Language Multicultural Family

Riding the bilingual see saw

May 31, 2013
Samuel Prucha testing the bouncy stick car in Cesky Krumlov

The ups and downs of language acquisition

At playgrounds, my son Samuel’s least favorite piece of equipment is the see-saw. I don’t know why. He loves sliding or pumping his legs on the swings. He’s also a big fan of the round-and-round-we-go thrills of the merry-go-round or the back and forth motion of the bouncy coil spring animals. When he’s tired of all the motion, he plops down in the sandbox and gets to work digging and mixing. But, of all the possible playground equipment, he always veers away from the see-saw when he sees it.

Perhaps he’s scared he won’t be able to hold on, although to me the merry-go-round seems far more dangerous, especially when he’s on there with his older siblings. Maybe it’s because the see saw takes two people and he’s usually too shy to ask someone to ride with him, and I’m too big for it to be any fun for either of us. But I have a third hypothesis – I think Samuel simply doesn’t like the sudden up and down motion. It takes a fair amount of leg work to make the see saw go up and down, especially if you’re a solid kind of toddler like Sammy is, and it’s usually a bumpy ride, particularly if your partner jumps off mid-way and you come crashing to the ground. I remember having that experience as a child, and I don’t much blame him for steering clear.

Personally I’d rather go for a nice walk than spend the afternoon watching the children go ‘round and ‘round or up and down. Still, I know they’re learning balance, keeping fit and improving their social skills, so I’m glad to occasionally park myself on a bench and watch the action of the playground unfold. There’s a lot to be learned at the playground.

If you’re a bilingual or multilingual kid growing up in Prague, the playground is often a great place to pick up a few new words in your non-dominant language or to put the words you’ve learned in school or at home into practice. If you’re lucky, as my children have been, you might run into another child whose language skills match up with your own. Repeatedly, Anna and Oliver have met other “half ‘n half” kids on the playground, discovering each other’s bilingual identity only when a word of English slips out in the middle of a Czech conversation or vice versa. The kids have also enjoyed meeting other Czech kids who speak English. Even just a few words of an unexpected English interchange lend an interesting twist to playground encounters.

On the other hand, I’ve also heard parents complain about the playground environment on behalf of their non-Czech speaking children. If children don’t speak Czech, then they can’t communicate or interact as easily with all the other neighborhood kids who’re racing back and forth, usually under very loose parental supervision. It’s harder to borrow a sand toy or to have the next turn on the swing if you can’t speak the language of the playground. I’ve encountered pockets of children speaking Spanish, French, Russian, German, Italian or English, but Czech quite naturally is the dominant language in the parks and playgrounds here. There are also the cultural rules of playground etiquette that go hand-in-hand with the language. If you don’t speak Czech and you’re not immersed in the Czech culture, then the playground can be more intimidating than fun for some kids.

Until recently, Samuel has stuck close to me or his siblings whenever we spend the afternoon at a playground. He’s not exactly shy, but he has much stronger English language skills than Czech, which makes finding friends on the playground in the under-three crowd a little challenging. The other week, however, Samuel had the good fortune to run into a fellow who actually spoke the same language(s).

Finnegan was about the same age as Sammy, though much slighter and more agile. While I chatted with Finn’s mother, he and Samuel began to push each other on the merry-go-round. From a distance Finn’s mother and I watched the boys interact for several minutes. Then we heard Samuel began to speak. He began explaining something to Finn in English. Without missing a beat, Finn turned and responded to him in Czech. I wondered if they were just oblivious to each other’s languages, but Finn’s mother told me that her husband was American. Although Finn spoke mostly Czech with his mother, he understood English and spoke it with his dad. As we watched, the two boys continued their back and forth exchange with Sammy speaking English and Finn Czech until their older sisters finished sewing class and we left the playground.

A few days later, we returned to the same playground, and Sammy began to urgently tell me something about the bushes by the edge of the park. I couldn’t figure out what he was saying until I finally caught him refer to his friend “Vinny.” I then realized that Sammy was actually explaining to me in Czech, or trying to, that his friend Finn had told him to be careful of the stinging nettle growing against the fence. Although Samuel’s begun speaking some Czech at home, mostly to himself, mimicking what his brother or sister says, it was the first time I heard him trying to initiate a conversation in Czech.

A few days later, our Czech friends arrived for the weekend with their three children, all of whom were older than Samuel. As the five bigger kids played together with Samuel’s frequent interruptions, I heard more and more Czech coming from Samuel. He even adopted a loud “big boy” voice and a brassy attitude that I’d not seen before. By the end of the weekend, every sentence Sammy spoke had at least one or two Czech words, and sometimes he managed to answer exclusively in Czech. He wedged himself so deeply into the children’s communications that by the time our guests left, the youngest refused to give Sammy a kiss saying that Sammy had bothered him all weekend, which was likely a well-warranted complaint.

Rather than be disappointed that Samuel had been a bit of a nuisance, at the weekend’s end, I found myself pleased that he’d been able to make himself a part of the group. Particularly, that he’d realized in order to do so, he needed to bring whatever Czech speaking skills he had front and center.

These days when Sammy’s speaking with me, he still uses mostly English. However, he’s begun to insert certain Czech words, like “holka” for girl or “noha” instead of leg, every time he says them. A week ago, he knew the English words, so I’m not worried that he’s losing his English, but it is interesting to watch as he attempts to ride the bilingual see saw. His Czech is coming up, and I suppose it’s necessary for his English to go down a bit, at least temporarily. I know from experience that whenever my Czech language skills grow a bit sharper, then sometimes my concentration wanes when I’m speaking English. I make mistakes or a Czech word comes to mind, instead of the more familiar English one.

Learning another language is a balancing act, and one that I believe takes a fair amount of courage. It’s a bit like the see saw at the playground. Perhaps it’s not the first piece of play equipment that attracts your eye, but eventually, if you’re like most kids, you’ll be curious enough to try it. The playground where we met Finn doesn’t have a see saw, but I imagine that if it did, Finn and Sammy wouldn’t hesitate to give it a go.

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