Monolingual Reactions to a Bilingual Baby

by multilingualmania on May 13, 2010

in Raising Bilingual Children

Today we have a new contributor joining us! Her name is Melissa and she is raising her daughter to speak English, Slovak and Czech!!

When my daughter was maybe around a year old, our friends visited us for the weekend.  Czech wife, Dutch husband, speak English together.  They were playing with the baby in the living room while I cooked dinner in the kitchen, when the wife ran in to me in a slight panic and said, “She’s telling me something and I can’t understand what she’s saying!”  I could have told her it was babble, but I went in to make sure I couldn’t distinguish anything either.  I couldn’t.

Baby K was just talking – intently, purposefully and at some length – convinced in her own mind that she was communicating a perfectly understandable (and important!) thought.  Anyone with kids will know what I’m talking about!  She wasn’t talking any human language, not Slovak or English or anything else.  My friend, understanding both Slovak and English well, was in a good position to know that Baby K was talking nonsense, but K convinced them both she was really saying something.

This sort of thing happened fairly often with K’s Slovak grandparents, too.  She would be babbling away and Babka (grandma) would say, “Translate for me!”  She never did believe us when we insisted we didn’t understand, either.  She thought the babble was fluent sentences and paragraphs in English (at one year old!) and didn’t understand why we would withhold a translation from her!  Now that K can actually talk, we can give a translation if necessary, since she still hasn’t worked out who all understands which language.  Before, we would have been just making something up.

I know that baby babble and even crying can sometimes sound like the home language [for example http://www.uni-wuerzburg.de/en/sonstiges/meldungen/detail/artikel/sprache-be/], so you could say that K really did babble in English.  So it was interesting that the same thing happened the other way around: people in England often assumed K was speaking fluent Slovak and would ask us what she was saying.  I think that just the knowledge that your family is multilingual makes people assume that whatever they don’t understand must be perfectly comprehensible in the other language.  A logical assumption, if not a valid one!

A perhaps related phenomenon that I noticed around the same time was that some people actually attempted to USE the other language with Baby K.  We’re talking can’t locate Slovakia on a map, but overhear the Slovak speaking to his child and they imitate what he says.  Or the opposite direction, can’t say more than three words in English* but overhear me and imitate what I say.  It’s actually kind of sweet, really, and obviously comes from a good place: trying to communicate with K in a way she will understand, in a language that means absolutely nothing to you, trying to show acceptance and support for a multilingual family.  Bad from a purity of OPOL approach, and involving some really horrifying pronunciation, but sweet.

I always remember the time a teenage girl of our acquaintance here in England opened her arms to K and called “Nazdar nazdar nazdar!” (like “hey hey hey!”).  She said, “That means come here, right?  I overheard her daddy say that.”

We had to do a lot of reminding and requesting to convince Babka not to tell Baby K, “No” in English.**  After all, her visits are one of K’s only sources of Slovak!  Say “nie” for crying out loud!  How will she learn to distinguish if you mix it up on her?

“But she doesn’t understand me when I say nie in Slovak!” she always objected.

“No,” we replied, “she understands, she just doesn’t want to DO it!”

Haha.  That’s our stubborn girl.

* I am so not exaggerating.  They told me everyone in Europe speaks English and only we Americans speak just the one language, but it’s not true!  I mean, maybe I married into the one family on the whole continent where English is an uncrackable secret code, but I’m thinking there are more.

** That’s one of the three words.

About the Author: Melissa is an American married to a Slovak, based in Prague, Czech Republic (but temporarily living outside London, UK), raising a 2.5 year old daughter with English, Slovak and Czech.  Melissa speaks English and Czech and understands Slovak, her husband speaks Slovak and English (and French, Hungarian and some Russian), and their daughter K speaks English and Slovak and will be learning Czech when they return to Prague from England later this year.  You can follow their language learning and language mixing experiences at Where Going Havo?

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{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Sandrine May 14, 2010 at 12:24 am

This is a great post! I can relate to some of this – so many people in Turkey insist that if you’re a foreigner your children have to be spoken to in English. I can’t count the times when people in shops, taxi drivers, even doctors, have insisted on speaking English to my son even when I’ve told them he didn’t really understand it but was fluent in Turkish! Then they’ll usually say a thing or two in Turkish at him, laugh at the very idea, and revert to the few words of English they know! Good luck with Czech! Hope you have a great time in Prague, I envy you!

Christine May 14, 2010 at 8:38 am

Love this! I laughed at the bit about babbling in different languages. I remember my MIL being delighted when our babies rolled their “r’s” while babbling. She insisted that they were babbling in French. I told her that American babies lay in their cribs and babble “the the the the the” with a perfect “th-” sound, just to tease her.

Melissa May 14, 2010 at 1:20 pm

I’d better not even start about people insisting on speaking English…we’ve had that some with people speaking to K on this trip. It took me years to convince people I really speak Czech, too. Persistence! is all I can say. :)

multilingualmania May 16, 2010 at 3:25 pm

It must be that people are excited about the possibility of trying to speak and practice English! I find that sometimes when I travel, some people also want to just speak to me in English, although I keep speaking in Spanish. At first I thought that it was bizarre, but then I started to wonder if they just want opportunities to practice their English. -Melanie

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