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Raising Bilingual Expat Children and Notes on Cussing

by Laura on December 14th, 2012

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!

No cuss words were uttered in the making of this photo: Maksim’s “mean face.”

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.]

Two years ago – back when I had only one verbal child who parroted me



From → Expat Mommy

  1. That did make me laugh! Bless him :-)

    I too get criticised for my appalling accent – even though it sounds exactly the same as my daughter's, apparently it's not. Sadly I never get praised – I'm obviously a terrible pupil!

  2. Laura permalink

    Carole — How funny! Maybe your kids are too old to appreciate you. :) Danica has been talking to me lately with a fresh attitude … all the time.

    Oh, I didn't even get to go into my accent in English. Here, I've had more than one person kind of scowl at my American accent. People understand that I'm speaking English, but they say it's not real English.


  3. Great post. Where I live in Canada a lot of children have one English parent and one French parent and are learning both languages at once, too. Makes for interesting conversations to listen to as quite often the child will speak half in English and half in French…I think it's great for children to learn multiple languages…

    • Laura permalink

      Sylvia, I love that my kids speak two languages, and it's so much easier when that's part of the culture – like in Canada, as you mentioned. I'm thinking of starting them on Spanish, since that might be one that they can actually USE when we get back the US!

  4. I think it's wonderful that your children are learning two languages at the same time and a third one is not a problem. I learned English and Danish from birth and French at age six. I have no accent due to learning so young. I wish we did this with all kids in the US as well. Kids are sponges as you say, so why not? You can also talk to your kids in another language when you don't want others to understand. Wish I could do that with my husband.

    • Laura permalink

      Sonia, I know — you are a language diva! It's so hard to instill an additional language in the US, it's one of my worries about moving back! Laura

  5. I find this fascinating. Especially that your kids praise you!

    I remember having to tuck away my pride when my 2nd grade students would translate between their parent and me. I felt so clueless, so unteacherly.

    • Laura permalink

      Well, you should be proud of how your 2nd graders could translate! Kids are amazing … My husband likes to 'tax' their brains by talking to them in Serbian, while I ask them rapid-fire questions in English … just to see how quickly they can switch back-and-forth.

  6. My children grew up in South Africa with one English parent and the other Afrikaans, so I sent the firstborn to a bilingual school thinking it was the 'right' thing to do. But there, due to pressure from other children, he developed an identity crisis, wanting to know 'who' he was – an Englishman or Afrikaner. For reasons as described in my memoir – Out of Sync – I moved him to an English medium school and the issue disappeared. So, I've learned that language is tied up in a sense of identity.

    • Laura permalink

      That is so interesting. Yes, language reflects culture and identity. That's one aspect that I haven't really thought too much about yet, but you raise an excellent point! Maybe my kids are too little, but I think in my situation perhaps I'm not a proper 'expat.' They are half-Serbian and half-American, so it seems like they haven't felt the need to "choose" … yet.

  7. It's great your kids are bilingual. I wish we push kids more in the UK to learn a 2nd language.

    Even after 4 years of living in Greece, I only speak 'Gringlish' and admit to being very lazy when it comes to learning a foreign language. Now I'm nearly in my 40's, I make the excuse it'll be too hard for me.

    If I ever had kids with a Greek man, I'd be sure to raise them as bilingual.


    • Laura permalink

      I feel the same way about kids in America — it's so hard to instill a 2nd language. And, I'm awful at Serbian! I don't even try to speak to my kids anymore, because I end up teaching them bad grammar. … I hope you meet a "nice Greek man: :)

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