Speaking in tongues

I wondered if we might explore the treasure chest that is bilingualism?

One year ago, my daughter, Zosia, had just passed her fourth birthday. One particularly fascinating aspect of fatherhood up to that point, and since, has been watching her language develop in a household where both Polish & English are used.

We decided from the start that I would speak English to her all the time and mum Polish. Alongside this, mum and I continued to speak English between us whilst rest of the family & world around her continued to speak Polish. This seems a cruel trick to play on a young baby who had enough to worry about already, but we did it, and she just soaked it all up and stuck to her neutral “Ba ba”, “Ooo Ga” and “Eeek!”, which we all understood perfectly well as ‘feed me’, ‘take me for a walk’ and ‘clean up this mess!’.

Of course, babcia will tell you that “ba-ba” was the first word spoken because Zosia wanted to reach out to her as a matter of urgency. It probably was the first sound used in any consistent manner but as far as I’m concerned the first word was probably “da-da”, as in “daddy” (as opposed to “ta-ta” from “tata”). All I can remember is how annoyed mummy was that after all the hard work she’d put in carrying the little angel around for 9 months, it wasn’t “ma-ma”! But this was a common thread of the very early stages, English was playing a bigger part than we imagined it would. Or so we thought.

With the benefit of hindsight, it was everyone else who wanted to categorize her communications as one language or another. I’m convinced that for her Polglish was just one big language (with very confusing grammar!) and she was picking whichever parts she liked best. Her understanding of both languages had always been equally excellent but her speech back then had been a mixture of the two with a leaning towards Polish. This resulted in, well, a bit of mess. I would be speaking English, she would be replying in Polish but a bunch of words would always be English. Sentences like “dai mi sweet!” or “where my parasolka is?” were entirely normal. The ‘r’ sound was very confusing. She could pronounce “read” and “red” perfectly whereas in Polish it was still “lyba” (fish) & “lower” (bicycle). But then again, “plaster” was “plastel” and “rózowy” had a great ‘r’.

She loved new words and phrases which would go in and out of fashion every week. I remember especially my amazement when Zosia said “It’s disappeared!” for the first time, perfectly in context. This was not a word I had been teaching her at all, I probably thought it was too advanced for a three year old, but it had obviously been used in conversation, she had learnt it and then decided to try it out.

It was only around the time of her 4th birthday that she worked out that there are two separate languages in her life. English works well with daddy (and a few other freaks) and Polish with everyone else. The time I really noticed we were making progress was in the middle of one night when she woke with a problem. This time of night/morning had been exclusively Polish, same as when she was sick or just very tired, but on this particular occasion I went to her and was told “Daddy, I’m cold.”.

Since then, we have stuck largely to the plan of English from me and Polish from mummy although the two do still get intertwined quite regularly mostly with her substituting Polish words where she does not know the English equivalent. An example from today, she had the boots but was looking for the rest of mummy’s horse riding equipment and the question was “Where is mummy’s cały sprzęt for this?” . Naturally enough, her Polish has advanced fastest and is really excellent for her age, even yesterday a nice old lady sat near us commented that Zosia has “very good Polish” and was deeply impressed by her ability to switch languages.

Her English has also improved greatly in the last year. Not to the same extent as her Polish but when we visit the UK she has absolutely no problem getting on with my family and friends. I think her English would by now be far better if she was attending an international or British school and getting more advanced English lessons. As it is, we decided that she would attend a Polish school and therefore the English lessons are way below her capabilities. She needs to learn more English words and have some serious grammar lessons. We’ll organise this but perhaps not for another year or so. Apart from grammar, her biggest issue at this very moment is confusing “any” and “no” as in anything, nothing, anyone, no-one. There are many other smaller mistakes made, like “Get me up” instead of “Lift me up”. Another one that is taking an age to correct is “Look on me/something” instead of “Look at me/something”. I just repeat what she said, but correctly, she listens and we get on with life. There is some evidence that this process works. When all is said and done, considering that I’m not sitting with her and giving English lessons in any way, she is coming on remarkably well.

