Wednesday, July 27, 2011


Bilingualism Carnival!

And a series of articles on fun ways to improve a second language (for adults) that I did a while ago and totally forgot to mention here:


Check them out if you haven't seen them before!

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Learning to Write

When K was around two years old, I hand-wrote something in front of her and her whole body stiffened in fascination as she watched me. She immediately demanded that I repeat the trick, so I took a blank piece of paper and demonstrated how to write her name and, upon her insistence, various other words.

It instantly changed her whole way of drawing: previously, she would scribble and maybe on a good day we might get a circle, but from that moment on her drawings became pages full of small, intricate symbols. She also started noticing things written outside, on the bus, in the store, and wanting to know what they say. Her fixation on it was really sweet, with this attitude of "I CAN'T BELIEVE YOU HAVE THIS SKILL YOU'VE BEEN HIDING FROM ME ALL THIS TIME." (My response, of course, was "YOU'RE ONLY TWO. DON'T BE RIDICULOUS.")

Since then K has gone through a few phases of intense interest in reading and writing that last a few days or weeks until something else catches her attention. I've been using those high-interest periods to slowly and casually teach her some of the alphabet. The results of this to date are that she recognizes a few letters (K for her name, M for mama) and can write a few others (she writes lines full of T and O and then tells me what they say) and her alphabet puzzle is no challenge any more.

We're going through another intense writing phase at the moment: K makes me write down a word and then she copies it out to the side. She doesn't know what sounds most of the letters make and hasn't really caught on to the principle yet, but she is surprisingly good at making (backwards, upside down, sideways...) copies of the letters she sees. She can be somewhat single-minded (I have no idea where she got that, unless it was from the Slovak. really. that's my story), so we have pages and pages full of writing, ranging from "cat" and "dog" to "basket" and "computer", whatever she requests. I think she wanted to write "octopus" once.

I've been indulging her so far, sounding out the words as I write them and not addressing the backwards and upside down aspect. I think just practicing writing them will help her to eventually straighten them out and remember the names, etc. And of course, backwards and upside down writing is common even in children older than K, as I had to tell my husband - it offends his sense of correctness to just let it pass. He also doesn't like it when K uses "he" and "she" (or similar) incorrectly. It's wrong! I do sympathize :) but I remind him and myself that it's really developmentally normal and K will straighten it out herself eventually...

K also mentions almost daily that when she is a big girl, she will go to the big girl school (where she would really like to be attending already, in fact). She asks me about big girl school: what they do there, what they learn, if they have toys and a sandbox. She was very interested to hear that in big girl school you learn to read and write (and count and learn all about the world). I have been wondering this week if she wants to learn to write now so she'll be able to go to big girl school, or if the two interests are actually separate, if related. She hasn't mentioned them in connection like that, but you never know what is going on in her small, curly head.

I know it's not entirely unusual for parents to teach a two or three year old to read, write, count to 100, and do long division (really, some people's laundry lists of accomplishments are kind of silly), and of course sometimes a child absorbs these things without being specifically taught, but I am really finding a lack of desire in myself to cultivate an early reader (etc.) beyond allowing K access to knowledge as and when she requests it.

Because I also think it's silly to deny a child the opportunity to learn when he is clearly interested, as apparently my mother-in-law did with my husband - it was frowned upon at the time for kids to start school knowing how to read, so none would be ahead of the others, so she didn't teach him anything until he started learning in first grade. (I think this is why he was so surprised when I recently mentioned reading chapter books at 6 and 7 years old - I was an early reader and by first grade was reading Nancy Drew...he looked at me with a little extra respect after that!)

I always thought I'd be more eager to encourage my kids to read (and acquire other academic skills) as early as possible, but I kind of surprised myself once I became a parent and decided, you know, I'm really not interested in pushing it. I am confident that K will learn to read when she is ready and that pushing too hard runs the risk of her losing interest. I'd rather she learn to love reading at any age than learn to read early but regard it as a chore or something to make Mama happy.

K has access to crayons or pen and paper, willing scribes in me and the Slovak, (rather a large number, in fact, of) books, and I make sure she sees me reading myself. Have had to make an effort on this front, actually, as I took to mostly reading on the computer once she was born (hands free), so you can't tell if I'm reading my e-mail or something more substantial. I am picking up real books more often now, though, and not saving them just for when she's asleep. (We'll see how this goes when boy baby is born and I have my arms full again, though...)

