Czech becomes our dominant home language, in spite of my best intentions
With a solid month and a half of 2014 underway, I’ve noticed a sudden but distinct change in the way our household operates. Change has been bountiful the past six months. The biggest adjustment has been my return to teaching, a change which my children and husband have for-the-most-part embraced. The kids are eager to help out, doing sample art projects for my first-grade classes and previewing the English songs I want to try with my students. Radek has pitched in, too. He’s taken over the majority of weekend cooking, experimenting with different ways to roast lamb, prepare vegetables for salads and make guacamole. We alternate doing the dishes, and double-up to get the bedtime routine done at a reasonable hour. Sometimes it feels like my life is in fast-forward, but when I speak with friends who have busy lives and small children many also share a similar story.
Since life has been going fairly smoothly, I was surprised the other day during a three-way conference with Anna and her third grade teacher, when the teacher mentioned that Anna had been a bit too chatty the previous week. Anna got teary-eyed and defensive. She turned to me, and said, “I would have told you, Mom, but you never have time for me, now.” It was a blow. I carefully rethought about the recent past and wondered if she was right. It was true, that now, in the third-grade Anna has become more independent, doing her homework in her room with her headphones on or listening to music on her CD player. She makes her bed, prepares her dance bag and takes showers alone, instead of baths with the boys. She dutifully practices her piano and even does extra English homework when I have time to prepare it.
While I am proud of her recent independence, Anna’s tearful comment reminded me that she’s still a little girl who needs her mother. So, I dried her eyes with a tissue and used the left-over tissue to wipe my own wet eyes. Then I asked her teacher, where Anna could best use my help. Straightaway, she mentioned that although Anna’s doing just fine in school, she could benefit from expanding her Czech vocabulary. At first, the teacher’s comment puzzled me. I’ve heard Anna express herself only in Czech for the past several years, unless she’s speaking with an English speaker, and so I was surprised that she could really have a problem with Czech vocabulary. Outside of school, all her sports and extracurricular activities are in Czech; she plays with the neighborhood children and argues passionately with both brothers almost exclusively in Czech. I wanted to ask Anna’s teacher if she weren’t mistaken, if it wasn’t really her English vocabulary that needed expanding.
I thought about inviting the teacher home for dinner one night to let her see how thoroughly and pervasively the Czech language and Czech school culture has invaded our bilingual household. All three of my children now regularly speak to me in Czech-lish, starting their sentences in English only to switch to Czech when they can’t find the English word readily in their brain. Since the fall when our youngest son Samuel started attending Czech preschool, he has made a dramatic leap from speaking exclusively English to speaking Czech with ease and, in my opinion, a pretty good vocabulary for a three-year-old. When we’re at home, speaking with Samuel is a little like talking to my first-grade ESL students. He says, Mommy, I have hlad” when he’s hungry and when I correct him, he replies, “Mommy, sorry I pust English from my hlava now” (translation: I have put my English out of my head.) His preschool teachers have recently described him as an outgoing chatterbox, a surprisingly quick change from the shy, English-speaker who started school in September. Probably due to Samuel’s recent transformation, the children have gradually shifted to speaking purely Czech together, a change which has all but convinced me to buy the first plane tickets I can find and ship our family off to America to spend a few months or a few years (however long it takes) getting our non-dominant language and culture back to its high status.
Does the teacher really think that Anna needs more Czech? I bit my tongue and listened to her reasoning. When her Czech teacher recommended that Anna read some old-fashioned Czech fairytales to increase her vocabulary of less-commonly used Czech words and expressions and to help her better understand the difficult grammar of vymenovaná slova, I promised that we’d do it together.
And we do. Nightly, Anna sits and reads to me in Czech some of Božena Němcová’s most famous Czech fairytales. We’re enjoying reading the original versions of fairytales like “Sůl nad zlato” (Salt over gold) that was made into the popular Czech holiday film “Byl jednou jeden král (Once Upon a Time, There was a King). The language of the fairytales is different, more old-fashioned, with words that neither Anna nor I know off-hand. The fairytales read well, though, and it’s been a pleasant change to listen to Anna’s voice as she explores new vocabulary in the short, melodic tales. Her teacher also recommended reading Harry Potter in Czech. While I think Harry Potter might be best in the original, a friend loaned us the first in the series in Czech, and Anna’s begun reading it on her own. Czech school beware; a third-grader with an extensive Czech vocabulary is evolving.
Would I rather listen to my daughter read in English? If someone had asked me two weeks ago, I would have said, most definitely, yes. Now, I’m not so sure. Even though a little bit of my heart sinks each time I watch the children become more and more immersed in their Czech world, I know that deep down I am also I immensely proud of their recent progress in Czech. If I hadn’t wanted my children to be bilingual, then I would have taken steps with Radek to keep our family in the US. We had the chance to stay ten years ago, but we choose to return to Prague. When Czech friends and neighbors ask me how I manage living here, if I’m not too homesick or why don’t our children go to English schools, sometimes I don’t know how to respond. Of course, there are times when I’d rather live in the US near my family. I’d give a lot for my children to be able to attend schools in the US, at least for a little while, especially when I hear them forgetting their English vocabulary.
But there’s more to the changes that are taking place in our family now. I can feel a slow, but strong desire bubbling up inside my children, especially Anna. Even as her Czech language skills increase, she’s expressing her own desire to go to school in America. Someday, she might. I hope so with all my heart.
For now, though, I’m holding Nemcová’s book Pohádky for Anna while she reads. We’re sitting in her bed, under the covers. Occasionally, I correct an ending that she misses or a word she overlooks. Mostly, she reads without mistakes. In third-grade, her Czech vocabulary is far more expansive than mine will ever be. She doesn’t need my help. But, I am trying to be there for her. I’m her mother. It’s the least I can do.