Little Bear is starting to talk. No, he’s not forming sentences yet, or even pointing at things and calling out their names, but the baby babbles are starting to sound like words we just said, and he’s starting to understand noises he makes relate to things. What does this mean for our plan for bringing him up bilingual?
Causing a few awkward moments, he doesn’t always remember this the next day when Pappa wants to demonstrate Little Bear’s genius to a friend or family member, but it still happens. A few months back ‘ball’ was his first word when bouncing his favourite toy. Then came ‘anka’ (duck in Swedish) when he sees the rubber duck in the bath. Recently it’s ‘geggig’ (or yuck in Swedish). I’d like to say he only says it when there’s something messy around, but he’s taken to shouting the word at me whilst pointing at my face before laughing hysterically. Either he hasn’t quite got that one yet or he’s developing a cruel sense of humour.
He's also taken to insist on being picked up and shouting 'there!' in Swedish while pointing at his desired destination. What can a parent do but oblige when their little puddle is so cute? Every few days he copies more sounds and learns that new sounds relate to things.
We decided to bring him up bilingual. We want a little guy who can speak fluently in Swedish as well as English. Two-language parenting has its fair share of jargon and acronyms: is your ‘approach’ OPOL or did you consecutively mL@H the little trolls in the minority lingo before ‘immersing’ them through ‘community exposure’. How does your nNLSP tackle your choice of paralleling it if you mL@H, or should you MLP your way through instead?
You also come across at least a couple of people who say something like ‘doesn’t teaching your child two languages make them stupid?’. No. I don’t think the Luxembourgish or the Swiss are somehow less smart than the British monoglot. So each time I hear it I patiently point out that the overwhelming science points to kids being given some pretty hefty cognitive advantages if they’re bilingual.
Half a year ago a wrote a post on how tough it is to change a family language. A couple of people since then have rightly asked, ‘why do you need to speak Swedish to Little Bear when your wife’s got that covered?’. The two main ways of bringing up kids in two languages are (a) to speak one language at home, and leave the other language up to everyone else to teach them, or (b) the slightly lazier option if you’re the parent that doesn’t speak the home language, each parent speaks to the kid in their own language. To learn a language fluently, the little person needs to spend around 30% of their waking life exposed to the language (25 hours a week), and to feel the need to do it.
However, we have a problem living in London. When Little Bear is about 5 he’ll come home from his English speaking school having spent the day with his English speaking friends and English speaking teacher and say to ‘Daddy’ ‘Today I built an elephant out of potato’. Then my wife will say ‘Fint! Vad hetter honom?’ and Little Bear will say ‘Daddy, why is mummy speaking like that?’ Followed a year later by ‘I know you understand me mum’. Before long, my poor wife is single-handedly fighting a losing battle to get Little Bear to speak a fraction of the 25 hours a week he needs to keep up his heritage.
10 years later he’ll be saying ‘I don’t wanna learn that stupid language, why don’t you just speak normal like everyone else mum?’ And very quickly he’ll realise all his Swedish relatives also speak perfect English, and this whole Swedish effort really is a waste of time that could have been spent on playing computer games.
English has a dangerous trumping effect because it is by far the world’s most useful language, and kids pick that up very quickly. So to help with the fight, we need to at least try to make the home language Swedish to build the dam for the inevitable tide of English that is just round the corner.
Problem is that 6 months ago, whilst speaking to Little Bear in Swedish, I continued to talk to my wife in English (we have done so for 12 years, tough habit to break). Not so problematic when our little potato was just learning to role and shuffle around the room and use raspberries as his most advance method of communication.
6 months later and he’s now starting to pick up words and listen to us intently (apparently understanding the difference between languages even at this little age). But Pappa and Mamma are still speaking to each other in English. Oh dear, what do we do. It’s just so tough since my Swedish is not good enough to have the deep and meaningful conversations I have with my wife every evening e.g.: ‘tired, where’s food’; ‘pasta, peas, chicken’; ‘ok’; ‘put the dvd in’; ‘did you pay bills?’; ‘no, quiet… sleep now’.
I guess we haven’t really tried hard enough? But it’s also exhausting looking after the Little Bear the whole day and working and all the other stuff. Maybe I need to stop making excuses and just get on with it, and soon.
I'm Dave, dad of Little Bear. Also known as 'Pappa' to the little man as we try and bring out his Swedish roots