Almost Fearless

Should You Teach Your Kids German?



We already know that teaching a child a second language has lots of long-term benefits (there are short-term benefits too, like an increased ability to multitask — but studies have also shown that bilinguals stave off the effects of dementia for four years). I am working on raising my kids as bilingual and when we started I picked languages like one would pick hypothetical extra curricular activities… what was going to be the most useful, where is the language trending, how can I best prepare my kids for the future? I started this process about three years ago and at that time the choice was: Spanish (because it’s so common), Mandarin (for the future business world) and Arabic (to encourage us to learn more about a region that’s wildly misunderstood).

Now, Germany has announced that all of its universities are officially free. Not just for Germans but for foreign students as well. For Europeans this probably won’t make much of a difference… Germany is part of the EU and students could study there anyway. There are lots of free or very affordable universities across Europe so if cost is an issue, there are plenty of places you can study for free or very little. But for Americans? The average cost for a private university in the United States is over $30,000 a year. That doesn’t include room and board (but neither would Germany’s free tuition) but that’s a $120,000 gift you could give your child. For public in-state tuition it’s approaching $9,000 — so even on the low-end it’s $36,000 in savings.

It’s part of why we’re moving to Spain. As self-employed freelancers, we don’t have a company sponsored 401K. Living in Spain, legally, as permanent residents, means that after ten years we can apply for naturalization and acquire Spanish citizenship for our kids. It’s one financial benefit of being long-term travelers, while we’re not paying down a mortgage or sticking our savings in a matched retirement account, we can choose where to live and potentially give our kids access to Europe’s education system (we will also be paying taxes into the system, so it doesn’t come entirely free).

However that might not even be necessary anymore. With Germany’s new free tuition plan, American kids could potentially attend a fantastic university at no cost.

So do you need children fluent in German? Not necessarily, but it certainly would help. When I was in high school, the language options were always: French, Spanish and a small class for German. Of course, high school German isn’t going to be enough to study in the language, to be “proficient” a student would need to be at a B2 level (the European Framework for Languages level for “intermediate”), which is where you’d be after two years of college German (maybe you could get there with four years of high school German — but my public high school only offered two years — plus a summer spent in Germany to pick up the speaking skills the classroom can’t provide).

There’s a lot of things you can choose to do with your kids: sports, music lessons, languages — and they all have benefits. I don’t think raising bilingual kids is the only (or maybe even the best) option you can choose (and there’s always the option of not doing anything extra, giving your kids lots of unstructured time, that has its own benefits as well). But as the cost of education in the US keeps climbing and especially for families who are somewhere between “qualifying for financial aid” and “being able to afford college out-of-pocket” there’s a huge group of us in the middle who are looking at saddling our children with massive debt for a piece of paper that while is absolutely necessary, can also have dubious career prospects, even for those who go on to get advanced degrees.

So what do we do?

Learn German, I guess.

Is that funny? I don’t know, there are so many parents teaching their children Mandarin, with no connection to China, merely on the expectation that it will be someday useful. With this announcement, we know German will be quite useful, getting your university degree and walking out with zero debt is a huge head start in life. It means getting to intern or take jobs based on where the experience will take you, rather than how much money you make. It gives you the freedom to go back to school and get that graduate degree — again free — all because you speak German. It means having the financial flexibility to start a business and fail (and learn so much along the way) without any more damage than your bruised ego. Being debt free means freedom.

Post WWI propaganda poster, at that time German was discouraged and even legislated against, closing down foreign language programs around the country.
Post WWI propaganda poster, at that time German was discouraged and even legislated against, closing down foreign language programs around the country.

I guess I could launch into a little tirade over the fact that the US education system is so broken that it actually would make sense to learn a second language and jump ship, but it’s complicated. Who knows what this will do to the German economy, as “Dauerstudenten” (the German equivalent to the fifth year senior, here’s an interview with the record holder with 57 semesters) have no financial incentive, like paying fees, to hurry up and finish their degree and graduate already. Will they have a huge influx of foreign students who leave every year, merely in Germany to get their piece of paper and then return home? It will be interesting.

