German: Our Family’s Lost Language

German

“H, E, N, N, I, G… no, not HenniNg!
I’ll spell it again for you: H, E, N, N, I, G!”

I must have said the sentences above no less than 1,000 times in my lifetime.  Nine out of ten times when I spell my maiden name, which is now my middle name, to an English speaker, Hennig becomes a verb and it is turned into HenniNg.  It is not any easier when I say it to a Spanish speaker because the “G” at the end of it ends up sounding more like a “K” leading to all kinds of other confusion.   Yet when I say it to a German speaker, he or she knows exactly how to spell it and with a perked up face typically says something along the lines of: “That’s a German last name!”  And they are right, it is!

My father spotted this truck with our last name while we visited Cologne, Germany

My father spotted this truck with our last name while we visited Cologne, Germany

Even though all four of my grandparents were born in Venezuela, they all have European roots.  My mother’s side of the family hails from the Canary Islands in Spain, while my father’s parents are of German descent.  They were both born in Venezuela‘s southeastern Bolívar State, home to the world famous Angel Falls.  Their families made the trek from Germany in the late 1800s to the Guayana region looking for a better future.  In those days, Venezuela had an immense amount of natural resources, including gemstones, and many Germans moved to the region in search of diamonds.

Venezuela has deeper German roots than many would guess.  The Colonia Tovar, for example, is a town in Venezuela founded in 1843 by a group of immigrants from the then state of Baden which has maintained its German charm through the decades and is often referred to as the “Germany of the Caribbean.”

The Colonia Tovar was one of my favorite places to visit as a child

The Colonia Tovar was one of my favorite places to visit as a child

 

Despite growing up in strong immigrant German communities, neither of my grandparents ever learned the language.  I know later in life they regretted this fact and often times told us, their grandchildren, that they hope maybe one day we would.

My father (first on the left) and his family. My grandparents are the couple on the right.

My father (first on the left) and his family. My grandparents are the couple on the right.

My first opportunity to make it up to my grandparents came while I was in elementary school.  My family moved to the capital of the country, Caracas, and found a German immersion school that my sister and I could attend.  Since my sister would be enrolling in the first grade, there was no language requirement for her.  However, I would be starting in the third grade and would have to somehow make up for two full school years of language content.  The staff suggested I study German over the summer and take a language test at the beginning of the school year so that they could gauge my language progress.  My parents did not feel right taking my summer away at such a young age especially since there was no guarantee that I would be accepted into the school.  Instead, they opted to enroll us in one of the many other great schools the city had to offer.

My second chance came when I started high school in the United States.  My school offered three language options, Spanish, French and German.  Taking a Spanish class was out of the question of course since I was still learning English!  The choice came down to learning French or learning German.  I have to admit that I was seduced by the sound of French and turned my back on one of my heritage languages.

As they say, third time is the charm and my third opportunity came almost 20 years later.  My husband, Todd, was selected for the scientist exchange program that led us to our move to Germany.  As soon as the opportunity came up, I knew that this would be my chance to make things right.  My grandparents were, unfortunately, no longer around and so I could not celebrate the news with them.  But I know they were with me as I devoured through books, language software, classes and anything I could get my hands on to learn as much German as I could.  Living their dream was undoubtedly my motivation to learn our family’s lost language.

Showing my father our German town, Bad Herrenalb

Showing my father our German town, Bad Herrenalb

We chose a small town in Germany where hardly any English was spoken to immerse ourselves in the culture and the language.  Our daughter attended a German preschool so that she could also be exposed to this additional family language.  We explored and visited over 50 cities all over the country and I can proudly say that we made the absolute best of our time in Germany.

But here is the question we are now facing as a family… will we let history repeat itself?  Will German be lost once again as a family language?  My daughter and I learned quite a bit of German over this past year yet we hardly use it anymore.  We still communicate to each other in Spanish and the opportunities to put our German language skills into use are basically non-existant.  We came back home with plenty of intentions to keep exposing her to German speakers but between preschool, full time jobs and a growing family this is proving to be much harder.  Todd and I have not given up hope just yet and have a few tricks up our sleeves that we hope to be able to implement in the future because at the end of the day, we have to make those now late great grandparents proud and keep their dream alive!

Indulging in some fun German traditions

Indulging in some fun German traditions

This post is part of October’s Raising Multilingual Children Blogging Carnival.  To learn more about the carnival and participate, visit The Piri-Piri Lexicon!

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