Dino Lingo

So first, in the interest of full disclosure, I want to mention that Dino Lingo provided me with their product for free in exchange for a review.  I went into this to do an honest review, trying to maintain the perspective of a paying customer.

I’ve never done a sponsored post before.  But this product was so perfectly suited to our family (and to my blog audience) that I had to give it a try.  Also, the links to Dino Lingo on this page are affiliate links.

094Dino Lingo is a language learning program for children.  I had never heard of it, but the first thing that impressed me when the company contacted me was the excellent customer service.  Every other time that I’ve gotten a message from someone asking me to review something, it has come as a generic form email (which is a lot of the reason why I’ve never followed up before).  In contrast, Kathryn from Dino Lingo had done her homework — she had read my blog, and understood why this would be a good fit for us.  And the excellent communication and customer service didn’t stop there.  Once I decided to give it a try, we had several thoughtful conversations about which language program to choose.  We decided against German, since my boys are already pretty experienced with it, and the Dino Lingo program is intended for beginners.  I eliminated Spanish for the same reason, and French because, though the kids don’t speak it, I know enough that I wasn’t sure I’d be able to gauge the effectiveness of the teaching in the program myself.  We decided to try something completely new to the whole family — we went with Russian.  (I was impressed by the range of options available.  I expected a fairly standard French/Spanish/German/Italian/Mandarin selection.  It is much more extensive than that.  They have over 40 options.  Our final choice came down to Gaelic and Russian.  We went with Russian because the boys often encounter Russian children on the playground, and they can’t communicate with them, which is always a bummer.)

104So, our choice was made and we waited.  We didn’t wait long, though — our package arrived just 8 business days later, which is impressive for an international shipment.  The boys didn’t know what was in the package, but they were so excited to find out!  (Dino Lingo very kindly included a second stuffed dinosaur toy, which kept the opening of the package from spurring a fight, earning them even more bonus points for me.)

Our set included 5 DVDs, a set of flashcards, a coloring book, a vocabulary book, posters, a progress chart (with stickers), a music CD and 2 dinosaur toys.  The kids were immediately intrigued, and, after running around for 5 minutes with the dinosaurs, wanted to put on the first DVD.  So we did.


We put the first DVD on . . . and I was initially a little concerned.  My kids are so used to interactive apps on the iPad and the iPhone, and TV shows with really slick presentations.  This is a DVD based program, so it isn’t interactive.  The graphics are cute, but I wasn’t sure they’d capture the boys’ attention.  I was worried that they’d get bored with it quickly and lose interest.


I was wrong.

Not only were they completely captivated by the characters and the graphics, they were totally wrapped up in learning the language.  They were sitting on the floor, talking back to the video, right from the start.  And when it was over, they asked to watch it again.  And again.  By the end of that first night, we were all talking about the Russian we’d learned already.

123Liam loves the flash cards.  He doesn’t play with them in the conventional way (which is probably good, because he’s learned more than I have, so I couldn’t quiz him).  Instead, he spreads them out on the floor, picks up the ones he knows, and tells me the words.  In Russian!  His favorite is “monkey” (обезьяна).  The flash cards would be more useful if I were doing a better job of learning Russian myself (or if we had a native speaker we could work with).  But he’s figured out a way to be quite entertained.  (And hey, he’s 3, and basically teaching himself Russian, so I can’t criticize.)

We received our program about 6 weeks ago, and with the end of the school year this week, and all the craziness that leads up to that, we haven’t used it all that much in the past couple of weeks.  But the kids are STILL talking about it.  They still remember what they’ve learned.  Remarkably, their interest in learning Russian outlasted their interest in the stuffed toys that came with the set.  I honestly didn’t expect that.  They want to learn more, and they’re so proud of what they know already.  We only recently got in to looking at the printed materials (aside from the flash cards) — most of our use has come from the DVDs.  But the kids are starting to get interested in the posters, too.  (They’re quizzing each other on the words associated with the pictures.)

(Actually, after our time with the program, I have only one criticism.  On the first DVD, there is one graphic of a happy face turning around and showing its backside while giggling.  It’s not egregious, but slightly rude, and it’s one thing I wish my kids hadn’t learned from the DVD!)


