We are an English-speaking American family with 2 children, and have recently moved to Germany. The length of our stay is indefinite, and we've decided to try to integrate culturally and linguistically as much as possible while we're here. For that reason, we're all learning German. My wife and I are enrolled in a language class and doing self-study. My older son (age 10) is in a German public school where he's receiving some special language instruction and is also doing self-study. He, and we, are learning at what I'd consider to be a normal pace, but at best we're still only around the A2 level.

Our younger son (age 3 1/2) was diagnosed in the U.S. with mild autism, the most prominent symptom being a heavy language delay. His command of English has been improving steadily, but is still well behind the normal level for his age. He's enrolled in a German public Kindergarten where the teachers and staff speak exclusively in German. He's been there about 7 weeks.

We'd hoped that he would start picking up basic German from the school staff and from the other children. However, his teacher says that he still doesn't respond at all when she speaks German to him. He ignores her completely. When she tries again in English, he responds. He does seem to socialize and play with other children, but the interaction is completely nonverbal. He seems to be happy and enjoys going to school (a lot!), but we obviously want to try to improve the situation if we can, and give him the best chance of a successful future, whether it's here in Germany, back in the U.S. or elsewhere.

We've read about the One-Parent-One-Language approach for raising bilingual children. The snag is that none of us are anywhere near fluent in German yet, so it would be really hard for either of us to play the German parent with him. It would be harder still to use only German with our older 10-year-old son since our conversation with him is much more sophisticated and well beyond our current skill level.

Does anyone else have experience with this kind of situation, any advice, or recommendations for further research? Some focused questions might be:

  • Whether, or how, to implement an OPOL strategy when neither parent is a fluent speaker of the host language and are themselves learning
  • How the OPOL strategy fits with autistic / language-delayed children
  • What other strategies may exist in the scenario where the whole family is learning the host language
  • What the relative tradeoffs and consequences may be between his ability to communicate with us, his ability to communicate at school, and his overall stress and comfort levels
  • 3
    Maybe you can ask the Kindergarten if there is a way to get Frühförderung for your child. My mom teaches children with speech disabilities in Germany. She and her colleagues teach at specialised schools, but also visit the Kindergärten in the region to help kinds who could benefit from early intervention in a pedagogic but play-based way. Going for OPOL when your own grasp of the language is not sufficient is not something she would recommend. I assume you already try to do things like getting him German books and games, use the language in play, involve him in your own learning playfully,...
    – skymningen
    Commented May 20, 2019 at 15:55
  • Some Kitas offer special German classes for children where the parents speak little German. Frühförderung is usually offered to children with special needs, research who your local "Frühförderstelle" is and talk to them.
    – mart
    Commented Dec 21, 2020 at 16:35
  • 2
    @mart A year and a half later, I'm happy to report that he's developing well in both languages. He speaks only German (still at a basic level, but he can communicate and express daily needs) in kindergarten and we're working on both at home. Thanks for your suggestion!
    – TypeIA
    Commented Dec 21, 2020 at 18:54
  • This is great. I forgot to mention that while you can get language therapy (if this is helpful for your kid) via the Frühförderstelle, you should also be able to get a Heilmittelverordnung from your pediatrician (if this form of therapy is indicated for your child at all).
    – mart
    Commented Dec 21, 2020 at 21:26


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