The decision about a Polish school was a pretty easy one for us. It was made on the basis that whilst we are a dual-nationality family, we live in Poland and we have no intentions of leaving. The most important thing therefore is for her to be completely “Polish” so she is very comfortable in her own country. We felt that English would come naturally anyway from me, from trips to the UK and holidays, so forcing the issue by her attending a “foreign” school was not a great idea. Apart from these considerations we had also seen the experiences of a friend of ours who’s son attended “The American School”. We saw two main problems; first was that many of the kids disappeared after a while as their families moved on to new postings in other countries and secondly, many of the families of these children were not, let’s say, “our type”. The children of these ambassadors, diplomats, high powered execs and rich Poles set the bar on disposable income way too high for our liking. There was no way we wanted to get into the peer pressure need for that ski trip to Ponce-de-Blah with the latest fashionable equipment just because the other families had their enormous school fees paid by the company/state or were just plain richer than we were! We’ve chosen a good, private, Polish school which is full of good Polish people and we’re all very happy with that. Still not cheap mind you, in GBP terms it’s about 250 a month but the good news, apparently, is that when she starts at proper school we can expect the costs to stay the same, or even go down.

One factor that seems to be critical with bilingualism is the issue of how important the second language is to the child. Specifically, the language spoken between the parents. In our case, English is made more important by the fact that she can see that mummy and daddy use it to communicate with each other. I am therefore not the only reason that English is important. In other families, where the parents use Polish between them, it is quite common for the child to not treat the second language seriously, or to be embarrassed about using it. If both parents can happily speak the main language, then why bother with the second one?! In Zosia’s case, if there is any embarrassment, it is about the fact that daddy’s Polish is not great! She has no problem with using English, she is often even quite proud about it, even amongst Poles, which is wonderful.

I suppose I am feeling a little left-out in that mummy is able to have far better conversations with Zosia than I am but then we’re trying to do the right thing for Zosia, not for me and there’s always the chance that it might help me become more bilingual myself! My latest round of Polish lessons starts in June, by the way, so watch out! :)

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19 thoughts on “Speaking in tongues

  1. Pawel says:

    Interesting post Scatts… socialising a child to two languages and two cultures….

    Here’s a tiny suggestion, maybe it’ll come handy, maybe not – but I thought maybe if you’d like to expand your daughter’s English vocabluary, it could be a good idea to read her bedtime stories in English?

  2. scatts says:

    I already do, Pawel, and have been since she was a baby. She also watches a mixture of TV in both languages. They both help.

    The bedtime stories were planned to be alternating, one night me, next night mum, but Zosia either likes the English books or likes me reading so every night (almost) she says “Daddy’s reading!”.

    I was wrong if I made it sound like her English vocab was poor because it certainly isn’t. I have no tools for measurement but I would say her English is 25% worse than a kid raised with one language in England and her Polish is 25% better than most Polish five year olds.

  3. guest says:

    The english vocab is not the problem (she can learn in when she gets older). A nice english accent is more important IMO. :) i think it would be cool if she can speak both languages with the original accent.

  4. geez says:

    My Polish wife and I have raised our kids bilingual in the U.S. in much the same way you are raising your kid in Poland.

    They are certainly more fluent in English but they more than get by in Polish.

    When we’ve been to Poland when they were smaller, we loaded up on Polish children’s books and videos to take home.

    Bottom line is that they will be best at the language their peers speak.

    So my guess is that Zosia will be better at Polish but she will easily be able to carry on all kinds of conversations in English for now.

    Later, given the greater Polish prediliction for learning second languages, and having more opportunities to do so, she’ll be speaking and reading and functioniong overall better in English than my kids in Polish. There just aren’t any high school Polish classes in the US and very few colleges that offer Polish.

  5. geez says:

    I should note, too, that I’ve noticed that those once-a-week Polish Saturday or whateverday schools probably do more to diminish kids desire and ability to speak Polish. They’re pretty much forced by matronly teachers to wear costumes, dance Polish dances and the boys especially tend to see it all as rather silly. Bad, boring Christmas plays and the like, too. We’ve never sent our kids to these schools and other Polish parents (both mother and father being immigrants) are amazed that our kids speak and understand Polish better than theirs because they pretty much speak Polish exclusively in their homes, having let the kids tend to their own via playmates and school for learning English. What’s important is to speak a lot at home, in both languages, and make sure the kids are read to and read in both languages. A one day-a-week school for a few hours ain’t gonna make that happen. It’s up to the parents. So go figure.

