"I curat!" Kuba yells, heading for the toilet in a hurry, tugging at his pants. That's the extent of my older son's bilingualism at age three. It's our annual visit to Pilsen, my husband's home town in the Czech Republic, where we spend three weeks in the company of Babi, Deda and the rest of my husband's large extended family, drinking the local brew, mushroom hunting, eating... lots of eating. For Kuba this means long days in the sandbox with his cousins, riding scooters and bikes, swimming and trying to talk Cesky.
It's a summer tradition, a reliable moment in the year that brings us back to the place where we met and married. I was an English teacher and later became a translator of Czech. Learning Czech was a labor I undertook in my twenties, long past the age when you pick up a second language without arduous work. My husband, who was younger when he started, perfected his English seemingly effortlessly in the years after the Czech Velvet Revolution. Perhaps our different experiences of learning languages has lead to a different approach to raising bilingual kids.
"Will you PLEASE try to speak Czech with the kids!" I think I have uttered this sentence (in Czech, the language of our relationship) at least once a week since Kuba was born. My husband obliges with dialogues that indicate his good intentions but then ends up pointing to the difficulty of the whole enterprise:
"Kubo, Pojd' sem-oblec se do skolky! We're going to school."
"NE! I'm playing soccer. Táta, watch me kick a goal!"
"Kubo, nemáme na to cas. Ted hned!"
"No Táta! No NOT THOSE PANTS! I HATE THOSE PANTS!"
"Ok fine then, vyber si kalhoty které chces nosit! A...Kuba, stop kicking the ball at Simon's head! Come on...kalhoty, pants, let's go!"
Aside from millionaire-and-bilingual-education-opponent Ron Unz, almost everyone agrees that bilingualism is great. Anyone who uses a foreign language regularly can feel how it stretches the brain, and research is beginning to confirm this in bilingual children. Bilinguals have a better ability to filter out misleading information when necessary, and to understand when one set of rules is replaced by another (as it is, clearly, when one switches languages).
In my community bilingualism also seems to be quite cool: I once found myself at the playground with four kids and their parents, and every parent was speaking a different language to their child -- Hebrew, Spanish, French and Czech. Tellingly, all the kids were answering, blasé, in English. As a new mother I was determined that my kids would be fully bilingual, fluent in Czech and English. And I was sure it would be no problem: kids pick up a first language effortlessly, without "instruction," from their home, why not a second?
I did all the research long before Kuba started speaking. I read books about bilingual families. I learned that there were different styles of bilingualism in the home: OPOL stands for one-parent-one-language, in which each parent speaks only their native language to the child; ml@h is minority-language-at-home, in which the home language is not that of the larger community, and so home becomes a cozy second-language enclave. I perused websites and quizzed other parents. I joined a bilingual-family listserve and read hundreds of email from families speaking all sort of language combinations (one woman was home-schooling her poor child in Latin!) I read with interest about "code-switching", when a person switches back and forth between two languages while speaking to another bilingual, making them sound psychotic or at least lazy. In fact it is a sign of fluency. Some people I encountered were fanatical about bilingualism, refusing to respond when a child spoke the wrong language. But most of those I met were just like us.
We have tried all the systems, all the acronyms. Kuba persistently answers in English and we constantly fall off track, switching into English in every stressful moment. Most frustrating has been Kuba's apparent inability to comprehend that his grandparents don't speak English. He babbles at them gaily, taking them by the hand and gesturing when he perceives a blank stare. But all we can do with two little children, it seems, is get through the days, and we do it in whatever language is handiest. We have Czech books, videos and music, we struggle to maintain an evenly bilingual household, and but many days we have ham sandwiches for dinner and fall asleep watching "Magic School Bus" videos afterwards.
Little children have no intellectual agenda. (Thank God for that.) My son also has an admirable ability to ignore anyone who is pointedly trying to "educate" him. Kuba is now a perfect "passive bilingual" -- he understands us, but so far he sees no reason to use Czech to communicate, since his parents clearly both speak English. A question has arisen, although I haven't voiced it yet in our family: will our kids want to be bilingual, bicultural? Will we have any control if they don't? Control: the great myth of parenting -- what separates the idealistic, ambitious mothers of little babies from those of us just a little further down the path.
Teaching bilingualism may seem an attempt, sometimes, by zealous, overeducated parents to create "super kids," but for most of us it is just a practical, humble effort to connect families separated by oceans and languages. Our Babi and Deda do not speak English, and aren't likely to learn at their age. I dread a time when our boys would be shy with their grandparents, reluctant to make the difficult overnight journey that takes us from Boston to Pilsen, back through their father's past, into the land of his childhood.
It was a place without super-heroes, where whole summers were spent in a cottage without running water, bathing in a slow-moving river. External repression immobilized the nation until 1989, and Czechs were unable to travel abroad and had little access to foreign movies, press, books. People were turned inward, focused on family and its eternal drama. Much of that has been lost now, and yet it formed the society in positive ways as well as negative ones. There is much to be gained from exposure to any other culture, and if that's a gift we can give our kids, then we should. Let them grow into the realization of what it has done for them.
A little light has broken through since
Kuba turned three, as I was promised it would by the experts. On our
last visit to Pilsen, in moments of great duress, Kuba surprised us all
with whole utterances in Czech. "To je moje!" (That's mine!)
he would shout at his cousin, "Nepujcím" (I won't share!) The
essentials of childhood. More words came out in the middle of English
sentences: "What that bylo?" instead of "What was
that?" For several weeks after we returned home his language was
mixed, something like a textbook bilingual kid. These are little gleams
of the future of real communication, or so I truly hope. "I'm
talking Cesky, Mama!"
Editor's note: We made a valiant effort trying to incorporate correct Czech accent marks in the included quotes above, but found it impossible. Our apologies to the Czech readers out there.