Tuesday, June 22, 2010

OPOL Little Secret

This post is part of the Blogging Carnival on Bilingualism, this month hosted by Bringing Up Baby Bilingual!


I’m going to tell you something today.

Lean in a little bit. Someone might overhear.

I helped my daughter learn Slovak.

I know! Right?? Don't tell anybody or the OPOL police might come get me for not being consistent.

But the thing is, she wasn't speaking any Slovak before, and now she is cheering on the Slovak team in the World Cup, in Slovak, repeating after Apo. Though she did give up towards the end of their last game and took a nap. As who could blame her.

The problem became clear sometime last year, as she was learning to talk. Most of her words were English, with just a few in Slovak, if you counted generously (classing "Apo" as Slovak even though I use it in English, too, etc.). That is to be expected, with an English-speaking primary caregiver living in an English-speaking country.

What worried me was that she wouldn't even try to repeat a word in Slovak, but she parroted everything I said (in English). On paying closer attention, I realized that she repeated words all the time - but only when I said them. Not relatives, not friends, not Apo - just me.

The Slovak would try to get her to say a word: lopta, lopta, lopta, toto je lopta. No response. Or an increasingly loud answer from K the tourist of BALL, BALL, BALL, IT'S A BALL. She wouldn't even try to pronounce a word when he said it.

But then one day, I thought, hm... "K, say lopta." "OTA!"

Good enough. It's not like she was pronouncing English that well at that point, either.

For some reason, she was willing to try speaking Slovak if I was the one demonstrating. After a while building up her vocabulary, she was confident enough in both languages to repeat after anybody and I didn't have to serve as intermediary anymore.

I also started to take out our Slovak books and read them to her, just when we were alone. Our secret. Alone in the house, under a blanket, Apo at work so he wouldn't laugh at us. Maybe a few sessions of "Čo je to? Lopta. Ruka. Noha. Kde máš nosček?" as a prep course for when Apo or Babka ask the same questions. And you know what? It worked.

I also started to sing the Slovak children's songs we know. Everyone in earshot knew about that one. And when K sang "prší prší prší prší" to her grandmother on Skype or requested "Kolo kolo mlýnske"? Totally worth it.

When people ask how we do our languages, I still give the old answer: "I only speak English to her, he only speaks Slovak to her." But now I have a slight smile on my face as I say it, because as it turns out, it's not quite that simple.

As it turns out, being flexible is just as important as being consistent.


  1. Hi there! Great post, I agree with you, "it turns out, it's not quite that simple", theory is one thing and real life is quite another :)
    Good job, and good blog!

  2. Yes! Great post! I totally agree. Lots of people like to tell us how we should encourage bilingualism, but the real key is flexibility. Interesting and well-written post! Thanks!

  3. Woohoo!!! I LOVE this post, love it! Talk about making language part of living... yes! I'm in the middle of a post about "breaking the rules" and will definitely link your post there.

    Warm Wishes from Corey at Multilingual Living

  4. Poor ol' OPOL, huh?? :)

    We're taking our liberties with that approach, too, have to as far as I can tell, though I am quite fascinated when people can pull it off all the way.

    Great post!

  5. Thanks :) Doesn't it seem like people mean so many different things with the word "consistent"? I find myself giving the advice to someone, be consistent, but then they say something like, "But how can I talk to my mom/shopkeeper/neighbor in English if I want my son to ever learn French?" Then I back off and try to clarify: "Wait, you don't have to be THAT consistent. You can change it up a bit. I mean, be consistent, but reasonable. I guess." For heaven's sake, talk to your mama however she wants you to! And you won't get far in an American supermarket refusing to speak English. :) That's just silly.

    I think what MY version of "be consistent" means is actually "be PERSISTENT", i.e. don't give up, don't let people get you down, and try to have a bit of structure in place to cut down on confusion. Yours, not the child's!

  6. You're still doing OPOL--you're just also offering the occasional Slovak lesson too! Not that different from monolingual me getting help with my Latin homework from my mom in 9th grade, right, or an elementary teacher asking the kids to count the frogs on the page when reading a book about life in a pond. Maybe you're doing her a favor by asking her to accept contradictions at such a young age!

  7. I love this post! It really made me smile. I share your secret too - especially when we're out and about and I need to say something to the girls that other people won't understand :-)

  8. *Smiling* I'm surprised I was able to understand the meanings of ruka, and lopta. Guess Croatian is very similar to Slovak.. Glad I found your blog via the carnival.

    Greetings from a Mexican mommy living in Europe

  9. Elisa - Croatian is pretty similar to Slovak (and other Slavic languages). I can understand Croatian pretty well considering I've never been there. I hear Croatia is also a popular tourist destination for Czechs since the language isn't that hard to figure out...

    I'm glad you found me, too! Look forward to hearing from you more. :)

    And playing by the book, the same to you. It's good to know there are other rule breakers out there!



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