  6. simon says:

    I wouldn’t worry too much about your daughter’s language skills. My kids are 7 and 9, and they’re just now getting around to not completely mixing them up, though admittedly they grew up with three languages (Bulgarian, Polish and English). My older son seems to be more motivated to speak English than my daughter, maybe because he gets a lot of positive feedback about it in his English class in school. What I’ve noticed is that reading books helps, but what really gets them going is cartoons on TV – we got the digital box from Aster especially for that purpose. I normally don’t like the commercial tripe you get on TV, but it’s almost impossible to keep them from watching it anyway, so it might as well be in English. It does make a dramatic difference.

  7. yellerbelly says:

    We have two boys, but they are both under the age of three, so speech development is not as big a priority as walking at the moment! However, our eldest is really developing his speech and has the same problems as you mention above. He understands perfectly both languages (albeit his ‘selective hearing’ kicks in from time to time), but his speech is still very blurred and mostly incomprehensible. However, he knows what he wants to say and repeats it again if you ask him, which I take as a positive step. The pronunciation is the tricky bit.

    At the moment, he can clearly say “open drzwi”, “no spać” and “big si-si” (as in Alex already went for a big pee in his trousers) and several other two word combos in both Polish and English. Meals are always “dinner”. And because we always fly back to the UK to see Gramps and Granny, it’s always “plane”, never samolot.

    Some say that a child does not distinguish between the two languages until much later on – Daddy speaks one way and Mummy a different way. But once when my wife started reading a bedtime story in English, Alex said “no mummy english – mummy speak polish”. So I don’t believe this to be true.

    Sadly, the only English that our kids get is when I read them a bedtime story (which I try to do every night), or at weekends when we speak English to each other around the house.

    Even throughout all this confusion, I am sure their little brains must be developing quicker and soaking up something extra compared to those single-language families. Perseverance, no unnecessary pressure and time are key I think.

  8. anglopole says:

    Scatt, thanks A LOT for your post! You’ve put my heart at rest. My family and I live in England. My husband is a Nigerian and doesn’t speak Polish, so we speak English at home, naturally. When I am on my own with our two boys (3,5 and 18 months) I try to speak Polish more than I do English (often is Polglish that I speak myself:/ ). Jasper, the older one, understands Polish but doesn’t really want to speak it – he just uses single words and produces sentences similar to what you’ve described, eg. ‘mommy, my hand boli ‘ or ‘idziemy by car’…. For a long time, Jasper was using his own made-up language and I was worried at some point so I thought that I too should just speak English to him. But it was just a temporary stage and I was encouraged by our friend who is a speech therapist to speak Polish to him, as usual.
    He’s now at the stage of repeating everything and so it is a good time for me to work on his Polish, which he definitely treats as a second language. I’m more confident with our younger son and know he’ll find it easier to speak both languages:)
    There are Saturday schools for Polish kids here and I’ve heard that it’s actually a good idea for kids to be attending them….

    Anyway, patience, time and a lot of good sense of humour should help our cheeky monkeys learn both the languages well!

  9. Reason says:

    Very good. We have some friends who were even able to take it a step further with stupendious results. Mom is Polish, Father Austrian. Both speak English fluently as well. Mother only speaks Polish, Father only English and she picked up her ‘Austrian German’ through school, interactions with other kids, father’s family etc. Now she is a 8 year old that speaks fluently in all three languages.

    It is a gift that the child will have (as yours will) for the rest of her life.

    Well done!!

  10. Radek says:

    Good approach to teaching your kid two languages. You should count your lucky stars that you are not in my brothers situation (and their child) – my brother is Polish, his wife is Portuguese and they live in the states/UK and communicated with each other in English – try three languages on for size :)

    No problem understanding all three languages but the conversations are truly trilingual :)

  11. Michael says:

    Good post. I just became the father of a child here in Poland, and I can barely speak Polish. But we’re planning to be doing just about the same thing that you’re describing. I only speak to the child in English, and mom speaks only Polish to the child. But it’s nice to hear that it’s working for you. Both of us are terrified about the whole bilingual thing. Good luck in the future.