So basically, that's where we're at: 3.5 and determined to learn to write. Reading seems to be less of a concern, since K can already "read" (i.e., retell a story to herself as she flips through a book), so I guess she feels like she's got that one down. I imagine that if she continues writing like this she'll learn to actually read sometime before starting school. That's fine with me. Whenever she's ready, I'll be ready to help. To me, the important thing is that she's engaged, eager to learn, and terribly proud of herself. I am not invested in her learning as much as possible, as fast as possible, but I am also proud of her - of her determination to learn and quick mind, yes, but even more of her confidence, joy in life and kind heart. Those are the real skills she'll take with her to first grade, regardless of what else she knows.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

No Longer the New English-Speaking Girl

Yesterday a new girl started at K's preschool, recently arrived from New Zealand. Like K when we arrived, she apparently understands but doesn't speak Czech.

The teacher told me about her yesterday and said it was funny that K and the girl hadn't yet realized that they both speak English. I told her the story of K and her bilingual friend. It's not that unusual I guess.

Today I asked K who she played with at school, and she mentioned playing with Lexie (the NZ girl). I asked about Lexie, and she said they played together but Lexie "doesn't speak very well". She speaks a little bit but not a lot, K said. I asked whether K speaks a little or a lot, and she said she speaks a lot. (That is certainly true!) I asked what language Lexie speaks, and K answered, "Sometimes she speaks English." I pointed out that K also speaks English, and K said that yes, she does speak English, but she doesn't speak it with Lexie. She speaks Czech with Lexie.

It was kind of interesting hearing K's perspective on a girl in the same position K was not so long ago. Her stance on Czech as the language of kids (and babies, and animals) is firm. I was wondering if she would feel any kinship or similarity between her and the new girl, but I didn't want to suggest it to her by asking. I'm not sure if K feels much of a difference between herself and the Czech kids at school. She does speak a little differently, but it's not a significant difference any more and she/they might not pay it much attention.

I did ask K's head teacher yesterday what she thought of K's level of Czech, and she pretty much agreed with my assessment that K is somewhat, but not significantly, behind monolingual kids her age in Czech, but that she should bridge the gap in 6 months to a year at this rate. She was also pretty impressed with how well K has done so far.


K also demonstrated yesterday that she knows her left from her right, in Czech/Slovak (words are the same) and in English. She immediately and without thinking showed me her right hand, left hand, pravá ruka, levá ruka...

This is more impressive (to me) than you might think, because I have always had trouble with telling left from right. I also sometimes forget which side of the road you drive on or which direction is first base from home [in baseball], which knee I have a freckle on, etc. I wouldn't be surprised if there's a technical term for it. So I was doubly surprised when K knew it correctly, because I had to think to know whether she was right or not. Obviously I wasn't the one who taught her.

I asked her teacher once we got to school (this happened on the way there), who said that they don't specifically teach left and right, but they do tell the children, "You are coloring with your right hand now" and similar. And last week K was looking for something and the Slovak told her it was on the left side, and she reached the correct direction to find it - that was our first clue that she knew the difference.


Another of my idiosyncracies is that I sneeze in bright light. Like not knowing left from right, people who don't do it themselves don't even know it exists usually, but it totally does! I think it's called photosensitive sneezing, and it apparently runs in families. The Slovak thought I was making it up until our daughter was born and, as an infant, sneezed in the bright sunlight for the first time. He has to admit it exists now. :)

Thursday, July 14, 2011


This may be a totally silly thing to be thinking about in July when my daughter's birthday is in November, but she regularly brings up her birthday - when is it, what will we do, reenacting her last one - so it's not really out of the blue.

Also, her birthday is one month before Christmas, so every year we have to plan in advance what to give her for her birthday and what to keep for Christmas.

Also, this year in particular, her birthday is going to come about six weeks after we dramatically and irrevocably change her life by introducing a baby brother. K is excited about having a baby brother and will be a good big sister, but she is also used to being our baby and not having to share us with anyone, so I don't think the transition will pass with no insecurity or uncertainty whatsoever. So I'm inclined to want to make this birthday particularly special and sparkly instead of letting it slink past in a haze of diapers and night feedings.

In googling for ideas on birthday celebrations for a four-year-old or how to make a birthday special, however, I found that my idea of "special" doesn't seem to correlate to other people's idea of "special". All I found were suggestions on how to spend more money for a more lavish party...

Which brings me to the fact that K has never had a birthday party as such. Go ahead, tell me how mean I am. The thing is I am really not into massive parties for kids, with bouncy castles, pony rides, clowns and the whole class - or even people the child doesn't know! - invited. It has always seemed odd to me to invite your friends, boss, clients, and so on to your child's first birthday (because I think it's overwhelming and not very meaningful for the child), for example, though I know a lot of people do it.