Well, if you were thinking of raising bilingual kids, and weren’t sure which language to pick, I think German should definitely be on the short list. It’s quite useful in Europe, it’s a lot easier than Mandarin, and now, you can save up to $120,000 per child on education. Not bad.

Are you teaching your kids German? What do you think about sending your children off to Europe for college? Will this become a trend as US prices continue to rise?

Christine Gilbert

I’ve been dragging my husband around the world since 2008 always with the promise that, “Yes, Drew there will definitely be hammocks there.”



  • I am just picking my jaw off the floor – do Americans really pay that much for college/university? And healthcare isn’t free either. I love to visit the States as a tourist but really how can anyone on an average income get ahead or break free!

    Anyway this is really interesting, our son is eligible for Irish citizenship and we were going to get that for him solely for the cost of university being half of what it is in NZ. I guess now we might consider teaching him German once he’s got Spanish down pat!

    • Everyone is in debt in the US! It’s even worse if you go to law or medical school, people walk away with a $100K – $250K in student loans. Then you work to pay that off, only to buy a house, car and have kids. I think the national average savings in the US is slightly less than zero, we literally spend all of our money plus some.

    • 120,000 is what you would pay if you receive no scholarships or government aid, and insist on attending a private university.

      Government universities are significantly cheaper – each State has typically two to three universities to chose from, with the “prestige” school costing 6-8 thousand a year, and a cheaper “state” school costing less than that. Also, you can complete the first two years of a university degree at a community college, where tuition costs around 1,400 – 2,000 a semester.

      Most students qualify for discounted government-backed student loans, there are work study programs available, and there are a number of scholarships available, depending on economic need, one’s ethnicity, academic ability, etc. Finally, if you’re willing to join the National Guard, the government will pay a significant portion of your tuition.

      Note that, as far as undergraduate programs go, there is little qualitative difference between the state and private universities. However, up until the crisis, there was a competitive “college culture”, with students and parents competing to get into the “right” school. Recently, people have started questioning the economic benefit of going to university at all. Basically, the thinking has changed from trying to get into a “good” school and majoring in whatever, to going to an affordable school, and majoring in a subject that has a well-paying job at the end of it.

      And of course, teenagers aren’t exactly the most far-thinking or responsible of decision makers. The thrill of going to a fancy private university in San Francisco or New York or Boston, vs. staying at home and going to a state school, often prompts students into taking on debt when they really don’t need to. Likewise, majoring in a subject that is fun often trumps majoring in a subject that helps qualify a person for a well-paying job.

      • Financial aid only covers a small fraction of the cost. I had to turn down Penn State because I was an out of state applicant and even after full financial aid and some scholarships, I was still about $10,000 a year away from covering it, so I would have had to take private loans — I had maxed out the government-backed loans. This is for public school. I ended up going to school in-state and I still had student debt at the end of it. I also worked through school and did work study programs.

        I have taken classes at a community college and it’s not really comparable. I guess if you want to just get the degree credits it’s fine, but it’s just not as rigorous.

        Of course I first went to college almost 20 years ago. Since then the student debt has been increasing by 6% each year, outpacing inflation. Now that I am living in Spain, it’s amazing to me that even as a foreigner, I can attend the University of Barcelona for the same amount I’d pay in textbooks back home. If that was the case in the States, I would have stayed in school, gotten my masters. It makes things like getting a graduate degree to teach middle school impossible. It really pushes people towards business, finance, engineering, and away from needed fields like social work, education or even nursing.

        • As I said, if you’re willing to stay at home and go to state school, it’s around 6 – 8,000 a year for the premier public university in the state, and usually less if you take the A&M (State) option. If you want to go out of state, it is more expensive.

          Having taken community college classes as an adult, I’d say that the quality varies. For STEM subjects, it’s more than adequate for first and second year students.

          Too many kids in the USA seem to go to university at 18 when all they really want is to get away from their parents. They have no idea what they want to study or why they want to study it, and gravely underestimate the role financial necessity plays in adult life. Really, a gap year or two would do wonders.

          Am a bit perplexed re: lack of sociologists; it was a popular major back when I was in school the first time. Very difficult to find work in, however.