  12. Biluś says:

    Agree with everybody here: well done and thanks for the post! My daughter is 3 and a half and we didn’t plan anything other than just speaking sometimes English, sometimes Polish when it’s natural to us (for us the lovely mix is ‘Penglish’) with her from day 1 and she just gets it.

    I was so proud and amazed when we rang English Gran and Grandad (who have no Polish) a few months ago and she chatted to them in English for 5 minutes; at which point, we rang Dziadek and Babcia (who have no English) and she just naturally switched to their tongue: astounding!


  13. richardlith says:

    Remember that bilingualism is the norm for the majority of people in the world, so parents should not worry too much.

    How you raise your children bilingually will often be based on how you raise your child generally.

    Language is a central issue in a household with two cultures, and the third that is the mixture of the two. However, there is no mention of other matters of raising children in a mixed household. For example, I am Scottish, wife Lithuania. Most differences over raising the children centre on attitudes to education and learning, dress, healthcare, manners, even bedtime and afternoon naps (East Europeans can’t understand the British 7 pm strict bedtime, Briton don’t seem to accept afternoon naps.) We both often think back to our childhoos for examples to follow (or not), and they are often very different. Our expectation often diverge.

    You also have granny’s well-meaning bafflement with some aspects of hte other cultures. The Polish granny will stereotypically say outright that this is wrong, the British granny will say nothing.

    In the UK, you can usually tell the Polsih and ther East European children. They are dressed impeccably, and always seem to be much neater and cleaner than English three/four-year olds. And the Poles always wear their coats zipped up from Septemer to May (the same with the adults). The English never seem to do that!

    It is all an extension of a mixed relationship. constant learning and adapting, even after 10-20 years.

    Looking to the future, I am gained insights by speaking to adults who were brought up in bilingual, bicultural households and . There are many different points of view. Some bilinguals are most friendly with other bilinguals, other favour one language and culture. Sometimes one brother favours France and lives there, while the other favours English and lived in London.

    Some embrace both cultures, while other feel like an outsider in both.

    There are not right or wrong answers. You have to work it out for yourself. Makes family life more intense and interesting.

  14. island1 says:

    Great post Scatts, this is an issue that affects a lot of people now and is only going to become more and more significant as time goes on. Can you imagine the kind of cross-cultural mash-ups your grandchildren are going to be exposed to?

  15. […] writes at Polandian about raising a child in “two languages and two cultures” – Polish and English. Posted by Veronica Khokhlova Share […]

  16. […] writes at Polandian about raising a child in “two languages and two cultures” – Polish and […]

  17. Krystian says:

    I am not bilingual, but I’ve had many bilingual friends and I’ve read a lot on the subject. There are many great books on parenting a bilingual (and bi-cultural) child, and one I could recommend is ‘A Parents’ & Teachers’ Guide to Bilingualism’ by Colin Baker (seems to be out of stock at Amazon, but I’m sure you could get one at Abebooks.com). You can get more results by doing a search for “bilingualism” or “bilingual children” on abebooks.com(/co.uk), amazon.com(/co.uk), or on Google to find websites about issues in raising a child in a bilingual environment (including some support sites for parents).

    My insight, for what it’s worth:

    Do not confuse language learning and language acquisition. Your daughter is not LEARNING either of her two languages. She is picking them up naturally, all well-meaning corrective parental intrusions into grammar and idiom notwithstanding. I do not think that everyone will agree with me on this, but I personally think it’s VITAL not to expose her to English classes at this very young age – and I mean English taught as a foreign language, like to Poles at ‘English schools’. For a bilingual person, the two languages are similar to two different sub-personalities – each language has its own array of word-associations, collocations, shades of emotional significance, recollections, etc. Your daughter’s personality and self-awareness (being aware of how your mind works) are most probably not yet fully developed. Her bi-lingual language competence might not be at its full yet, but she is developing mental connections and representations of the world along with the languages, and she is (unconsciously) coming up with little conceptual theories and rules for which culture or language-specific rule should be used in a specific situation. Like most kids her age, she will have trouble making sense of many things in the world, and the fact that her language reflects that is by no means a reason to worry about her linguistic development. In simplest terms, the same things would be going on in her mind if she was monolingual, but she would have no means of expressing some of what she is thinking, and English (or Polish) words and expressions, as well as grammatical constructions, allow her to experiment in this way.