My ideal party is the immediate family and MAYBE one to two close friends of the child, with cake, candles, singing the birthday song, presents, and possibly a child-oriented, age-appropriate outing.

For K's first birthday I made fairy cakes (hey, we were in England!), we helped her blow out the candle and she opened her presents. We recorded the celebrations for the benefit of the grandparents. One other person was present, simply because we had a houseguest at the time. She helped with photography and such.

For K's second birthday, her Slovak grandparents came to visit. I made her chocolate cupcakes, helped her blow out two candles (or was it a candle shaped like the number 2? can't remember), and she opened her presents. We had a live Skype feed for her American grandmother (we do that for birthdays and Christmas for both sets of parents, it's so very 21st century). We also took her to a soft play area for the first time, where she had a blast.

For K's third birthday, I was willing for the first time to invite a friend or two, but it was just after we moved to Prague from UK, so she didn't have any friends close enough to invite. Instead, I made her a cake, she blew out the candles, we sang, she opened her presents, Skype feed, Slovak grandmother in town, and we went to the Prague aquarium. Which was frankly a disappointment, given how beautiful the Prague zoo is for the same price. Oh well, lesson learned, at least we did something fun. And really, especially with the cake and presents, K had a BLAST. She couldn't stop smiling and posing for pictures.

(As a note, my MIL tried to discourage me from making K a cake - she didn't understand why I would go to the effort of making something myself when I could buy some pastries from a bakery instead. I was shocked at the mere suggestion, which I guess shows that I do have certain Ideas about what good mothers do for their kids' birthdays...apparently a big party isn't required, but a homemade cake is. I already feel like a slacker because I don't know how to do cake decorating the way my mother always did, so my cakes are very tasty but not very decorated!)

So this is basically the pattern that I'm looking to make "special" - not a more extravagant party or gifts particularly, but something extra that a four year old will find magical. We've been looking for slightly more "big girl" gifts, with some success - that's another topic actually, what do you get for a four year old that she doesn't already have (gifts from previous years will last for a long time, like her toy kitchen) and that isn't inappropriate, overly commercialized, branded by Disney or TV characters she doesn't recognize, and so on? Because that rules out most of what I saw in stores on our recent US visit.

So far I've thought of taking K on one of those horse-drawn carriage rides around Prague. They're for tourists, but I've always thought they were cool and I think K would adore it. She loves downtown Prague, sight-seeing, horses, being a princess... The only complication is her birthday is in late November so the weather may or may not be very pleasant. But if we dress up warmly I can imagine a wintry carriage ride as being pretty special.

Alternatively, I've been thinking for a while that K would probably really love to sit down for ice cream in a slightly fancy-looking cafe downtown. There are a bunch that have been restored to their pre-war elegant decorations and seem to be frequented by tourists, so we might not be too conspicuous bringing a child. The complication here is do we bring the baby or not and can we convince a friend to keep him for an hour or two if we decide not to.

Even something as simple as a zoo or movie theater trip would be fun, though we hit the zoo too often for it to qualify as life-changingly special and I'm not sure how fun it will be in late November, and there would have to be a really good family movie out at that point, which you can't guarantee.

I'm open to suggestions on something else to do or somewhere to go in or around Prague, especially something that takes into consideration the time of year and presence of infant.

Generally, I've been thinking of scaling back on presents in general in future (for both children) and focusing more on a family outing or experience as above. For the first few years, we didn't have ANYTHING, so we needed everything. A ride-on toy, Legos, books, dress-up clothes, things to play shopkeeper or kitchen, we had none of it, so birthdays and Christmas were essentially opportunities to stock up for K as well as any future children. Now that we have most of the general categories we wanted and most of it K should keep playing with for at least another couple of years, we have less of a need for the "big" gifts and can concentrate on filling in the gaps (for boy baby) and adding on something for bigger kids (for K). I'd rather birthdays and holidays be less about getting a big gift, anyway, and more about spending time together having fun. I'm not opposed to spending money, either on gifts or special outings, but I want to find that magical balance, basically.

I would like to have a very, very small birthday party this year, because I think K is old enough to enjoy it now and see above re massive life changes. I'm imagining one or two friends from preschool coming over to play for a few hours and having a piece of cake.

This is where the cultural and linguistic twist comes in, because I don't know what current birthday customs are in this country! I know what they used to be at least for some people, when people my age were growing up, but I have the impression they may have changed and parties may be more common and such. I am fairly sure that sleep-overs are still pretty much unheard of, but none of my friends are the parents of young children, so they can't really tell me for sure. I would be willing to consider one friend spending the night, but obviously not if the mere suggestion would scandalize the parents!

