|My husband pointing to a sign in Bulgarian at Sofia University|
My ironclad wish for my baby is that, when she grows up, she speaks at least two languages. Or three…
No, I am not some kind of Tiger Mum, applying advanced linguistic strategies to an 18-month old. I just would really, really like that my baby is able to communicate fluently at least in the two languages that define her: Bulgarian (on her mummy’s side, i.e. me) and English (on her daddy’s side, i.e. my husband).
Apart from making her capable of speaking without a translator to both sides of the family, knowing more than one language would give her direct and immediate access to two cultures, two sets of customs and celebrations, two literatures and histories. It will also help her later on in life, as language skills give you an edge on the work market.
Being a linguist myself and a fluent speaker of four languages, the theory of how to successfully raise a bilingual child holds no secrets for me.
In theory, the father in a linguistically mixed couple should speak to the child only in his native tongue, whereas the mother should speak to the child only in her native tongue. It is even possible to add a third person to the equation, like a granny or a nanny, who speaks to the child in a third language. The earlier you start, the better. The baby’s brain is perfectly capable of learning all these languages simultaneously and he or she starts identifying the respective parent or relative with the respective language.
There are a couple of ground rules though. The reason for these is that the child may refuse to make an effort to communicate in both languages and knowing full well that he or she is understood in one of them by both parents, to not bother with the other. As such:
1. At all points everyone should stick to their language and not switch back and forth.
2. Translating is not allowed, i.e. you can’t say something in your native tongue and then translate it into the other.
This, I had been assured whilst a University student of linguistics, is the formula that guarantees a child that happily and fluently speaks more than one language.
In practice though things turned out to be somehow a little bit more complicated…
Like every new mother, I would spend hours at a time cooing in Bulgarian to my newborn baby daughter. I was singing her songs, pointing things out to her, telling her little stories and simply engaging in the loving communication that builds the bonds between the parent and the child.
It was all good whilst we were on our own and my husband was at work, had nipped down to the shop or was simply in a different room in the flat. When we were together though the first linguistic hurdle manifested itself.
As clear and well laid out as the theory is, I realised that in fact it didn’t provide instructions for the language to be spoken when both parents are present. My husband can’t quite speak Bulgarian, he had tried to learn a bit, he is very good at reading the Cyrillic alphabet, but we have always communicated in English. I didn’t want him to feel excluded when I spoke to our baby in my mother tongue, so I broke rule number 1 above. I started switching back and forth, changing languages all the time and a couple of times even committing the ultimate linguistic faux-pas: mixing both English and Bulgarian words within the same sentence.
The knowledge that I wasn’t doing things by the book and that I was potentially compromising my baby’s early stages of absorption of Bulgarian was driving me mad. On the other hand, I didn’t want to appear rude and potentially make my husband feel excluded when we shared our first precious moments as a family.
My husband told me not to worry and just keep chatting in Bulgarian to her, but then I felt the need to repeat in English what I had just said in Bulgarian, so I broke rule number 2, too.
This went on for a couple of months.
I started chatting to people in the same situation as us, trying to find some way forward, as theory was obviously failing me.
I heard many different stories – each a different manifestation of the same mixed linguistic scenario. In some cases, one of the parents didn’t feel the need for their child to learn the language of the other parent. I was hugely relieved I didn’t have to deal with this. My husband has always expressed his desire for our baby to be bilingual.
In other cases, one of the parents insisted that his or her language is learnt first and only when the child was fluent in it to start teaching him the other. I knew full well this wouldn’t work for us, as it would be simply like learning a second language at school, rather than the all enveloping process of absorbing a mother’s or a father’s tongue from birth onwards.
In the best case scenario the parents showed understanding and respect for each other and simply kept speaking their own language to their offspring, helping their learning with songs, books and films in the respective tongue.
At the same time, I came across an article in the New Scientist magazine stating that babies start making a distinction between the two or more languages spoken to them from seven months of age onwards. Relieved that I still had time to go back to theory and stop breaking the rules, I switched back exclusively to Bulgarian in my communications with my daughter, who was six months old at the time.
Since then, I have made the following rules at home.
1. I always address my baby in Bulgarian and my husband always addresses her in English. It doesn’t matter if we were at home, outside or with relatives.
2. My husband and I communicate in English in front of our baby.
3. If the conversation involves our baby, I turn to her and talk to her in Bulgarian, then, if need be, I turn specifically to my husband and give him a quick update in English.
4. We both read to her, sing or play songs in our respective languages.
5. We actively teach her words in our respective languages.
6. As I am at home with her during the day, always talking in Bulgarian, in the evening my husband has time with her communicating in English.
It’s not always easy to stick unflinchingly to these rules, but they help tremendously and give us a clear outline to follow in our day-to-day communications.
Our baby, now 18 months old, already says several words in both English and Bulgarian. How her learning is progressing and what happened when we moved to live in Italy, adding a third language to the equation, I will explore in a subsequent post. Stay tuned!
In the meantime, do let me know your thoughts in the ‘Comments’ section bellow and share with me your experiences with teaching a baby to talk in one or more languages.
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