Monday, May 10, 2010

Bilingual Baby Talk, or OPOL and Mixing Languages

The Slovak and I are pretty good about not mixing languages when talking to our daughter. When talking to each other we don’t limit ourselves and just go for whatever is most accurate, springs to mind first or generally sounds coolest, but we don’t do that kind of thing with Baby K.

It was easy enough when she wasn’t talking back yet. But once she started using some actual words, it became VERY HARD INDEED not to use them back to her. I challenge anyone to say boring “bread” when your daughter asks for “hebik” (her version of “chlebík”, which means bread).

You have to understand, I come from a family where we used the baby words of various siblings until, well, we still use them, so until adulthood. My mother actually tried to prevent us from saying correctly a word we had previously said cutely (note: I am not recommending that). As an example, my whole family called me not by my full name but by the baby version of it that was all my next younger brother could say. They called me that so consistently that my youngest sister was five by the time she realized my actual name was something different.

So perhaps you can appreciate how strong my first instinct is to incorporate any baby word into the family lexicon and just use it forever. I know you’re not supposed to use baby talk,* though frankly I think that has been contested and my real feeling is that it’s good to use both forms of words, the one from my language (adult English) and the one from hers (baby).**

I actually do a fair bit of using words from K’s lexicon – they’re the ones she understands, after all. Then I follow them up with proper English. My last desperate attempt at keeping at least slightly English-only is that I try to avoid using her Slovak words.

Enter hebik et al. *sigh* Parenting, it is hard. At least I manage not to speak to her in whole Czech sentences and paragraphs. That’s something, right?

Then there is Apo’s side of things – it’s much harder for him. In my case, at least most of K’s cute baby words are based on English, so I don’t have so many to avoid. He has a really hard time avoiding sentences like, “Poď, Katka, ideme robiť night-night. Dáme si jammypants.*** Neprosíš si ešte mik?” Partly it’s the cuteness factor – mik for milk is adorable – and partly it’s that he knows she understands English better than Slovak, and he wants to make sure she understands. That’s the part we need to nip in the bud. We have been pretty lucky so far that K doesn’t resist speaking Slovak to the extent she is able. Apo is making an effort to avoid the extra English since K is capable of learning the Slovak words if she doesn’t already know them.

When we move the burden will be back on me as the minority parent, of course. I think then it will still be hard to avoid throwing in words from other languages at will, but really, maybe that isn’t automatically a bad thing. We are a family with a Mama and an Apo: not a Mama and a Daddy, not a Mamka and an Ocko, not an Aňu and an Apo. These languages are part of who we are, and maybe it’s ok to use them how we want. As long as we all are able to converse in one language at a time, maybe it’s ok to alternate and combine as we like, just among our own kind.

* It has come to my attention in googling baby talk articles that people mean pretty different things when they say "baby talk". I don't mean the googoo gaga type of baby talk, although K and I do have conversations in gibberish sometimes. I mean that we use to her the forms of words that she uses herself, which I think of as baby words, or family words. I guess some people don't consider that baby talk.

** We are really quadrilingual if you think about it: English, Slovak, Czech and Baby. It’s only fair each language get some attention, right?

*** That one is English, seriously. Jammypants and jammyshirt are the two parts of your jammies. The ones you wear at night. During the day K wears things such as the Lolashirt (Charlie and Lola) or the meowmeowshirt (Hello Kitty).


As a reward for reading this far, please accept this intriguing article on the cognitive processes involved in how babies learn to talk.


  1. I like your idea of recognizing that baby talk--that is, the words and phrases that kids use as they're learning to speak any language--as a language in of itself. I have heard that this is especially true of twins.

  2. Yes, twinspeak is so fascinating! I'd love to see it in action. Even with singletons, I think you'd be hard-pressed not to see baby jabber as an independent language when faced with an irate 15 month old telling you something VERY IMPORTANT INDEED that just isn't in English (or other human language).



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