Also, K's best friend at school is Russian and I'm not entirely sure her parents speak Czech, which would be an additional complication. Haha. I have to figure out some logistics still.

So these are the questions I'm currently considering.

How mean is it that our daughter has never had a birthday party outside the family?

Are we really the only ones who don't do it?

How can we make her first birthday post-sibling something special for her?

What's something fun but reasonable to do in late November with a four-year-old? Bonus points for something offbeat she hasn't done before.

What do other people do for their children's birthdays?

Particularly, what do Czech people do for their children's birthdays? How do I find out?

What kind of toys does a four-year-old play with that a three-year-old doesn't? Bonus points if it isn't Disney themed, involving thousands of small parts or encouraging attitudes I don't think are appropriate for young children, i.e. me and Barbie - and Bratz type dolls even more so - have a very uneasy truce that involves them not coming in my house.

Why can't you buy anything these days that doesn't have a trademarked character (Dora, Cars, Disney Princesses) prominently displayed? Has anyone else noticed that Disney has totally taken over the world?

Was it like that when we were kids?

Why couldn't I find any toy stores other than Toys-R-Us and the toy sections of big box stores in America?

Can anyone recommend me some? Online is ok.

Also, what kind of books does a four-year-old enjoy that we don't already have? Bonus points if they're in Czech or Slovak.

Am I overthinking this? Wait, don't answer that one. Overthinking is totally my thing.

Monday, July 11, 2011

School Year in Review and 3.5 Year Language Update

The official last day of school was June 30. K started the school year in October, at a different school we weren't happy with ultimately, so we finished out the year at a different school that we ended up loving.

In under six months K went from speaking in individual words to conversing entirely in CZ/SK (she speaks Czech but it's interesting how strong an influence the father-language has on her still, i.e. Czech hasn't taken over completely) confidently, if mildly ungrammatically.

I'd be interested in an actual evaluation of her speech level, since I don't have much experience with native Czech speaking children so it is hard for me to judge what is age-appropriate and what isn't. I would estimate, though, that she may be up to a year behind her age level, or maybe less, which is a massive step up from the 2+ years behind she was at the beginning of this year. I'm hoping to ask one of the teachers what they think, too.

As far as English goes, K is the star of the school's English hour. Hahah. Again, it's hard for me to judge where she's at but I believe she is right at her age level. Grammar concepts are slowly coming together, although some, like he/she and his/her, she still doesn't have straight. Everything in the past is yesterday, and there are still several sounds she can't produce - but those seem about typical for 3.5, it seems to me. When we were in America, a few relatives commented that they could understand everything she says with no trouble, one adding, "I find her easier to understand than [cousin who is a year older], actually."

I do wonder, though, if K will STAY at age level, and if I will recognize the signs if she doesn't. Will her English stagnate with just me to talk to? Will I provide rich enough stimulation to keep her vocabulary and fluency growing? Will I notice if her English starts to lag? I think so...but I'll have to remember to monitor.

Socially and developmentally speaking, K is really thriving and happy, and I think her school is contributing to that. She is confident and friendly and usually very reasonably behaved. She has a wild imagination and loves to tell stories and play pretend. She often plays out both sides of a conversation at once, between her dolls or even, this weekend, between her toes. As in, her toes were having a conversation with each other. She seems to have a feel for music, picking up songs easily and singing them on key usually - not a given at her age. She recognizes a few letters (I teach her only when she's interested) and has good crayon and scissor control. I think our Kumon workbooks have really helped her confidence with crayons and scissors. She can count to 10 and is working on up to 20 in both languages. She knows the Czech months and is learning the English ones. Her reasoning and negotiating skills are developing at an alarming pace...

We've noticed that Czech is becoming her self-play language, especially since a lot of her scenarios revolve around school type situations, imaginary conversations with her friends, etc. It isn't a hard-and-fast preference for Czech, though - it seems that K's toys, like K herself, fluidly and naturally switch between languages at will. But there's more Czech present than English most of the time, I'd say, even when she was, for instance, playing with the toys at my mother's house.

Which takes us up to the end of the school year. I had been minorly wondering what happened to all the children's artwork, since K often came home with paint in her hair but rarely had any pictures sent home. They did display artwork on the walls at school, but that wouldn't account for everything. All was explained, however, when during the last week we were presented with a binder filled with K's work from the year, displayed in plastic sheet protectors. The binder also had several pictures of K and classmates on the front and back, two CD-Roms with pictures and video clips from the school year, the daily record of what went on in school (today we went outside and talked about snails, etc), and a letter to K from the teachers summing up her year.

