This post is part of the Blogging Carnival on Bilingualism, hosted this month by Mummy Do That!
One particularly geeky Christmas several years ago, the Slovak and I got each other dictionaries* for Christmas, totally by coincidence. I got him an Oxford dictionary for English speakers (i.e. not a translation dictionary) and he got me essentially the same thing in Czech. We were both pumped about our gifts and amused by our parallel thinking. When our parents asked us what we got each other for Christmas, though, both sides had the same reaction: fake smiles and “Oh, how…romantic”. So we explained that no, it’s a great gift, really, and they nodded doubtfully.
But it highlighted a critical element in our relationship with our families, one that takes on new dimensions now that we have a child. My family speaks only English. My husband’s family speaks Slovak and some Hungarian, learned as children and largely unused in later life. They never learned a language as an adult they way my husband and I have. Milestones that are significant to us are just white noise to them: I read a novel in my second language. I had a conversation with someone who didn’t know I was foreign. I taught a class in the second language. I came up with an awesome bilingual play on words that will lose all humor if I translate it. You know, that kind of thing.
They aren’t opposed to us speaking another language, but I think that on a basic level they don’t get it. It’s an experience they don’t share. They support us in our desire to raise our daughter speaking both her heritage languages, but it leads her somewhere they can’t follow. The same place her parents have gone before her. I think they feel this to some degree, but I know they don’t realize the extent of it.
I don’t mean that we adults need coddling for every accomplishment we make in our new world. We can share those things with others in similar circumstances. And how many of us have had that same experience, that we fit in best with other multilinguals, other third culture adults, regardless of language combinations? Learning a new language changes you, in predictable and unpredictable ways. The specific languages you speak shape who you are, the way you think about the world, the way you categorize things. The simple fact that you speak more than one shapes you as well, teaching you that not everyone thinks the same way. It doesn't change your whole personality, but it adds a side of you that is only really accessible in that language. A child raised multilingually grows up thinking all these things are natural and normal - what a wonderful gift to our children!
But now we are talking about a child and her grandparents. Grandparents who only understand part of what she can say and what she can do. Who have the persistent idea that her babble at 1.5 or 2 years old is actually fluent conversation in the other language, and feel left out that she doesn’t speak their language so well. Or, other times, thinking she can’t talk at all because they don’t recognize half her vocabulary and so don’t realize it’s there. Who can’t join in when she talks about her favorite song or cartoon character from the other language. It’s not exactly the end of the world, but it is there. Without learning the other language, they simply can’t be included in all aspects of her life. She, like her parents, is a whole person her grandparents don’t fully know, and they don’t know they don’t know it.
Don’t get me wrong: Baby K’s grandparents adore her and think she’s a genius, just like proper grandparents should. And I think this will improve some as she learns to communicate better in both languages and learns that you have to speak THIS way to Babka but THIS way to Grandmama. Of course, we are making every effort to make sure our child’s grandparents will be part of her life and that she will speak each of their languages fluently, which I suppose not all families do.** But it is still a little sad when they don’t respond to what she’s said because they don’t understand, and she doesn’t know why.
And for the rest of her life, there will be a part of her that her grandparents don’t know, and it is our fault, for moving between worlds the way we do, for not choosing just one, and for creating a sweet American-Slovak child who moves between worlds, too, who thinks everyone has a Mama and an Apo (not a Daddy) and who lives in a country far, far away.
I may not regret it enough to change any of my decisions (oh, never), but I do recognize the cost. I do.
* We have a whole shelf of dictionaries at home: English-Czech, English-Slovak, Slovak-French, English-Spanish, all sorts of combinations. In the end it turns out we never use any of them because it is too easy to turn to the other and just ask. Or I like to use the dictionary function at www.seznam.cz for a fast and dirty thesaurus.
** Actually, I know not all families do. My father-in-law has a son from his first marriage who lives in America and whose only son does not understand Slovak. So I think my in-laws are quite happy with us for teaching our child Slovak, and with me for not stealing their son away to my country. When we had been married a few years and I STILL hadn’t stolen him away from them, I think they relaxed a little about having a foreign daughter-in-law, haha.