We didn’t buy the set, so we’re extra lucky — it came to us as a gift.  But, I can honestly say that I *would* buy it.  I wish that we’d had something like the Dino Lingo set in German before we’d moved here.  It would have been a leg up, and a great start to our overseas adventure . . . for all of us.  I’m truly impressed by how much my kids have learned, and how much they’re enjoying it.  It’s been more effective than I expected it to be.  Way to go, Dino Lingo, and thanks for sharing your product with us!

Привет кошка

Until earlier today, I had a little footnote on my main page saying that I’d never gotten anything in exchange for blogging about it.  This is a pretty common practice amongst bloggers — to receive something (for free, or for reduced cost) in exchange for reviewing a product or experience.  I don’t have anything against the practice, I’d just never been asked to do something like that, and I wanted to be very clear that all of my opinions expressed here are entirely my own.  Well, my opinions are still my own, but I had to delete that little disclaimer, because I was just recently asked to review a product in exchange for receiving it for free.  Yesterday, we received a free copy of Dino Lingo’s language learning materials for kids.  I’m pretty excited about it, and so are the boys.  (I still promise to be entirely honest about our experience with it, even though we got it for free.)

We had a choice of languages and opted … for Russian.  After discussing it with Kathryn from Dino Lingo, we decided to go with something we had no background in at all.  (The program is meant for true beginners, so the boys have enough German, and probably enough Spanish, to be a bit too advanced to get a good sense for how well the program works for beginners.)  I wanted to choose something that we didn’t already know but which we might get some use out of here or in our travels.  Russian is the language the kids most wish they spoke a little of on the playground — we often meet Russian speaking children and can’t communicate with them at all.  I thought maybe this way, we could learn a little and actually use it.

Anyway, I’ll write a real review of the product and our experience with it after we’ve had a chance to use it for more than a day.  But I will say that the boys are already having a great time with it … and we’re all learning something.  I think we’ve watched the first DVD through 5 or 6 times already, and the boys have having fun practicing their colors, numbers and animals (we’ve been pleasantly surprised to find out that there is a bit of overlap between German and Russian, and even between English and Russian — I feel like “giraffe” and “zebra” end up the same in almost every language).  We went to bed last night all repeating one new phrase over and over again — “Привет кошка” (sounds like “Privet koshka”) — which basically means, “Hi, cat!”  It’s not much, but it’s more Russian than I could speak this time yesterday (and it’s more than I knew how to say in German when I first moved here)!


What are THOSE?!?

Raising kids abroad is full of funny experiences.  There are so many ways in which their world view and mine differ fundamentally, because they are growing up in a different time, country and culture than I did.  And so many times, I don’t even realize how differently we see things until one of them points it out.  Language is one of the places that this is the most obvious — just this morning on the way to school, Liam noticed that “someone dropped their ‘schnuller’ on the ground”.  Yes, they had — a ‘schnuller’ is a pacifier.  Although, back when he was using them, we called them pacifiers or binkies, but he doesn’t remember that.  He knows the word from the kids at school who still have them, and it’s become his only word for it.  When Benjamin asked what Liam had said, I responded with, “Someone dropped their pacifier” and Liam got very angry at me for telling Benjamin the wrong thing.  He literally has no idea what “pacifier” means.  That kind of thing happens every so often — I say something, and they respond with a blank stare while I rewind what I said in my head and realize that I just used an English word for something we usually say in German (like pacifier, fire department, grocery store or playground).  We’re developing quite the odd little Germenglish patois around here.

But there are other funny ways that the cultural divide within my own house comes out.  Just before Easter, I was preparing eggs to dye.  Then we were interrupted by calamity, which is why I forgot to tell this particular story back then.  But once everything calmed down and we got ready to color our eggs, the boys happily climbed up to the table, took one look at the cartons of eggs I had boiled for them, and looked at me in disgust and surprise.

“WHAT are THOSE?!?” asked Benjamin.

“They’re eggs.

“But . . . why are they WHITE?”

Yep, although I was completely unaware of it, it seems that my kids have been 3+ years without seeing a white egg.  This was the first year that we found white eggs available at the supermarket, special for coloring for Easter.  (It’s the only time I’ve ever seen them, and they no longer have any — it really was just for Easter.)  I was so excited to buy them, because I’d always wanted to find white eggs to dye for Easter, but (as Benjamin demonstrated) white eggs are not the norm here.