    • Yes, US university education is truly that jaw-dropping. It’s a crazy cycle as the professional skill level increases. Grants, scholarships and loans are expected for education past high school, even for public/state universities. My military service paid for both my degrees in terms of tuition assistance and university partnership programs, but that’s only an option for a small percentage of university graduates. (I owed 5 years of service for graduate school.) Nothing is free and time is money. I really had to weigh the cost of those 5 years of service against what my earning potential would have been if I’d done it outside the military. Now, I’m living in Germany and one of the basic requirements for masters or doctorate programs (that might be mostly or fully offered in English) is that I can prove the minimum German language skills for acceptance. That’s sometimes enough of a reason for anyone who really wants a European degree and NOT break the bank. However, there’s so much more than just getting into the school system here. Germany is not an inexpensive place to live and if you’re seeking an advanced degree that requires you to move your family, pack light and start networking with the expat community here well before you hop on the plane over. There are a lot of great expat networks out there in the major university towns.

  • I have an American friend in Munich who’s going to graduate school for free- what a great opportunity!

    Though I have to say I thought knowing foreign languages would help me professionally a whole lot more than it has. I speak Spanish and French fluently but it turns out no one cares, at least in the U.S. Even my friend who speaks fluent Mandarin says he goes to interviews and they say, “Wow, your Chinese skills will be so useful someday!”

    • Yeah I really wonder about the Mandarin thing… everyone says it will be valuable, but at the same time economists are predicting that the Chinese economy will stop growing so fast around 2020. We’ll see.

  • Not everyone is in debt in the US. I know people who work their way through community college and public universities with no debt. But I agree German universities could be a very good idea. I wonder how hard it is to get in. Are there entrance exams? Another thing to remember is that you only have input to where or if your kids go to university. At that point it is their life. They have a mind of their own and they will decide. Of course teaching them other languages will give them many more choices:-)

    • Hey there,

      I’m from Germany and usually, if you go to a public university, as a german you don’t have to do an entrance test. It depends on your numerus clausus if you can get in or not. For example for medicine you need an average of 1.0 (german system grade 1 to 6) or even below. So it’s really, really hard to get in there. Particularly if the subject you are applying for is commonly wanted.
      I now study in the Netherlands where they have a decentralized application ( you have to apply with a letter of motivation etc.) and they also have a numerus fixus (like a lottery, so you everybody is equally likely to get in). Here are a lot of subjects offered in English but you have to pay tuition fees.
      In Germany there are some subjects offered in English but most of them are in German (medicine, law…).
      So if you want to study here you have to know german 🙂
      Best Sophia

  • I am a college admissions advisor at a public high school in CA. I am currently working with a high school senior who is fluent in German (mom is German and the student spent a year studying there). Mom and dad always assumed that their kids would attend university in Germany (for FREE!), but guess what? They wanted nothing to do with that. The daughter is at a private school in Chicago and the boy I am working with is applying to schools across the US (and, ironically, an American school in London), but not one school in Germany. Kids are funny that way.

    • Ha! That’s typical. I think one thing that would be hard for any 18 year old is to consider moving to a new culture, in a faraway country, to do your studies. Even if it’s free. And I remember that time for myself, I was less pragmatic about the degree and cost and more concerned with the experience I was going to have. I think that’s the big American romance with college, you’ll go and meet your best friends for life, find yourself, your career and the meaning for your life. There’s a lot of things to consider beyond the cost.

  • I’m learning German and French simultaneously with an iPad app called Duolingo. It’s an education app for kids but has been SUPER helpful for me and teaches in the same manner as the Rosetta Stone. My husband is going to college to major in German and engineering and we all plan to go to Germany for his study abroad so I need to be prepared. My daughter isn’t quite 2 so we haven’t worked on any foreign language skills yet, it’s hard enough just getting her to say English words! But our dog’s name is Oso and she says that quite well. Does that count? 🙂

  • German universities were always free for Americans (and everyone else). Then the government allowed public universities to charge small tuition fees, and after a few years most states got rid of them. The last state got rid of their (very small) tuition fees this summer. There were never higher fees for Americans, so none of this “omg German universities are free for Americans now!” thing is new.

    Norwegian schools are the same. So are several other EU countries. The only financial burden for non-EU students is proving they can cover their living expenses in order to get the visa.

