Language Multicultural Family

Bilingual Playtime

March 6, 2009
Anna in fairy costume dancing & Oliver watching

Languages ricochet like ping-pong balls during playtime

For my two children aged 4 and 21-months, playtime is an integral part of their daily routine. While I’ve noticed a pattern emerging in their play activities (certain toys are favored day after day while others gather dusk in the corner), I can never wager a bet as to which language they’ll slip into. Some days, Anna is Cinderella and Oliver is Gus Gus (the fat mouse) while other days she’s Sněhurka (Snow White), and he’s Šmudla (Doopy).

As time goes on and Oliver’s language skills improve, I can’t anticipate whether he’ll address his sister in English as “Anna” or in the Czech diminutive as “Anní” or “Aňa.” He uses “pojd” and “come on” equally, and he shouts “taky” followed by “me too” in the same sentence.

Despite close observation, I often can find no rhyme or reason for Anna and Oliver’s back-and-forth language exchanges. They rarely speak one language for more than a few sentences before they break into the other. The same standard applies for play dates with friends who also share the same “half-n-half” (English/Czech) language heritage. Usually, during the course of a play date the children have switched back and forth at least once between languages.

Sometimes, one language seems clearly preferable to the other, as in the case of our weekly walks to and from ballet with Anna’s half-Czech friend and her Czech grandmother. The girls giggle and whisper in Czech as I stumble through the necessary pleasantries and try to remember to vykat (speak formally to) babička as custom dictates. Since the girls attend a dance class in Czech, it seems logical that Czech should be their language of choice. However, even during the course of these short walks, one of the girls might exclaim something in English, but then they’ll return to chattering away in Czech.

While I admire their flexibility and ability to switch back and forth between the languages, sometimes I have trouble wrapping my head around how to communicate with them myself, and which language to use with whom, in these situations. When I’m alone with the children, it’s a no-brainer: English automatically comes out of all our mouths. However, while the rule of one-parent one-language dictates I always speak English to the children, by holding fast to this standard, the flow of simultaneous conversation in Czech with adults or other Czech children grinds to a halt.

It may seem silly to speak to my own child in Czech, when I’m almost guaranteed to make a few mistakes, but on the other hand, if I have to speak to Anna’s Czech friend in Czech, it seems redundant to then repeat myself in English, especially when I know Anna has understood me the first time. I speak English with my children and any child who also understands English, but Czech with Czech children and other “half-n-half” children who speak Czech and another language, like Spanish or Swedish, that I don’t speak or understand.

The technique works, and keeps playtime going smoothly. However, there is a price to pay. Recently I’ve noticed Anna increasingly using Czech with me, particularly when she’s playing with a Czech friend, and I’ve been speaking to both of the children in Czech. Anna usually does it for just a few sentences, in direct response to a request I’ve made of the children. Still, it’s a change from her original habit of only speaking to me in English. Often I answer her automatically and only realize afterward that we’ve mixed languages.

I can already tell that Oliver’s Czech is superior to Anna’s at his age. Having spent all his life in the Czech Republic (apart from regular visits to the US), plus having an older sister who communicates with him daily in Czech has given him an advantage. At this point, Oliver’s overall language skills aren’t as advanced as Anna’s were, but he is definitely more of a willing bi-lingual talker than Anna was initially. He also exhibits more instances of “mixing” languages, using both Czech and English at the same time. This also seems reasonable considering that when Anna was his age our household operated primarily in English and Czech was reserved for visits to babička’s or Czech activity classes.

These days, in certain instances, Anna and Oliver seem just like regular Czech kids, even at home. The other night we invited our new neighbor’s daughter Mirka over for play after dinner. Although at 9 she was several years older than my two kids, Mirka gallantly led them in a series of dancing, singing and dress-up activities, until more than 2 hours later, all three were worn out.

I put on a video for the kids to watch and asked Mirka, in Czech, if she’d like to watch one of the children’s English DVDs. She replied affirmatively. However, as soon as the DVD started playing and Cinderella began singing in English, I saw her watch Anna closely for a few seconds, then turn to her and whisper in Czech, “Do you understand this?” Her innocence caught me by surprise. Although she knew I was American and had heard me speaking some English to Oliver, she’d mostly heard me speaking Czech with the children since I was trying to simplify things and make her feel welcome too. I felt badly for the unknowing deception, but on the other hand, it was far more important that the kids had managed to communicate together.

Although I’m glad Anna and Oliver’s Czech language skills are flourishing, I’m also nervous to see what happens in the next few years. Parents of school-aged bilingual children claim that the school language always wins-out, which in our case, would mean that our children’s Czech skills will continue to improve, perhaps soon surpassing their English. I’m dreading this day myself, but I know the exchange (having my kids speak only English and no-Czech) would make me equally, if not more depressed.

At this point, we have plenty of outlets for English language communication in the forms of books, activities and English-speaking friends in Prague. I know it’ll be my responsibility to foster their English skills as time goes on, particularly when real Czech school begins. Eventually, I expect I’ll need to find (or create) an after-school or weekend-class in English for my kids, just to make sure their reading and writing skills are up to par with those expected of children their age in the States.

Hopefully, I’ll be able to use the incentive of traveling to America and communicating with their American family and friends to encourage them to keep up their English skills. If not, well, I’ll have to cross that linguistic bridge when I come to it. For now, I’m focusing on firming up both languages so that the children can use whichever best fits the needs of a given situation.

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