And thus, I discovered another way in which I am raising poor, confused American-Austrian children who didn’t know that eggs come in white.

5 reasons I’m glad my kids speak English and German

Since before we arrived in Austria, nearly 3 years ago, we have been determined that learning German (reasonably well, at least) would be an important piece of our time spent abroad.  We chose to enroll our kids in a Viennese, German-only preschool when they each reached 3 years of age.  For my older son, this means that he has had 2 1/2 years of school entirely in German, while my younger son is most of the way through his first year.  It’s been a great experience.  They’ve learned a tremendous amount of German, and having them enrolled in an Austrian school has provided most of my motivation for continuing to learn German, as well (B’s main teacher does not speak any English, and I need to be able to communicate with her).

Participating in Amanda’s blog link up again this week, here are 5 reasons I’m glad my kids speak English and German.

1.  They have the knowledge that they CAN learn another language, so hopefully the next one will be easier and less intimidating.  If there is one skill I wish I had that I don’t, it is the ability to learn languages easily.  I studied French for 7 years in school and learned a fair bit, but it was ways a struggle.  I’ve lived here for nearly 3 years and my German is just becoming passable.  Throughout my life, I’ve been so intimidated by the struggle of learning a new langauge that I don’t really try to (even when I have the opportunity).  I sincerely hope that having learned German at such a young age, my kids will have a lifelong confidence with which to tackle other languages.

2.  Confidence moving through the world.  I don’t think anything is more off-putting about the thought of travel than not being able to speak the local language.  Whether it’s the fear of getting lost and being helpless, or just worry over looking foolish for not being able to communicate, lack of language skills makes travel intimidating when it should be exciting.  German is spoken in wide areas of Europe, and I hope that their skills in speaking it will give my kids a sense of freedom to travel within those areas (at least) without any worry throughout their lives.

3.  German is less likely to be taught on their American schools later, so now may be the only chance.  When I was growing up, we were required to study a foreign language in school, and the choices were French, Spanish and German.  I have no idea if my children will take compulsory foreign language in school, but I do know that the German programs were on the verge of being cut when I was in high school (20 years ago) so I don’t imagine that many of them have survived the past 2 decades.  One day, my kids will be in American schools, and I will encourage them to learn a language (even if they don’t have to).  But that will be the time to pick up French or Spanish — this may be their only chance to learn German.

4.  German is really cool.  As with any language, there are particular words and idioms that are uniquely perfect within a language, and I love some of the ones I’ve learned in German.  I love that the German word for strawberry (Erdbeere) literally means “earth berry” or “ground berry” (because they grow so close to the ground).  I love the word “raunen”, which is the word for the sound the wind makes.  I love that the root of the word for speed (geschwindigkeit) is the word for windy (windig) so that it literally translates to something like wind-making-ness.  I just found out yesterday that the word for staple remover is the same as the word for mother-in-law … because both separate things that are together.  (Ha!)  Besides, nothing beats telling someone off in German for sheer intimidation factor.  German is cool.

5.  A common language is not required to make a connection to others (but it helps).  As they get older and more confident (and as they accumulate more miles travelled around Europe) I see my kids reach out to other children that they encounter, regardless of whether or not they can communicate well with them.  My boys have attempted French and Spanish when German and English have failed them.  But certainly, they have the easiest time (and the most luck) making friends when they can communicate together well.  Watching them chat and be silly with their friends and teachers at school is heartwarming and inspiring.  They simply could not have done that 3 years ago.  Learning the language has made the difference.

Expat Life with a Double Buggy

Bad words

Benjamin’s German is better than mine at this point.  He certainly understands more, and though our vocabulary is focused in quite different areas, I would guess that he speaks more German than I do (and his pronunciation is certainly better).

This leads to some very particular challenges that I imagine are faced by parents of bi-lingual (or nearly bi-lingual) children everywhere.  I don’t always know what the boys are saying when they speak German, and more specifically, I think B is saying things that he shouldn’t be, but I can’t be sure.  Add to this the fact that B’s best friend at school is a native Spanish speaker, and everything gets more complicated.