    • Where did I say “OMG!” anything? That being said, it is something parents should consider, and Germany’s announcement is a good time to bring it up. Most places in Europe are affordable, even for international students but it’s not on most American’s radar. I do want to make a list at some point, what it costs and where, for international students because it’s something we didn’t realize until we traveled in Europe.

      • Sorry, it wasn’t a criticism of your post. The “omg…” is a reaction to all the recent articles and memes that have been going around about this recently. I guess this topic must have been in the news because it’s everywhere, and no one really seems to grasp that this doesn’t really represent a significant change from the situation before. For example, when tuition fees were in place, the tuition for the university I’ll be attending for my PhD studies was about $900/year. That fee was scrapped years ago (German universities have been tuition free for years now in all but one state–tuition fees were only in place briefly.)

        The idea of German universities being “free” is a bit of a misnomer though–they don’t charge tuition fees but you still have to pay semester fees, which can run up to 500 Euros/semester and which cover your student union contributions, transportation, etc. Plus non-EU students have to place their entire year’s worth of living expenses into a blocked account before they can apply for the visa to study in Germany, which means they have to pony up a little over 8,000 Euros each year (the bank doles it out in monthly increments to pay for rent, etc., most continental European universities don’t offer student housing like American schools do). So while yes, there’s no tuition now in the one remaining state which was charging it, studying in Germany for non-EU students is still quite costly.

        For reference Norway offers free tuition to foreign students and requires upfront living expenses of about 11,000 Euros, while Belgium deeply subsidizes tuition (my degree there runs about 650 Euros/year) and requires about 6,000 Euros/year in living expenses to qualify for the visa.

        • Thank you! First person here who knows what is going on. Universities in Germany were always free and the max. Fees were up to $640/semester.
          As you said this fall semester the last “state” got rid of these fees as some people couldn’t afford college if they would have to pay the fees.
          But Americans have to take into consideration that universities in Germany are free because people pay more taxes there. In the states around 20-25% would be deducted from your income. In Germany you would get an aprox. Deduction of 39% including mandatory health insurance….
          Also gas is more expensive there $8 a gallon. As 70% are taxes.
          So please! Inform yourself about the situation and then hyper out.
          Nevertheless, I am the opinion that education should be free and that it is worth it to pay higher taxes for it. People should invest in their future! Great job Germany!

    • It is “OMG.” I had no idea people who were not citizens of the country would be able to get the same “deal” as people who live in the country. I know most Americans don’t know it either. So yes, it is OMG. Most of us just didn’t even know to consider it.

      My friend just finished her degree, going to school to in-state public universities AND worked the entire time. She feels fortunate to ONLY have $80,000 to pay off.

  • Our youngest son spent two of his university years in Europe and is now attending grad school in Germany (not for financial reasons, but because the University of Freiburg has a specialized program that interested him).

    It’s worth noting that a growing number of undergraduate and graduate programs in Europe are taught in English. There’s an engineering school in Denmark where all the coursework is in English, for example–even for Danes. Still, it certainly helps to know the local language, if only for daily living and dealing with practical matters like housing, residence permits, etc.

  • My grandparents were children of German Immigrants, and when I was a child, I asked my Grandpa why he didn’t speak German. He said,”If we spoke German, our hands were slapped and we were told ‘You’re American, you speak English!”

    So that poster brings that memory back.

    There are other, older Germans in this area who did/ do still speak the language. There were German church services here in town until the mid-1980’s. The dialect was Volga German (from Ukraine), so much of it had Russian words mixed in.

    German is a language I’ve started and stopped several times. I need just to buckle down.

  • I was amazed on how much Americans pay for their education, wow!
    As for the language choice, I would say Spanish it’s more worth to learn than German, but why not both? 😀

  • Another issue is that a lot of countries want degrees from universities from their countries. I have friends with British degrees trying to find work in Australia, and they keep being told their degrees are not local so they are useless.
    I am not sure how far a German degree would be outside of the country itself.

  • This is a great reminder about education. Our choice was easy seeing that my husband is bilingual québécois and English. Our daughter began French only home care at age 1 and then has transitioned to French only preschool. She will attend this school and come out with an international bac. We hope with bilingual cousins speaking spanish and German as a third language that we expose her to more.. Definitely something I would move over for her.

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