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.