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! :)