    I am referring mainly to the examples of code-switching (mixing two languages) and interference (saying something considered incorrect in one language due to the unconscious application of a rule or idea found in another language and absent in the other). When she says “Where is mummy’s cały sprzęt for this?” the reason that she uses a Polish phrase instead of saying something in English is that a)she has learned a way of expressing the idea behind “cały sprzęt” in one language only so far b)her mind is smart enough to insert a Polish phrase where none other is available to express the idea behind “cały sprzęt” – instead of substituting a “filler item” like “erm…/you know…that thing for the thing” etc and c)the social situation she is in triggers the awareness that a mixed-language response is possible (i.e. “Daddy understands Polish sometimes, it’s possible that he will get it this time, too, so it’s a rational choice for me to use a Polish phrase rather than saying nothing”). Notice how a monolingual child MIGHT be limited in what they could say in a situation like that :) Her code-switching (using elements of another language in an utterance), as well as any interference (in a less obvious way) are both signs of the inquisitive human mind coming up with and testing out new theories as to what tools (e.g. linguistic tools) can be used to solve a particular situation.

    What your daughter does should NEVER be confused with the code-switching and interference that you can hear from non-bilingual Polish adults trying to speak English. The difference here is that at the time they started to be exposed to English, they were mentally mature enough to have full self-awareness (in a sub-conscious, mental processing sense) and they were able to make more-or-less conscious choices of how to respond (linguistically) in a given situation. For most people, this is the age of 9 and above (i.e. this is when their self-awareness and personality become set). For most adults, it is extremely difficult to open their minds to new ideas in the way that acquiring a new culture with its language requires (“culture” here refers to something very general, e.g. attitudes, gesture language, sense of humor, social rules (e.g. personal bubble negotiation, when to change the volume of your speaking voice and why – all pretty much unconscious), etc). As a result, after years of instruction, even though they do seem to speak in the foreign language, they don’t really THINK in the same way a native speaker would. Most of the foreign-language rules they employ are either plastered onto a first-language rule (e.g. “the idea that the word FINGER expresses=the idea expressed by the word PALEC”), or memorized and employed like little counting tricks, i.e. something you think about consciously but don’t say out loud and which helps you come up with something to say (“oh wait this is about the capital of a European country next to Spain but not Portugal and fameous for its disenchantment with personal hygiene…WHAT IT “PARIS?” – compare with “oh wait I want to say something about the Past but I am not indicating any explicit temporal location so it must be the Present Perfect Tense…IT HAS DISAPPEARED!”). This, I repeat, is NOT what goes on in your daughter’s mind, no matter how similar it might outwardly seem to be. Because of this, trying to solve her English idiosyncrasies by sending her to a class where English is taught as a foreign language would most probably not only NOT work but would also be psychologically damaging and may discourage her from using English altogether! (Of course, most parents’ intentions when they do that are good and the decision is understandable if the parents simply lacked the knowledge necessary to realize what really is going on). To you daughter, English is not “a language” but, say, something more like “talking to daddy” – the whole gamut of concepts, memories, little theories and rules, as well as grammar and language that is naturally “activated” by a “trigger” – a visual stimulus (seeing daddy) an aural stimulus (hearing daddy or hearing someone speak English), etc. You can’t put her in an environment where a bunch of kids will speak strange, meaningless sentences and mangled versions of sentences she has heard, and where a (Polish-sounding) instructor will continuously try to make her repeat isolated English words, find Polish versions of English words (i.e. “translate”), and insist on speaking to her in English, while obviously sounding like a Polish person and therefore triggering the “speaking to Polish people” mode in your daughter. At “higher levels” the teachers will also ego-trip, putting your daughter down a peg or two any time they can for “believing she is better than they are” with her English. This is what Polish teachers of English do when they have a bilingual kid in class, and I know many horror stories related to that, including instances of such behavior in a university-level educational situational (i.e. “Philology” teachers blatantly bullying bilinguals).

