Ben De Haas is a postdoctoral fellow at UCL, holds a PhD in Neuroscience, and a Master in Psychology. Simone holds a degree in Education. Both are German. They moved to London seven years ago. Three kids later, they are preparing to move again.
TAC: In September 2017, your children would start in year 3. You plan on moving to Germany over the summer and want them to start in year 2. How come?
BEN: We want our children to go to school with same-age peers. In Germany it happens to be year 2 and not year 3. We’re not opposed to skipping a year per se. If the question arises, we will talk about it. But I admit it would need to be a really strong case to convince us.
One of our neighbours in London was a postdoc at LSE. During his stay here they published a paper that received wide spread media coverage. His team analysed how children perform in relation to their environment, based on a massive set of nationwide school test data [SATs]. The findings were surprising: They discovered that a child’s absolute performance increases when they find themselves in -relatively speaking - lower performing environments, where as higher achieving environments tend to hinder their overall achievements.
In other words: If you’re a little ahead it is good for your absolute performance. I find this very interesting because it goes against the drive to put your child in elite private institutions to boost their achievement. The opposite seems to be true.
TAC: How do you explain this?
BEN: It is tied to the concept of motivation. This is what I know from the field of psychology, too.
The argument for skipping a year in school centres around the idea: if pupils are bored they become demotivated. To avoid this you put them in the next year group. But if you look at the data the opposite appears to be true: there is nothing more demotivating than lagging behind compared to your peers.
We’ve known for a while about the connection to your birthday. If your birthday falls in summer and you start school as one of the youngest, you are in a slightly disadvantaged position. On the contrary, if you fall on the other side and are one of the oldest, it turns out to be advantageous, because you’re that little bit ahead. It seems to be entangled.
SIMONE: I would also ask what are you trying to achieve? If my children follow the curriculum, know the subject matter already, and are overall happy, it wouldn’t justify change. I would much rather give them the time and freedom they gain from being ahead instead of pushing them through the system quicker. Most pupils who finish school earlier don’t know what they want to do in their life anyways.
on the change in instruction language
TAC: Are you worried about the change in instructional language? Your children are currently taught in English and will soon be taught in German.
BEN: No, not at all, because their German is really good. We haven’t come across any difficulties during our visits in Germany either. They can read, write, and speak German fluently. Their orthography follows phonemes and their grammar is sometimes a little dubious, but I feel confident both areas will improve quickly. When it comes to maths and all the other subject, they are well ahead of their peers in Germany.
SIMONE: I second that. I also know how quickly they pick up on things. Of course they have the occasional mixup and for instance write “ei” [leibe] instead of “ie” [liebe] when they are writing postcards, but the important bit is that they know there are different rules for the sound “i” in German.
What they need to practice are numbers. They need to learn to read 52 as “2-50” in German instead of calling it “50-2” as is normal in English. This is where German is a little more complicated than English. Despite calling the numbers wrong, they do their maths right though.
BEN: I worry about moving back to Germany. But my kids’ academic achievement isn’t part of it. I worry that they might not like school as much. Our school community in England is wonderful! Just this weekend our boys were really exited because one of their classmates will return after a long absence due to illness. It’s beautiful to see how they are all rooting for each other! The school’s vibe is fantastic. They manage to find the right balance. They manage to get even children from less privileged households to be enthusiastic about reading and learning. To me this is a blessing. My boys had the best start I could have imagined.
I didn’t like my school in Germany, especially not the first six years. It was awful and diametrically opposite to what my boys experience today. I don’t expect it to be the same but it is my worst fear. Moving to the same small city I attended primary school in, I suppose doesn’t help either. I don’t know if it would be the same if we would move out of London to rural Britain.
on possibly loosing English or parts of your identity
TAC: Do you worry that your children might lose their English skills?
SIMONE: I doubt our seven-year-old twins will lose it entirely. It would be a shame if they did! I sometimes feel sad when I think that they won’t have the same chance to grow up as bilinguals in Germany as they would have if we’d continue to live in London. Nonetheless, they received a solid foundation. The advantage is also that they will learn English in school in Germany, too. It won’t be the same and probably more akin to the type of Spanish they are taught now, but still.
We are also thinking about ways to keep English in our daily lives. Maybe one of us could speak English to our children at home? I can picture myself organising certain playtime activities in English. This wouldn’t confuse them.
BEN: I can’t imagine talking to the boys in English. It would feel wrong. I don’t do that in London either. I would find it super strange and feel extremely awkward talking to them in English in public, in part because I find Germans, who speak English to their children with a German accent, embarrassing. I associate that with parents who want to prepare their children for a career in management. I wouldn’t like to be associated with them. Maybe you get used to this but it would cost me a lot of effort to even try.
I can picture reading an English bedtime story or having a certain time per week dedicated to speaking and playing in English. My greatest hope lies in the fact that neither English books nor English movies are hard to come by. It is a pretty good language for finding resources.
In an ideal world, if space and money were of no concern, I’d love to hire an English au pair. Ideally someone from London, cockney a plus!
SIMONE: Our move to Germany weighs on our children's minds. One of our boys told me recently that I have to tell them off in English when we’re in Germany, because I do it in German when we’re in England.
