Language Multicultural Family

Hola, ni hao or guten tag?

June 1, 2012
Saying hello in different languages

Adding a third-language to the bilingual mix

I was thrilled when Anna read me a First Reader by herself in English the other night. With nearly a year of first grade under her belt, she’s now adept at sounding out words letter-by-letter as her Czech teacher has taught. However, when it comes to English, sounding words out as in Czech can instead render some comical results. Last night, Anna and I both had a chuckle over the proper name “Hope” which she initially pronounced “Hopej” as it would be said in Czech. I reminded her about the long vowel “o” and the silent “e” rule, and she continued reading. She made similar mistakes later in the story, but I was still impressed by how she was able to correct herself once she realized that the word she’d said didn’t sound quite right. Even the simple word “a” required a second read, but she persevered.

Although we haven’t had as much time to practice reading in English, it is clear that Anna’s language skills in both Czech and English have progressed after a year of structured school. She’s more likely to pick up books on her own (either in Czech or English) and her desk is littered with notes she’s penned in both languages. Her spelling in Czech is coming along as she learns the rules of accents, měkký and tvrdý “i/y” or “d” that sounds like “t” and similar cases. Her English spelling, however, is still a bit of a disaster, but I’m hopeful that she’ll be able to focus on those rules once she’s mastered reading. With both her native languages flourishing, Radek and I have begun to wonder if it wouldn’t be a fine time to introduce a third language into her bilingual mix.

I know several families who’re successfully raising their children to speak a third or fourth language, although in most of the cases I’ve encountered, at least one of the parents is fluent, or nearly, in the “third” language. English seems to be a popular third language among mixed families where English isn’t one of the two primary languages. One Czech/Swedish couple we know speak English together and their son passively absorbed English from an early age. Now he’s enrolled in a special English-focused first-grade classroom at a Czech state school. Another Spanish/Czech family who speaks Spanish and Czech at home enrolled their daughter in a similar English classroom. Then, there’s a French/Spanish family who speak Spanish at home, send their daughter to French school, and give her after-school English lessons with other children who are native speakers. In each of these cases, the parents have excellent English language skills. I don’t know if it makes a difference, but apart from our respective native languages, neither Radek nor I is fluent in another language that could round-out our children’s linguistic learning.

Although the Czech state system offers an English language option from the first-grade, it is mandatory from third grade. I haven’t yet found any state schools in the Prague 6 vicinity that offer another language for students in their first, second or third classes. From what I’ve learned, occasionally from the fourth grade and more often from the sixth, additional language options are popular and include French, German, Spanish and even Chinese at one local elementary school.

In the past several years, study after study has proven that bilingualism can strengthen the mind by promoting versatility, problem-solving skills and even warding off Alzheimer’s. Once bilingualism is achieved, additional language acquisitions come even easier. Knowing multiple languages can improve employment opportunities, but it can also have the simple positive effect of bringing families in better communication with one another.

A half-n-half column from 2009 by reader Anna Fronkova called Bilingual benefits captures the parental delights of watching her four British-born children embrace their mother’s native Czech language, culture and heritage. By uprooting her children and moving with them to Moravia for a year Anna gave them the opportunity and the necessity of expanding their own linguistic abilities. Within the article, she refers to her ability to read German and French at degree level and gives credit to her Czech parents’ persistence throughout her childhood in the UK of making sure that her knowledge of their native language was firmly embedded, by speaking to her in Czech and taking family trips to visit relatives in the Czech Republic. Having been brought up in a bilingual environment made learning languages somewhat of a norm.

Since neither Radek nor I can claim to be trilingual, the overriding question of late has been which language should we choose to expose Anna to and how should we go about instilling the same passion and fire for learning a “third” language that she’s exhibited to date in mastering her two native ones. Learning Chinese is becoming trendy, and there is a good argument that it might be quite practical in the future. The Czech Republic neighbors
Germany, yet both Radek and I were leaning toward picking a romance language. By learning French, Spanish or Italian, we could motivate Anna with potential holidays to practice her new language skills and we could best support her endeavor with our own knowledge of these languages. I had studied French in high school and university, but Radek ultimately persuaded me that Spanish would be more useful, especially if Anna chose to live in the US later on.

After having agreed that we’d try to introduce Spanish to Anna and, if successful, later to both boys (who are still working hard on acquiring Czech and English vocabulary), we still haven’t hit upon a good way to begin. Radek suggested finding a language school for next fall that offers classes for children in Spanish while I thought finding a teacher for one-to-one instruction might be more productive, albeit more pricey. So far, I haven’t come across either, although I’ve only just started searching. Knowing how well children learn by doing, I’d also like to find an activity class where Anna could practice flamenco or painting and pick up some Spanish vocabulary. When we take our trip back to the States this summer, I hope to find a few learning books or cds, so we can slowly build excitement for another linguistic adventure. I think we’ll eventually need to plan a trip to Spain or a Spanish-speaking country or part of the US where Anna could actually put her learning into practice. I know from personal experience that it sometimes takes necessity to really make language learning happen. Although I don’t want to force Anna into a rote-learning that she’ll never retain or use, her linguistic interest and her young age make it seem foolish not to at least make the attempt.

Last week after her singing lesson, Anna brought her a new song home called “Spomal” to learn. When we played it on YouTube, the words were complicated and unfamiliar; I wondered how she’d ever learn them. I expressed my concern in front of Radek and Anna who both gave me sharp stares of disapproval. Anna told me the song was in Slovak and she knew she could learn it if she listened enough. Sure enough, by the end of the night, she’d gotten many of the words down and with a few more days of practice, she sounded pretty Slovak, I thought. After learning “Spomal,” she even agreed to try to learn “Sugartown” a Nancy Sinatra hit that her teacher had given them in Czech and then suggested Anna try in English. For some reason, Anna didn’t want to sing the song in English, but after her success with “Spomal,” I’m thinking I’ll ask the teacher if she doesn’t know a Spanish song Anna could try next.

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