    From what I can tell, the two most important rules to remember when raising a bilingual (and bicultural) kid are “set clear boundaries for the use of each language” and “accept the fact that there are practically no “balanced” bilinguals and one of the languages will always be lacking in some way”. You set clear boundaries for language use by only speaking to your daughter in English when you are alone, using English for all-family communication, and her speaking only Polish with her mom. If no such boundaries are observed, the child quickly becomes confused and begins to speak only the language of the general community (it seeming more useful and the use of other language coming across as a game in which adults engage at their fancy, a confusing game which the child might not be willing to play). If you continue to stick to these boundaries, your child will slowly develop clear-cut boundaries between when to use one language and when to use another in her mind. By slowly, I mean before the age of 9, more or less. You should not have your wife speak English to your daughter on a whim, and you should NEVER attempt to “practice your Polish” with your daughter (I’ve seen Polish parents do this with their English in Greenpoint – a sad thing to see, as they were training their kids to drop their Polish and cutting themselves off from the chance of ever having the opportunity to talk with their child in their native language). If you blur these boundaries, it will be hard for your daughter’s mind to tell when to “activate” one language/culture set and when to use the other, i.e. she will have too few “triggers” to attach these concepts to and thus will be unable to form a coherent idea of what is one language/culture and what should be considered another, and will naturally fall on the language of the community to use as sole means of communication (as she is exposed to it the most, and the triggers for it are easy to go by, their being “everything and everyone” ;)). Another reason for not switching comes from a story related to me by a tri-lingual friend of mine. Her mother spoke one language, her father spoke another, and the language of the community (school, TV, etc) was yet another language, which in itself can serve as an illustration of how important these consistent triggers are (with good, natural (non-imposed), consistent triggers, children can grow up to be quadro-lingual or more with no effort whatsoever). Because her parents understood one another’s native languages perfectly, the boundaries set for that bilingual family were: mom spoke with her daughter in her native language only, dad spoke with his daughter in his native language only, and family communication was carried out with mom and dad using their respective native languages, and their daughter speaking to each parent in his or her native language. On one occasion, when my friend was around 3 years old (already a fluent speaker generally but still code-switching a lot) her parents, not only understanding each other’s languages but also being perfectly fluent in both, decided to switch their languages (dad speaking mom’s native language and mom speaking dad’s native language) just once to see what happens. My friend seemed to remember all of this very clearly, recalling that she a)stood in shock with her mouth agape for a minute b)burst out in tears, screaming “this is all wrong!! this is not right!!!” c)ran to her room and took 30 minutes to calm down and stop crying, with both parents promising they would never repeat the experiment ;) Interestingly, she is now perfectly fluent in both those languages, but her younger brother only has a limited, passive understanding of her mother’s native language. Reason? As her mother had spent a really long time in a community dominated by her husband’s language by the time her second child was born, she gradually switched to using only her husband’s language most of the time (apart from one-on-one time with her daughter), and was not consistent in speaking to her son in her native language. As a result, the boy did not pick up much of her mother’s language and actually actively resisted learning it, sensing he was not proficient enough and afraid of “losing face”.

    Many scholars agree that one of the indications of top mastery of the bilingual child’s two languages can be seen in attempts to employ one of the languages in a situation where either would be understood to gain a specific outcome (this, I believe, is referred to as “instrumental use of language”). Another story I got about this, from a different bilingual friend, concerned the following instrumental use of language: my friend and her younger sister (Polish family in London) were fighting over a toy (say, a doll). At some point, my friend shouted “Give me that!!” and then, seeing that her command had no apparent effect, called upon an authority by adding “BO POWIEM MAMIE!!!!”. :) The exchange here is based on a) the awareness that for both the people present one language is assigned to a specific trigger (MAMA, and MAMA as “source of punishment and disciplinary action”) b) the awareness that the language associated with that trigger will call up that trigger (i.e. the impact of saying “I’m gonna tell mum!” would not have been as immediately effective and powerful). Bilinguals learn to recognize those rules, functions and perks of each language consciously given enough time, but the moment they start using their languages “instrumentally” without thinking about it at first marks the height of their unconscious mastery of their bilingual capabilities (also, interestingly, bilingual people use more interference and code-switching, sometimes without even being aware of it, when they know the other person will be able to comprehend the other language, even as adults – but they are able to suppress that if needed).

