I have always believed in the power of story-telling. There is a reason that story-telling is human kind’s most ancient way of passing on knowledge and information, advice and guidance, culture, morals, beliefs and faith, all the big questions man has grappled with since he first had a mind. Stories speak to us in a way that lessons, lectures and textbooks cannot. They engage the heart and reflect our own humanity back at us so that understanding comes from within ourselves and the truth is revealed only insomuch as it resonates with our own life experience. In this way, we can enjoy the same story over and over at different points in our life, each time taking something new from it or modifying a previous understanding as our own experience shaves away the layers of truth we find in it. Assurance creeps quietly upon us as we begin to feel a part of the story ourselves.
It is for this reason that a regular segment on my blog is true stories from the lives of real families who are really raising their children bilingually right now, as you read this.
I was recently working with a family who is at the very beginning of its journey into the wonderful world of bilingualism. The mother is Polish, but has been living in Australia for over ten years, and the father is Australian, with some vague French-Italian roots three and four generations back. They met in Australia when the mother, let’s call her Anna, had already been here for just on three years and was already quite comfortable with her level of English, having previously completed university English studies in Poland. And this was the language they fell in love in. They married in Australia and only two members of Anna’s family were able to make it to the wedding. The couple never travelled to Poland together, Anna making only one trip home by herself a year after the wedding. Two and a half years later, the couple welcomed Nicholas, a healthy baby boy.
At this point the couple had never discussed the question of whether or not they would raise their child bilingually. It had actually never occurred to either of them. They had always spoken to each other in English, they lived in Australia, all of Anna’s family was still in Poland and, although she did of course speak with them regularly on the phone and via Skype in Polish, her Australian husband had never expressed any interest in learning to speak Polish himself and she didn’t see why he would. It didn’t seem necessary. Their love story was in English and it felt complete to them. And yet, there in the delivery room, in those first moments, when her lusty baby boy was handed to her all sticky and vital with new life, her first words to him were in Polish. They tumbled out of her in the tumult of tears and kisses and sobs as naturally and unguarded as the first flush of mother’s fierce love. Suddenly there was no other way she could possibly talk to her new son, he was hers, he came from her flesh, he was as a limb to her, and he was Polish.
Back in the maternity ward, amidst all the shock of the sudden parenthood and the achingly sleepless nights, a particular kind of tension grew. Already. Anna was instinctively speaking to the baby in Polish, and to her husband, Peter, in English. She was having to switch back and forth, to translate what she said to one to the other. This had never happened before. The new father, overwhelmed as he was by the enormity of what had just happened to him, suddenly found his wife somehow an extra degree removed from him. Not only had she suddenly become a mother, but she had also suddenly become Polish! You could say he shouldn’t have been surprised, she was after all Polish from the beginning, but in fact they were both as surprised as each other.
This didn’t feel right, not to Peter, and it felt very awkward for Anna as well. Although speaking to little Nicholas in Polish felt as natural to her as breathing, switching between the two and translating everything did not. Several of the midwives commented on the fact that she was speaking another language to the baby, nothing negative or critical, but this was the first time in Australia where she felt identified as other, foreign, different. She felt uncomfortable, clumsy, self-conscious and somehow guilty, that she was creating something with the baby that could not be shared with her husband. They spoke about it quickly, embarrassed by their new predicament, and decided it would be better, for the baby, and for Peter, to speak to Nicholas only in English. After all, Polish was not a very “important” language, Anna spoke good English, there was no problem there, and the Polish grandparents were not on the scene, so it wasn’t really necessary that he speak Polish. In fact it was much better that he speak good English, so he could do well in school, make friends with all the other kids and just be Australian. After all, he was Australian! So it was decided.
At first, speaking to her baby in English was even more awkward than translating all the Polish. Suddenly Anna found she didn’t know a lot of English words she had never had cause to use before: nappy, bottle, rattle, dummy, cradle cap, colic, milk spots… Most of all though, she didn’t know the little sweet pet words a mother uses with her baby, the diminutive invented pet names cobbled together in an instant to encapsulate fine blond angel curls, tiny toesykins and yummyhoneychubbycheeks. She used words she knew were the right thing to say, my darling, sweet baby, good boy, etc etc, but they never carried the full feeling of what her Polish names could say. Late at night when trying to settle the crying boy, she would still sing to him in Polish, lullabies she knew from when she was a little girl, at home in Poland, with her mother, and all the love contained in these late-night lullabies flowed freely from mother to baby, a secret Polish bond. And Peter never suspected anything was amiss, all seemed well, his Australian family-with-a-hint-of-Polishness-on-the-side was everything he had ever hoped for.