K's letter talked about how she started out quiet but quickly learned to talk in full sentences, made lots of friends, and generally had a fantastic year and her teachers are proud of her. I thought the letter, and the whole book, were really sweet and a nice memento of the school year.

The "summer break" didn't last long, though, since we decided to keep her in school for the summer - her school is staying open except for a week at the end of August, just before the first day of school on September 1. I think school is good for her at this point, and there's no reason to stop if I don't have anything more fun for her to do. I am going to keep her home a few days if I manage to take us to the zoo or do something else worthwhile, but otherwise it's work and gestating for me and school for K.

So pretty much she finished school June 30, had a Mama and K day July 1, and left for a week in Slovakia July 2, from which we just returned. And then, today, back to school to play with her friends.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Consequences of Multilingual Parenting that Nobody Tells You About

In our family, we have a Mama and an Apo. In fact, in our family we refer to all mothers as Mamas and all fathers as Apos, no matter how other families refer to themselves. Our Apo occasionally refers to me as "Mamka" or "Mami", and I occasionally refer to him as "your father" (usually in the sense of "WHEN IS YOUR FATHER GOING TO __?"). K goes back and forth between "Mama" and "Mommy" (sounds very like Mami) for me, and sticks to Apo for the Slovak.

Incidentally, "Apo" is a Slovakified version of the Hungarian word for daddy, which is what the Slovak calls HIS father (his parents are Apo and Aňu). It is pretty much only used in eastern Slovakia where he is from, so people in Prague and western Slovakia are as baffled upon hearing it as anyone else. The only time it gets instant recognition is from someone from eastern Slovakia who also uses/used it at home... Czechs call their fathers "táta", "tatínek" and variations thereof, and Slovaks typically call their fathers "ocko" and variations thereof.

"Mama", on the other hand, is pretty adaptable. It's "máma" (slight pronunciation difference) in Czech, or more often "maminka", or "mamka" or "mamička" in Slovak. "Mami" fits in either language. Thus K never raises any eyebrows calling me Mama or Mommy wherever we are.

So it took our daughter a while to pick up on the existence of other words to refer to parents. For example, for a long time she didn't know what people meant when they talked about her "daddy", because we never use the word. Eventually, she figured out that "daddy" and "tatínek" are different words for Apo that other people sometimes use, but she never said them herself, or at least not to refer to her father.

Recently that has started to change...

For one thing, K is referring to us sometimes as "moje maminka" and "můj tatínek" or "můj táta" (instead of "můj Apo"), especially when talking to her Slovak grandparents this week. I can't remember if she has called Apo táta to his face or not, but he definitely tries to discourage it, because he is called Apo.

Our last day in the US this year was Father's Day, and I'm pretty sure people were asking K about her "dad" and talking about dads and moms, because later that day or very soon after she said something about "mom and dad". This caught our attention, because of all the possible parental names, K has NEVER said "mom" or "dad". She clearly got it from Outside Influences!

Soon after that, once we were home, she mentioned her "mom and dad" to me again, and I asked,

"Do you mean Mama and Apo?"
"No, MOM and DAD."
"But we're your Mom and Dad."
"No, you're Mommy and Apo!"
"Um, well, who are your Mom and Dad then? Where are they now?"
"Mom is at work and Dad is at home." (points back to her bedroom)
"Can you ask him to come out here?"

K then went back to her bedroom, Dad first refused to come out, then came after all and K pointed to the floor, explaining that Dad is very small. And apparently invisible.

Are you getting this?


And it doesn't end there, oh no. An imaginary "tatínek" has also recently made an appearance, clearly differentiated from the real Apo.

That makes five of us so far.

I keep waiting for K to claim her OTHER parents are much nicer, less demanding, or in some other way entirely better than her REGULAR parents. I could handle that. Especially if the other parents would go to work and clean the house for us so we could spend more time goofing off with our kids.

EDIT TO ADD: I totally forgot about "MApo"! When K was learning to talk, for a long time she referred to me as "Mama" and Apo as "MApo". Which made him kind of mad. Like he's just a substandard version of me. Eventually she learned to say Apo and use it for the correct person, but she continued - and continues - to say MApo sometimes for either or both of us. At least occasionally it seems like she's just forgetting or changing her mind mid-word as to what she wants to say.

But recently - on the plane back from US, so the same day that "Mom and Dad" were first mentioned, she showed us a picture she drew. We are her favorite drawing subjects, especially Apo as he is artistically interesting with his short hair, glasses and beard. This one, however, had glasses, a beard and long hair. (Long hair is my only distinguishing characteristic.)

We asked about it, and she confirmed that we were seeing long hair, glasses and a beard. We looked at each other and said "...that must be MApo!"

So I guess that's six parents at last count...


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