I know the “big” swears in German (the same ones everyone knows if they’ve watched enough WWI movies) but I don’t know anything about the ones a kindergartener might use.  He and his friends had a fondness for one that was an amalgamation of Spanish and German and roughly translated into “poop death” (it took me FOREVER to parse what he was saying) and he’s recently added one that I don’t recognize at all, but the mischievous giggle that comes with it makes me pretty suspicious.

I think my best strategy at this point may be to make a video of him saying it and then to distribute it to my Austrian (and maybe Spanish speaking) friends for analysis.  In the meantime, it may just be that getting away with a little naughtiness is one of the perks of living abroad when you’re 5.

I used to be afraid

My natural state is one of efficiency.  I like to do things “on the way”, “kill two birds with one stone”, put in a little effort now to save myself a great effort later.  When I had kids, I had to learn to put that tendency aside — kids don’t always work that way.  Sometimes I have to make two trips to the same shop to prevent turning a single trip into a massive meltdown, or walk right past a shop where I have to run an errand in order to get everyone home in time for lunch.  That’s just life as a parent.  Sometimes we sacrifice efficiency for everyone’s greater good.

But there’s another way in which I’ve abandoned efficiency since I’ve moved abroad, and it’s less noble.  It’s because I was afraid.

I used to go into a shop and always plan out exactly what I needed to say before it was my turn.  If I found the person behind the counter was hard to communicate with, or impatient, I might leave without everything I needed.  I might go to another shop around the corner, come back another time, or simply do without what I needed.  If I had a coupon that I wanted to use, I would plan to ONLY but the thing the coupon was for so as not to complicate my transaction.  I would add up the total and have exact change waiting so I didn’t have to understand what the cashier said.  I was in a constant state of strategizing what I REALLY needed in order to make things overly simple.  I was afraid of trying to do too much, and of getting things wrong.  It made my life harder than it needed to be.

But at some point, I got over that.  I don’t know when or how it changed.  But I went into a shop today, and I didn’t plan out what I was going to say beforehand.  When the cashier asked for my order, I unashamedly asked for a moment to decide.  I added something to my order after she had rung it up, and then remembered a coupon I wanted to use for just part of my purchase.  In short, I had a totally normal transaction which didn’t require stress, strategy or pre-planning.

This wasn’t the first time — I’m sure I’ve been in this mode for a while now.  But it was the first time I was really aware of how nonchalant I’ve become.  I can go into a bakery or a deli or a grocery store and act just exactly like the slightly distracted, moderately disorganized mom that I am.  And, apparently, I can now do it in German.

Playground Olympics

Living in Vienna is my first experience of living in any kind of big city.  When we lived in Virginia in the US, we lived in a very busy and crowded suburb, but it wasn’t the same as living in an actual city.  In a lot of ways, I think that particular suburb had a lot of the worst characteristics of city life (traffic, tons of people, noise, expensive housing) with very few of the redeeming qualities (walkability, sense of neighborhood, culture on your doorstep).

I have, however, both where I grew up and then living in Virginia as an adult, been fortunate to live in very culturally diverse places.  Living near Washington, DC does that — with so many people from international diplomatic services, as well as DC being the heart of the American government, there is an environment of cultural and ethnic diversity from around the world and throughout the US itself that’s pretty impressive.  Vienna has much the same situation — home to a main office of the UN, there is, by requirement, a vast international community, and, since we live in the very heart of the city, we get to experience the international feeling of a major city that is then amplified by the UN’s existence here.

As such, my kids are growing up in a very international environment.  Benjamin’s kindergarten class has kids from at least 5 different countries and Liam’s class has at least 6 nations represented — and each class only has 20 kids.

But school isn’t the only place we see this dynamic.  Living in Vienna’s 1st district (the central and oldest part of the city) we encounter this international feeling all the time.  It’s entirely common to take a trip to the playground and meet children from all over the world.  On one particularly frustrating occasion, B tried repeatedly, in increasingly slow and precise German, to ask another child their name and age.  He finally came to me in exasperation, asking why he wasn’t being understood, and after inquiring, it turned out that the child was Russian and spoke no German.  (And since we speak no Russian, they were able to play together, but not talk much.)  Another time, my two boys befriended two boys of similar age, finally settling on French as their most common language (in which Benjamin can only say “Bonjour” and “Je m’appelle Benjamin” … but it worked).