    The books and websites I mentioned above should provide a lot of ideas as to how to give your daughter enough regular, hassle and effort-free English-stimulation, but one always needs to remember the second rule of bilingual parenting – naturally, the two languages will NEVER be balanced – one can’t just have 2 versions of every single cultural experience they have every moment of their lives :) As the bilingual person matures, their command of their “weaker” language (i.e. the non-dominant language in the community, which English would be in your case) can improve as well, given enough consistent exposure to that language and culture. It might be a good idea to provide SOME education in the “weaker” language (how else will the child learn the simples mathematical terms that everybody in the weak-language culture knows, or its spelling rules), though in this day and age, providing consistent English-language stimulation should be really easy (Cable / Satellite TV.. think Sesame Street). If possible, she should regularly spend a longer period of time (a month or two?) in the “weak-language” culture (allowing your [young teenage] child to study for a year in another country seems to provide great results, provided the experience can be stress-free). One bilingual person I know (Bulgarian-Polish) learned her Polish during summer vacation that she spent every year (starting when she was 5) at her grandparents’ in Poland. When I met her, she spoke perfect, educated Polish (she came to live and study Philosophy – in Polish – for 5 years after highschool). Stories like these can provide much useful information (again, the books and websites might come in handy). Good luck to you and your bilingual family!!

  18. scatts says:

    Krystian, many thanks indeed for taking the time to post all that information. It makes perfect sense to me and judging by what you say, you clearly know your subject and so I intend to take it seriously.

    No English lessons at all until after age 9. Stick as best we can to the already laid down rules. Don’t expect miracles.

    A few observations. She has already started this “instrumental use of language”, in a limited way, but I have noticed her making concious decisions to use the least obvious language to get a result. I didn’t know what it was until I read your comment and I shall now try to pay more attention to these instances.

    On the question of translating. We do that between us, she helps me with Polish words I might be missing and vice versa. She has recently taken to asking me to “say something Polish” which may have come from school because her classmates either don’t believe I only speak English or don’t believe I can speak some Polish (not sure which) so the first such request was when picking her up from school by way of a demonstration for her mates! I suppose all this interaction is okay between her and I, versus between her and any potential English teacher.

    She also does not like it when we change the rules. She objects to mummy speaking to her in English, not violently, but she’s not comfortable. She seems okay with me in both languages.

    She does not perform, and I think perform is a good word, as well in English lessons at playschool as she should. Or perhaps as the teacher would like her to. I see now that this is most likely because it is “outside the rules”, daddy is not there and we’re not in a foreign country so she should really be speaking Polish now. I’ll try to explain that situation a bit to her because she might be confused.

    Anyway, thanks again and I’ve put your comment in the hat for the annual Polandian prize for both “longest” and “most helpful” comment!!

  19. Krystian says:

    I think you can just forget about English lessons, as in English as a Foreign language. Even when she’s older and her English is “set,” the Polish teachers will tease her for speaking real English, try to show her in every possible instance that their English is far superior, and if she happens to wind up with a really intelligent teacher with a lot of insight, that teacher will just tell you the truth, i.e. that there is nothing your daughter can learn in an English class for foreigners. Perhaps you could consider French instead :) A native speaker of a language, no matter how wide her cultural and educational experience IN the language is, does NOT need instruction in the foreign language designed for foreign learners. There are many things you can do to work on her English. On one occasion I was approached by a mother of a six-year-old who was looking for a way to keep her English intact. Her daughter was trilingual, with German and Polish as her main languages (the languages her parents spoke), and English as a native but weak language. She picked English up during three years of English-only kindergarten, and she was as fluent in English as in both her other languages, but as the parents could no longer afford that pricey English-language school, they were afraid that the daughter would lose her English due to no exposure. The mother wanted me to find a teacher for the girl, but I looked for a native speaker of English instead to kind of babysit the girl or play with her, using English as their means of communication, and it worked out fine. When she reaches school age, you can also try to find an English-speaking expatriate or a Polish-English bilingual with some experience in early education (or just someone with a talent for that and enough of the knowledge necessary) to provide your daughter with a sort of relaxed home-schooling in English (in many different subjects). Or you could educate yourself in home-schooling and do it yourself. At high school level (maybe even at middle-school level, I don’t know), there are many schools in Poland offering a bi-lingual program, where some of the subjects are taught exclusively in English or intermittently in English and Polish. She needs no English-as-a-Foreign-Language lessons, but she does need immersion in the language. Please get a book or two and look at the websites, they explain all that in greater detail (another book I can recommend is “Bilingual Children: From Birth to Teens” by George Saunders).

