Raising Bilingual Expat Children and Notes on CussingPublished December 14, 2012 , By Laura
Kids are like sponges … especially when it comes to cussing
People ask me all the time about my kids’ language skills. The general expectation is that children learn new languages easily; they’re like sponges!
Well, yes and no. My kids pick up on cuss words like sponges. Hell yeah. I said “fuck” one time (one time!) recently when I smacked my head in the shower. (Did mention it hurt like a mf?)
Then two days later (two days!) Maksim recounted the following tale. Note: he still doesn’t speak in tenses yet.
Momma, you did udari [means "hit," he also mixes languages] your glava [head] in the shower. [Pause for effect.] … And you said, Fuck!
[He repeated the word just as I'd said it; with angry gusto.]
My response: Yes, Maksim, yes I did. I hurt myself. And then my little boy kissed my head gently, and said, “Nema veze.” [Roughly: "It's nothing," the Serbian version of "All better!"]
Much to my surprise, I haven’t heard him say the f-word again.
Bilingual with non-curse words
But instilling proper grammar and a wide vocabulary in two languages? Well, that takes work.
I’ve written before about Danica’s struggle transitioning as a talkative English speaker into full immersion Serbian preschool. Tammy Furey talked about this phenomenon recently over at Geneva Family Diaries
The reality of our children moving to a new country and going to a local or international school is very different. It may be fine. I have known children who just dive in and adapt astonishingly quickly. Which is marvellous. Jolly well done.
Then there is every child in-between, who has their own world, their own coping mechanisms, their own speed and their own quirks. That’s what makes our children special: their unique natures.
We moved when she was two-and-a-half, and a full year before I heard Danica speak more than ten Serbian words. It was just hi, bye, dog, cat, etc. She didn’t like making mistakes, so when she finally did begin speaking Serbian at three-and-a-half, it was pretty much fully formed. Nearly five, her Serbian, I’m told by native speakers, is čisto, or clear.
For Danica, Serbian was always a distinct language from English. She rarely mixes the two, unless it is with a clear pause to ask how to say a word in the opposite language.
Danica used to have a regular American kind of West Coast/nondescript accent. Now she definitely speaks English with a Serbian accent. (However she does know to remove her trilled “r” and harsh “h” when speaking English.)
Maksim? Well, he has a toddler accent, no trilled “r” in Serbian yet.
People ask me all the time, How is their English?
Really, I have no idea, I have no point-of-reference. I’m sure it’s not as good as American kids speaking only English.
Learning two languages at the same time
Maksim is learning English and Serbian in tandem. His first words were mama, tata (Daddy), daj (give, as in give it to me!), and no. His first signs were “eat” and “more.”
From when he was one, he mixed English and Serbian with impunity. At two-and-a-half he began to differentiate between languages, speaking to his teachers in Serbian and turning to me to repeat the same thing in incorrect English. He now speaks in sentences, but in English he mixes up word order, since those rules are more fluid in Serbian.
Maksim recently joined Danica in praising me when, in their opinion, I do a good job speaking Serbian. They say (in Serbian) something to the effect of: Wow, Mama, you said everything right! … And then Danica proceeds to correct my grammar, including my near-constant improper use of declinations and cases.
Oh, it is wonderful to be taught by our kids. [Insert forced smile here.]