This weekend, I looked around the playground and realized that there were four families and four different languages and nationalities represented — American, Spanish, Russian and Austrian.  This is perfectly normal at our local playground.  We’re almost never the only “imported” family there.  Watching my kids play with and around other children from all over the world makes me appreciate that of all the international cities we could have ended up in, Vienna is one of the best.  My kids are used to hearing other languages all the time, they have the experience of finding a common language and sharing common interests with kids from all over the world.  Plus, it’s so much easier to be “foreign” and “different” when you aren’t the only one.  I love the international feeling in Vienna, and the variety of kids my boys are exposed to.  Every trip to the playground is like our own little kindergarten Olympics.

Double Eltern Abend

Last week we had our third Eltern Abend (literally: “Parents Evening”, think: “Back to School Night”) at the boys’ school.  It’s a chance to meet the teachers, learn about the program, write down the important dates, find out each teacher’s preferences and way of doing things, and ask our own questions.  It’s great to get the opportunity to do all of these things … but the catch is that it’s done ENTIRELY in German.  At the end there’s always some time for individual questions, which can be asked and answered in English, but up until that point, it’s roughly 2 hours of important information, all in Deutsch.  It’s intense.

To add to the intensity, this time I had to split my time between two classes.  We had planned to have a sitter come be with the kids so that Dan and I could both go and each sit in a class, but Liam was still quite sick, so Dan stayed with the boys and I went on my own.

I opted to go to Liam’s class first, since I already know B’s teachers and how his class generally works.  And I’m proud to say that the whole thing went pretty well.  In Liam’s class, there were at least three other sets of parents who don’t really speak German (and I think there are seven kids in Liam’s class — including him — for whom German is not their first language).  I think I understood better than the non-German speakers and I was even able to translate a bit for some of the others.  I understood every single word that the principal said (might be the first time I ever managed that) and I got at least the main ideas from the teachers.

I did the first hour in Liam’s class and then switched to B’s, and then went back to see Liam’s teacher for follow-up questions.  She was impressed at how much I got from the presentation, and she very patiently explained the parts I had missed.

Overall, it was really a great success.  I was able to participate in the parent exercises for both classes, and I feel great about the classes, the teachers and the school.  I’m even starting to know some of the other parents.  It was a nice feeling to come in and get greeted and waved to — that didn’t happen for the first few years (and Austrians aren’t really casually friendly to people they don’t know, so it felt a little lonely the first few times).  This was a nice change, and it felt like a success all around.  I feel prepared (or at least as much as possible) for the year, and I’m glad I was able to be there, and to understand most of it, for the boys.

(And then, when I got home, while Dan put the boys in the bath, I baked a cake for Liam’s birthday, which was the next day.  I pretty much felt like Super Mom after that!)

Birthday party, international style

009We did it!  Benjamin’s birthday party went very well on Saturday.  We had 11 kids and 9 adults — 2 kids who hadn’t RSVPed (including 1 we didn’t actually invite, the older brother of an invitee . . . but if we’d known he had an older brother, we would have invited him), 1 child who said he was coming but didn’t, 1 set of twins whose parents dropped them off and left (which surprised me, but as one of my friends observed, it was 2 fewer people to entertain), 2 kids and 1 parent who spoke absolutely no English, 2 kids who barely spoke English, and 4 different nationalities represented (and no other Americans, aside from us).

012It was great.  The kids all seemed to have a good time, including, most importantly, the birthday boy.  The whole party was Angry Birds themed, just like B wanted — cake, decorations, games, and all.  I think it ended up being quite festive.  I was able to visit with each of the adults a little (and thus even practice my German a bit!), and play a lot with the kids.  We played games, had cake (which was beautiful, tasty and plenty big enough) and ice cream, and even opened presents.  (I had planned to skip opening presents, but was persuaded to do it.  I’m glad we did — it was fun for everyone.)