    As far as speaking Polish to your daughter, I guess it might not be a huge influence on her English if you only do it occasionally (e.g. to prove to her friends that you indeed can speak some Polish), but at some point, seeing how you Polish is getting so much better, your daughter might start asking you to speak Polish to her only. Now how would you go about not granting her that request? I know several families where the children only understand some Polish/English now (i.e. at some point they started speaking only the dominant language of their general community); these people grew up in bilingual households where the weaker language (non-dominant in the community, e.g. not the one used at school, on television, etc) was only used occasionally, or casually, since both the parents knew the language of the community and the “weak” language well enough. You can always tell when a person comes from a Polish family where Polish was kept as the family language in the English-speaking country they emigrated to, as opposed to a person who grew up in a family where the parents casually spoke Polish to each other and sometimes to the children, but the children mostly responded in English, and occasionally in Polish when they were young, and then stuck to English only after their personalities developed more fully. In the latter case, the language those people speak is devoid of most grammar (as in morphology, inflection, etc), is heavily accented (there are few “difficult” Polish sounds like the ć in ćma spoken, or none at all), and it is extremely difficult for them to keep up any sort of exchange (as they were only used to uttering single phrases or sentences in Polish from time to time throughout their lives). These people’s vocabulary might not be that limited, but they usually do not understand any subtler or idiomatic aspects of the language, say, the difference between “umrzeć” and “zdechnąć”. In the latter case, sometimes the Polish these people speak is impeccable (and might even be “too good” as in literary and formal), sometimes they will have some noticeable accent here and there (which usually goes away after they spend some time in a Polish-only environment), and sometimes (rarely) they will drop an ending or use the wrong inflection, but the total experience is markedly different – the intuitive response that people have is that they are talking to a Polish person with some unusual language quirks. In case of the more “relaxed” bilingualism, the feeling you get when you’re talking to a person like that is that you are talking to an English person with some knowledge of Polish. Additionally, it is VERY easy for the almost-full bilingual to overcome any odd bits they weaker language might have (but why would they need to?), but it is EXTREMELY difficult for the “relaxed” bilingual to master their weaker language. I am speaking from experience, having met many people in both categories and watched their linguistic development. So this is the danger of relaxing your linguistic boundaries with your daughter. The most important thing, of course, is for your daughter to have a happy and secure childhood, and I would say that making her speak only English to you against her will should never happen. But, also in the interest of your kid’s happiness and security, the general idea is that you can work on ways for her NOT to have to want to let go of her “weaker” language, and this is what the books and websites are for (there are other problems that she will be facing, like the stigma of otherness that might come with her friends’ realization that she is infinitely better than them in some way, and this is just another reason why English class at a Polish school should be avoided; these things are discussed in those books and websites as well).

    As far as expecting miracles goes – I believe that having a native command of two languages is a perfect miracle. Imagine being able to, say, speak perfect French at will, with no effort, confident in the knowledge that it will always be perfect and you will never forget the language. Imagine having the cultural repository of two different cultures – like being able to hook up the mind of a Greek to yours just for a time – isn’t that a miracle? Think how much easier this could make life if you found a way to tap into that potential – the obvious career advantage is just one of the many superpowers of the bilingual. It has also been demonstrated that bilinguals are more intelligent and insightful, and learn new languages more quickly and with a greater degree of understanding than monolinguals do. The list goes on – and all these superpowers do not require a “perfect command” of any of those languages. There is no such thing as a perfect command of a language, except in the fantasies of ill-educated grammar purists. It might be the case that at 19, your daughter will realize she does not know the English word for “wodór” (=hydrogen) in the middle of a conversation with her English-speaking scientist friends. Admitting that would only make her seem more “exotic”, wouldn’t you agree? :) This is what people mean by “there are no balanced bilinguals” – like I said, you can’t have 2 versions of every experience, so every bilingual will lack the knowledge of some words (or even “cultural” things like the lyrics to a song everybody knows because it was on the radio in England everywhere 3 years ago when your daughter was living in Poland) – contrasted against the miraculous superpowers that bilingualism brings, I don’t think those potential tiny little gaps could really be seen as a disadvantage of raising your kid to be a true bilingual.

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