Cultural Musings

My observations raising a bilingual child… so far

The other day my kid said this: “Mamusiu, co się stało pieskowi?” And I ask my husband, “Is that the correct przypadek?” The answer is positive and it leaves me feeling a bit disappointed in myself and I realize – it has started. My kid’s Polish is already better than mine. How did this happen? He’s only 2.5! He uses proper cases, he uses the right dokonany or niedokonany version of a word, it’s so unfair! When will he start saying things I don’t even understand?!

For parents of bilinguals, how weird is it that your kid speaks to you in a language that isn’t your native language? It’s bizarre! I can’t imagine how strange it is for people who don’t speak that language well or don’t know what their kids are saying at all. That would just be too much for me. But I’m sure one day my son will start spouting out sentences that I completely don’t understand, and I do not look forward to that day. 

Why is his Polish better?

The thing that really drives me crazy is that his Polish is so much better than his English. When he first started speaking, he chose the easier words from both languages, but now he chooses to say pajęczyna instead of “web” or “książeczka” instead of “book” and I can’t understand it! He just hears them more often I guess. He started preschool recently and I thought I should tell them that he tends to mix the languages and just to be aware of that. A week or two later I come to find out that not only does he not mix, he doesn’t use English at school at all! Imagine my chagrin.

Which language will your child speak more often?

Having spoken to some friends in similar situations, it appears that the language of your environment is going to be the dominant one, regardless of which language is spoken at home. That means the language of the country you live in will be your child’s dominant language, if they have normal interactions and don’t spend all their time at home. 

That does make me feel a bit better, but I still feel like perhaps I’m not doing enough? Every time my son says something to me in Polish (which is most of the time) I repeat it back to him in English. EVERY TIME. That takes focus, y’all! But how much can I really expect of him when I’m the only person who speaks English with him 100% of the time? My husband mixes, although we try to use English when we’re all together – but that’s hard for us as well as we also mix when we speak to one another. It’s just a big jumble sometimes. That’s why he says things like – “Patrz Mamusiu, tam jest moon”, “Może watch something?”, “Be very cliche!” or “Let’s make a tent do sleepowania.” Even one word can be a mix of two languages – I love that! It definitely requires some creativity. The sweetest is when we don’t understand something he says and he translates it into the other language in hopes we’ll understand.

What I do to encourage English

I know that teaching him English is mostly my duty, and I’ll have to work even harder on it as he gets better and more fluent in general. For now, we do it like this: 

  • I stick to speaking only English (unless I want other people around to understand what we’re talking about or my instructions to him, etc). 
  • My husband speaks as much English as he wants. Let’s say that’s about 50% Polish, 50% English.
  • When he watches TV, it’s always in English, almost never in Polish. 
  • We read lots and lots of books in English. Luckily my mom gave us a bunch of my old books, so he don’t have to spend oodles on English books. A good place to buy cheap books in English is TKMaxx because, well, they’re all the books are in English and they’re often on sale, so you can buy books for like 8-15 zł.
  • We spend as much time as we can with other English speaking friends/families, especially those with kids.
  • Maks spends a lot of time with our English-speaking neighbor, a 9-year-old girl who coincidentally speaks English with her Polish parents 🙂 So, yeah, we got lucky there. 
  • I know in school he’ll learn grammar, reading, writing in English, so that’s a relief. Who knows on what level but at least it’ll be something. Even in preschool they have English lessons!

Parents of bilinguals:

Can you confirm that your kids learned in a similar manner? Do you have any advice for other parents in the same situation? I’d be interested to hear your experiences!

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6 Comments

  • Reply Maciek 5 February 2020 at 12:26

    Damn, I’m so jealous of Maks, he will be fluent in two best languages in the world – the most useful and the most beautiful one! 😀 😀

    Don’t be so hard on yourself, he is only 2,5 – I’m sure he will be great at English, there is just no other way with that amount of effort from your side 🙂

    Cheers!

    • Reply Leah Morawiec 9 February 2020 at 20:27

      Well, frankly, if my students (and former students!!) are able to speak English so damn well, then I’m sure he will too. But it’s weird when your kid talks to you in another language! It’s just bizarre. I know it’ll all even out eventually. I’m really hoping he and his sister will communicate in English together… we’ll see in a couple years 🙂

  • Reply Maria 5 February 2020 at 13:24

    Hi Leah, as a Polish MA student of English, I thought I’d share some thoughts 🙂
    I don’t feel that much of an expert, so I’ll refrain from specific advice.

    Kids up until the age of around 6 acquire language spontaneously (as opposed to learning; with age we need someone to teach us). The dominant language is that of the environment, because it’s basically the amount of input they receive that matters.

    What’s interesting, children will not copy the parents 100% and they will correct for their errors based on other input – TV/other people. As you surely noticed, they’re so much smarter than we expect.

    Not mixing at preschool is not surprising – children never mix because they confuse the languages. They use the language that the person they’re talking to understands. So they won’t mix in a completely Polish environment. He might mix talking to you because he knows you understand Polish. The choice is simply what words pop into mind first/are more relevant, so “pajęczyna” might still be prefered over “web”.

    Bilingual children may appear to know less words than monolingual ones, but research suggests they have the same conceptual vocabulary – they just need time to balance it out in both languages. That said mixing allows you to express yourself more precisely, so in a bilingual family it seems only natural.

    Generally the best approach is said to be one parent – one language, but I can see how it takes patience and focus. Consistent strategy and amount of input are key anyway and it seems like you’re doing a lot 🙂
    Good luck!

    • Reply Leah Morawiec 9 February 2020 at 20:25

      Hey Maria – thanks for the amazing insight! I have an MA in linguistics, so I ought to know this things too 🙂 Well I mean of course it’s best to stick to one language, but you know, what am I supposed to do, pretend I don’t understand him? People say that but that would be painstakingly difficult. I prefer to just repeat what he says back to him in English and it seems to work quite well. The funny thing is that with our parents he mixes as well but I suppose that it’s because they’re often in our home, so maybe just home environment is his place to mix, regardless of who is around. Very interesting stuff!

  • Reply Ronald Ti 11 February 2020 at 21:39

    Little children are amazing, really wonderful.
    One thing your son will never have to do-sit the Certyfikat Polski exam
    My announcement-I passed! I hit all of my goals which was to get 50.000001%
    Best tihng-85% for the spoken part, only 57% for the essay writing but then, hey, I’m NEVER going to be putting up a notice for a lost cat or some description of my ‘dream home’ etc etc etc
    God bless exams!
    But very happy I passed and do not have to think about doing it again 🙂

    • Reply Leah Morawiec 14 February 2020 at 18:42

      Hey! Congratulations!! That was quick! Eh who cares about the written part. Like you said, it’s probably the least important skill in your case, I mean if you don’t need it for work or something. It’s probably my worst skill in Polish as well!

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