Mostly, I’m glad that Benjamin had a good time.  It was his first time hosting his school friends at his house, and since we hadn’t hosted a play date at home in a while at all, having a house full of friends was a real treat.  Liam had a great time playing with everyone, too.  He also gets credit for the sweetest mistake of the party — he misheard Leonie’s name as Lambie, has been persistently asking when “Lambie” is coming back to visit again.  We all had a great time, and I think we managed to be reasonably decent hosts.  At the very least, we didn’t create any kind of international incident.  It was a success.










As far as I know, I was born knowing how to swim.  I have vague memories of my dad teaching me to float on my back in my grandmother’s pool, but the basic principles of swimming came early enough that I don’t remember ever not knowing how to swim.

039I always knew my kids would be the same.  For the sake of safety, as well as fun, I wanted them to learn early.  (Especially because it’s one of those things where not knowing creates such fear around water that at some point it becomes incredibly difficult to be in the water long enough to learn how.  I knew someone in college who didn’t know how to swim, and he was so deathly afraid of the water that I’d imagine he never learned — his fear was the result of not knowing how to swim, not the cause of it.  Because he didn’t know how, he was terrified to go in or even near water.  How was he ever going to learn?  And if he ever did, I’m sure just getting in the pool the first time was profoundly traumatic.)

040Unfortunately, when we left Virginia, and our DC-suburb condo, we also lost regular access to a swimming pool.  We’ve been swimming a handful of times since we’ve moved to Austria (many of them when we were visiting the States last summer), but not enough for the kids to really learn how, and I feel the fear of them not knowing how creeping in on me.  I want to take care of that before it sets in for the kids, too, so the boys took their first swimming lesson on Saturday.

As always, finding instruction in something in a foreign country is a challenge, especially because we wanted to find lessons in English if possible.  Dan found a place, and we took a scenic strassenbahn ride out to a lovely part of Döbling (an outer district of Vienna) that we’d never visited before.  And, as always, there were cultural lessons to go with the swimming ones.

First, even though I live in Europe, and have for two years, and even though I consider myself open-minded, I am always shocked by the lack of modesty and body consciousness here.  When we got to the pool and went to change into our swimsuits there was only one changing room.  Co-ed.  They had little changing closets with doors for privacy, but I’d say just over half of the people used them.  The others changed, with varying levels of discretion, right by their lockers.  While it was a surprise for my prudish American sensibilities, it also meant that I certainly had no qualms about changing the boys’ clothes out in the open, which made things easy.

Out by the pool, the same lack of body consciousness was evident — in a really positive way.  People of all sizes and ages and levels of fitness and physical attractiveness exhibited the same level of comfort with being in or around the pool.  Some wore tiny swimsuits, some were more covered up (though none more than me in my skirted suit — and I was far from being the oldest or heaviest person there).  I didn’t see a t-shirt or a cover-up anywhere, either.  And it just truly felt like no one cared.  No one was being objectified — neither being snickered at or leered at.  There wasn’t any staring, of any kind.  I got the sense that people were there to swim (duh) not to evaluate each other.  Everywhere I looked, I saw people just being people.  Not hiding or being embarrassed, but just sitting or walking or getting in the pool.  A few of the fit, pretty young women were preening a bit (and only a VERY little bit), but there just wasn’t the air of critique and shaming that I am so used to feeling poolside in the States.  Again, I felt silly for being so modest in my own swimsuit choice (which, interestingly, feels almost inappropriately skin-baring back home).  It’s an incredibly liberating feeling.  After my years of indoctrination into the American cultural idea that most people are unfit to wear a swimsuit, this feels like being dropped off on an alien planet (but WOW does it feel better).

043The swim lesson itself was great.  Our teacher, who thankfully spoke excellent English and didn’t seem put out about having to use it, did a great job of combining practice for B on basic skills like paddling and holding his breath with some introduction to other strokes and kicking styles.  Liam got a little overwhelmed and opted to mostly play, but he got more comfortable by the end, too.  B did the backstroke and even jumped into the pool on his own (which surprised me — especially when he repeated it several times) and, perhaps most importantly, did a little “swimming” by himself (with a ring) and climbed OUT of the pool on his own several times.  We go back again in 2 weeks, but I feel like we’re on our way to setting a good foundation for a really important skill.  And I’m always grateful with the eye-opening, preconception-breaking cultural education I get just from living here.  I’m learning to see a whole other possible reality.