Time passed and speaking English with her son soon began to feel completely normal and natural to Anna, she continued to sing him lullabies in Polish when he needed them, but these no longer felt like a special secret between them. Everything became… routine. She wanted to take Nicholas back to Poland to meet her family but money and work constraints meant that it just wasn’t possible, and the same was true for her family. No one could make the trip. They contented themselves with Skype sessions and while the baby was small language was not an issue. After all, he couldn’t reply. Once Nicholas began to speak however, in English of course, it was clear that the family in Poland could not communicate with him and exchanges were limited to waving, pulling funny faces and Anna translating. Even her parents seemed compelled to try and speak to him in English, rather than trying to get him to speak to them in Polish. It seemed everyone accepted it was better for him to speak English than Polish.
Nicholas is now five and has started at kindergarten this year. He has grown up until this point like any ordinary monolingual English-speaking Australian child with one ethnic parent who only speaks their language with their relatives on the phone. And why would this story change course at this point? It seems set to continue along a very predictable path. Why could we expect it to change now?
It turns out Anna never lost that niggling feeling that she really did want to give her son her language. That, as he grows, she really does feel, more and more, that he is missing out on an important part of who she is. That the bond between her family in Poland, her parents, and her son really is poorer for the lack of a common language, that they cannot know each other as she longs for them to. She has come to realise this is very important to her.
And it turns out that Peter, who never really thought about it that much, has done a lot more thinking about it. He has matured himself, and he realises his wife is not just Australian like he is, she has a whole other half to her soul that he wants his son to receive. He has done some reading, and found out that being bilingual does not, in fact, interfere with learning English but, rather, enhances it. He has also discovered that there are significant cognitive benefits to being bilingual and greater opportunities later in life.
The two of them have decided that they really would like to raise Nicholas to be a Polish-English bilingual. Now what? How to go about it? How to start? Is it too late? It feels like a leap into the unknown. Luckily, they find Little Bilinguals.
Little Bilinguals says:
Congratulations! How exciting! What a wonderful decision to have made! No, it’s not too late. Yes, this is possible. Yes, you can do it. Yes, Nicholas can become a fully-fledged bilingual Australian-Polish boy. Yes, yes, yes! The first step is to be undertaken very verrrrry gently. This will be a big shock to him. He’s a big five year-old boy now, he thinks he knows how his world works, and he’s just forming his first ideas of how he fits into the outside world with his first experiences at kindergarten. He has already learnt a lot about communicating with others, and as far as he’s concerned the world speaks English. And, more to the point, his mum and dad speak English. Such a big change as this can be traumatic for such a young child, and it should be undertaken with great great care, always remaining sensitive to the child, his reactions and his feelings, and being guided by those. First, the family needs to decide which language strategy they will employ- will both parents speak to the child in Polish, or just the native speaker? Will understanding suffice or does the family want the child to reach full language proficiency and literacy? How much are they prepared to invest in this endeavour? What support do they have?
The good news is this family has already begun. They have started very gently, introducing the language in a safe, playful way in a familiar context through activities the little boy already knows and loves. He has identified Polish as a wonderful new game to play, where he gets special one-on-one attention with his mum, and there is no mistaking the special kind of love that all of these activities are heavily steeped in. He feels good, soaking in this bath of love, and the words his mother uses with him to communicate all that she is sharing are just as natural to him as if she were teaching him new words in English for new things he discovers in his ever-widening circle of experience. He is starting to parrot words back to Anna in Polish, proud of himself. The treacherous transition has been skilfully handled by these two devoted parents. And as an added bonus, Peter has found that he is quite interested in learning Polish himself! I could not be prouder. If they take the concepts they have learned and continue along this path, then the future looks very bright for this bilingual family. Next obstacle on the horizon for this family: school. Watch this space!
And that’s the story for this week!
Of course, all names have been changed to preserve everyone’s anonymity and I thank this wonderful family for their permission to share their story.
What is your family’s bilingual story? Do you need help getting your family started along the path to bilingualism? Does this story raise questions for you? Book a consultation today and let’s make the world a more multilingual place!