There was a funny incident at school: One of our boys was hanging out with his friends and they grabbed their scooters. I said “wait a second” but nobody listened. I shouted a little louder “WAIT A SECOND” but they still didn’t listen. When I caught up and exploded “I said WAIT A SECOND to you!” he growled at me [in German] “Mum, talk to me in German, or everybody will understand what you’re saying!”
BEN: Initially, we didn’t plan on staying for so long. We stumbled into this adventure. We moved to England so I could do my PhD. We thought we’d be back before our children’s school careers start. At that point I was convinced they would lose whatever English they had and didn’t care much. My thinking was, they could catch up later in life again. Now things have changed.
I would be really upset if they’d lose their language. Not because they’d perform great in English class in Germany, but because it would be strange to see them lose access to their childhood memories. It’s a building block of their identity and the basis of our life in London. This is why I hope we can keep the flame alive.
on sibling differences
SIMONE: I have no idea what effect that might have on our now two-and-a-half-year old daughter. Her vocabulary just started exploding! She speaks both languages. Her first words were English. “Bye, see you” and then “Bye, see you lay-lay”
I catch myself thinking: This is really cool. Mind me, she understands much more than the boys did at her age as she’s been exposed to much more English than they were at her age. But will she remember? She might be really mad at us later. We will have to wait and see and deal with it if and when it comes up.
TAC: Are you worried this might divide the siblings?
BEN: They have huge differences anyways. They are five years apart and they don’t speak English with each other. I doubt it would affect their relationship. I’m more inclined to think that she will be a little jealous and ask her brothers all sorts of questions. Best case scenario it will boost her motivation to study really hard for her English exams!
I hope she will keep a knack for it. She is a musical child and we both never struggled with languages. Maybe this will help her a little.
on keeping in touch with the community
TAC: Have you spoken to other parents who have faced the same challenges? Do you have English friends whose children grew up in Germany and who now live back in England?
BEN: Not a lot but there is a boy in the twins’ year whose parents used to live in Frankfurt and his sister spent the first seven years of her life in Germany. As far as I’m aware she speaks some German. The most beautiful story though is that she’s still in touch with her old friends and goes on holidays with them. They just spent a week in Tirol together.
I’m not aware of any additional efforts her parents may have undertaken to strengthen her German.
SIMONE: I find admirable that they have friends over on quite a regular basis and travel to Germany a lot, too. I’m curious to see who we will stay in touch with. Of course it would be beautiful to say we’ll Skype with the boys' friends. But at their age it still heavily relies on the strength of the parents’ friendship and I don’t know how that will play out.
BEN: This question of how will we look back on our life in London from a distance? I can’t grasp it in its entirety. It is a situation in which I’ve never been before. It is a big unknown to me.
TAC: Is it the first time you’ve lived abroad?
BEN: It is even the first time I left my home town! I will have lived in Gießen-London-Gießen.
BEN: The only scenario I can think of where keeping the English language alive will become less of a priority is if we’re struggling to gain a foothold in our new community. If -although I find this highly unlikely- the boys have trouble making friends or settling in, if they are mocked because of their weird German grammar, I think we would do whatever it takes to help them.
TAC: Maybe showing your children that they are not the only ones living with a shared identity in your new place will help them settle more easily?
BEN: We visited various schools in Gießen and our second favourite is the one next to the University. It is the school that most visiting professors and lecturers send their children to. They all speak English. It is quite normal for children to arrive in the middle of the school year, they know this kind of situation. This would be a major advantage for the boys, they wouldn’t stand out with their biography - although I don’t consider that a disadvantage per se.
SIMONE: The move to Germany will hit them hard. They’ve already told us so in no uncertain terms. I replied it will be tough for me, too, and I will cry as well. We will all suffer. This is normal. Finding new friends is equally normal.
I moved house when I was seven, too. It was easier for me than for my [three older] sisters. Still, I remember the cut clearly. I hope it will run smoother for the boys, this re-culturalisation. We’ve travelled to Gießen often. They know the area, have been shopping in local super markets, have taken the bus. Not everything will be brand new to them. I hope this will provide them some form of comfort.
BEN: It will be a huge change for the boys. Not so much because of the change in country, more so because of the difference between London [over 8 million] and Gießen [83.000]
SIMONE: But it’s not a completely unknown entity! It was the opposite for me. I moved from a village of maybe 20 families to Gießen. I lost my acres of land in exchange for streets. My vast garden became a 1sqm terraced patio.
BEN: Another aspect that might help the boys cope with the change is that they are twins. It could serve as a buffer. They will always have someone who’s been through the same.
The closest I’ve been to a re-culturalisation experience was when a dear friend of mine from high school went to Israel for 18 months. He was glad to leave -for various reasons- but really unhappy to be back. I was under the impression he suffered in part from not being able to talk to his closest friends about his experiences, feeling that we wouldn’t understand. What to him were places, feelings, people, to us where merely names. We had no access to his experiences.
Partly for this reason, I also found it so important that our families came over and experienced London through our eyes. They know our flat first hand. They’ve been to Clissold Park. They know the climbing castle. They have formed touch points for future conversations. These people know what our world here looks, feels, and smells like.
I don’t know what will happen - if I’m run over by a bus in the next five years, who knows? A park bench plaque. In Clissold Park. I think that would be really cool.
[ photographs January 2015 full series here / interview February 2017 ]
Read more on the studies Ben mentioned: