach her daughters English without their noticing, and I saw it as a chance to escape the classroom.
Being a beginner in a new language is like tapping into some version of your inner child. So, I reasoned, it certainly wouldn’t hurt to have some actual children around to help. Maybe it’s because children react to their mistakes with curiosity instead of shame. Or because your vocabulary is so limited as a beginner, you’re all but restricted to playing charades or donning silly hats to get your point across in the classroom. Or maybe it’s because children have no preconceived idea of what a perfect sentence should look like; they’re making it up as they go along, so they don’t mind if you do, too.
Hedda and Smilla, who were about three and five years old when I began looking after them, came with only a few minor parental rules: I was to pick them up from Kita (short for “kindergarten,” or daycare in German) a couple of times a week, and take them to the nearby playground if the weather was nice. I was to buy them an ice cream or a treat only if their parents explicitly allowed it beforehand. Most important, I was not to let on, under any circumstances, that I spoke any German. That way, they would accept that in order to communicate with me, they would need to use English.
This, as you can imagine, was haphazard at first, as I spoke mostly in English and they responded largely in German. But slowly, surely, over several months together, they began to develop a hybrid language. First it was “Denglish” – a confusing but adorable mix of “Deutsch” and “English.” Then, finally, full English phrases emerged, which I coaxed out of them patiently. They were learning a second language without even thinking about it and, I realized, so was I.
Playgrounds were one thing, but classrooms were another matter, as I’d have to maneuver speaking English to the girls while addressing teachers or other parents in German. But somehow, they never seemed to catch on to this contradiction. They patiently explained to their teachers that I only spoke English since I was an Amerikanerin (here, they often glanced at me with a pitying look). The teachers, who had just spoken several sentences with me in halfway decent German as the girls gathered their things, would cheerfully play along. On the playground I’d pick up bits of colloquial German just from hearing parents encourage their kids up a ladder or onto a seesaw, and I learned the words for slide (Rutsche) and swings (Schaukeln) as the two girls pulled me over to each and demanded to be pushed or chased or caught.
Still, my victories were fleeting. The girls seemed to catch on to certain things one week and lose them again the next. No sooner had I taught them how to count from one to ten in English than they were jumping from five to thirteen. They giggled at just about everything they did, though, so I could never tell whether they were trying to mess with me. But their adorable mistakes, intentional or not, showed me that language learning doesn’t have to be linear. What’s more, their delight at these newfangled words I was teaching them made me realize why it’s crucial to laugh at yourself when you’re first learning a language. To these two sisters, language learning was a game every bit as exhilarating as clambering over monkey bars.
After a while, I began speaking German openly to everyone else around us, but still addressing the girls in English. Instead of calling this out, they simply accepted the strange logic of this new game and we continued on as before.
There were moments of frustration as well. No one knows how to take you down a peg quite like a child can. One afternoon, I found myself sitting at a long, chaotic crafts table, surrounded by sequins and glue while waiting for Hedda, the older sister, to get ready to leave daycare. I was trying to make idle conversation with a bunch of her classmates as they pasted stickers onto construction paper, when the girl directly to my left sized me up, paused, and then said to me, deadpan, Du kannst nicht so gut Deutsch, aber deine Haare sind schön. (“Your German isn’t very good, but your hair is pretty.”)
It was exactly the kind of cutting, off-handed remark that would have felt rude coming from an adult. Coming from a child, however, it was hilarious. At the time I wanted to reply, “Well, my German is a lot better than your nonexistent English,” but instead I smiled, remained silent, and instead, told every friend I had about the encounter.
It says a lot that, seven or eight years later, I still remember this moment and this sentence, word for word. In the years to come I would improve my German by working at a travel agency, a medical technology company and a publishing house. I would meet, marry and eventually divorce a German whose family spoke not a word of English, and I would travel to many small towns across the country with new dialects I’d have to puzzle my way through. In short, my German got pretty good, and my hair, I have to say, was still doing pretty well too.
I’m back in New York City now, where I moved from Berlin three and a half years ago, and I still think of those two little girls often. I liked how nothing felt insurmountable to them because nothing felt all that serious, and I try to put myself in their heads whenever I’m picking up a new skill and feeling discouraged by my own mediocrity. Learning becomes less difficult in direct proportion to how much more fun you’re having, and Hedda and Smilla made it fun for all three of us to learn languages.
I’ll bet they speak fluent English by now.
This article is part of a series commissioned and paid for by Babbel, but it represents the journalist’s views. It was edited by Michelle No and Steph Koyfman.