Raising A Bilingual Child

I never dreamed that raising a bilingual child would be so much fun. While I was in college, we briefly touched upon the subject in one of my classes but never really went into a full blown discussion of what it all entails, and how to deal with it. I have to admit not giving it much thought at the time because I was already a mother, to a child whose parents both came from the same country. About a year ago later I found myself married to an American and pregnant. It was then that it slowly dawned on me that I would be raising a bilingual child. My beloved husband somehow naturally assumed that we would be teaching our daughter both Croatian and English. I was a bit scared with how will I be able to pull it off all by myself because at the time we were still living in the USA, we hadn’t planned on going back to Croatia and I knew that I would be the only one holding the sole responsibility of teaching her Croatian. I was torn between wanting our daughter to know both languages and fearing what will others think I’m telling her when I am using my native language. (Being worried about what people think comes naturally to you if you come from Croatia).

For the longest time, I was slow with it. I would mainly speak to her in English, occasionally throwing in a Croatian word. It took a lot of convincing from my husband to finally ditch my barrier and start speaking more of Croatian with her. Then we went back to Croatia and it somehow became the opposite. She had to switch from English being her primary language to Croatian. And that’s when all the fun began. My mother and I are the ones who predominantly speak Croatian to her. My husband still struggles with his Croatian. I swear the different endings for different cases confuse the hell out of him, the sound of l and j combined (lj) twists his tongue to no end, and the words that have only one vowel in them is enough to want him pull his hair out.

English and Croatian are both spoken in our household. (More about that in a different post). Our daughter seemed to adjust well. She is perfectly capable of speaking in both languages. She is even capable of hearing something from her grandmother and then repeating it to either me or my husband in English. She is capable of putting together a sentence in Croatian and then switch to English in the next minute. She is not a child prodigy by any means and her sentences are not always grammatically correct. She is 5 years old so things like “mommy I falled down” still come out of her mouth and I do correct her on that.

Lately, however she has been making weird combinations of both languages that more often than not send me into  furious fits of laughter. If she doesn’t know the word in English she will use the Croatian word in a heart beat which results in sentences like: “Mommy the muhas (Croatian plural for flies… somewhat; correct term would be muhe) are annoying me.”  Likewise if she doesn’t know or can’t remember the word in Croatian she will use an English equivalent which comes out like: “Baka, mama mi je kupila  a toy” (Granny, mommy bought me a toy). However, those are not the moments that have me laughing out loud. They deserve a chuckle I’ll admit that. Now, usually what I do, is offer her the word she is missing. I tell her that ‘toy’ in English means ‘igračka’ in Croatian. I tell her that ‘muhas’ are flies in English. Perhaps ‘muhas’ should have prepared me for what was coming next.

Our daughter, bless her heart, decided to go a step further. She decided to hell with all the differences between languages. She’ll make her own language. It happened as we went outside to check the mail one summer day. I got the mail from the mailbox and gave it to my daughter to take it up to the house. She happily ran towards the house, and as soon as she passed the hedge she let out a cry. I ran over to her and she was pointing to her neck and crying. She was trying to tell me something but I couldn’t understand her from her tears and seeing a wasp buzz near by,  it didn’t take me long to figure out what happened. After the panic subsided, she came to me and told me: “Mommy the mean wasp pik me.” I looked at her funny, and she repeated it word for word just like the first time. It finally dawned on me that she took a Croatian word, chopped off the Croatian ending for infinitive and turned it into English word. She was telling me the wasp stung her. I told her the right word she was looking for and then I went over the sentence in my head. I couldn’t help it and I started to laugh. Come on. You know you would too. I thought it was because she panicked. I hadn’t give it much thought afterwords until a couple of weeks later.

Given that school is in full swing, it didn’t take long for our son to come down with a cold. Since our daughter literally can’t live without being by his side at any waken moment, she caught it too. Now when they get sick I usually put some Vix on their feet, put fresh pair of socks and send them to bed. It usually works great and within a couple of days the cold wears off. This time was no different and as I was putting our daughter to bed she asked me with a straight face: “Mommy, aren’t you going to maz my tootsies?” (maz from mazati= rub). She did it again! This time I couldn’t control myself. I was laughing so hard tears were coming down my face, and my husband came to see what the hell was going on. I tried explaining it to him but couldn’t from laughter. Just trying to repeat it, made me laugh even harder. My husband must have thought I lost my mind and proceeded to stare at me with a funny look as he took over and put our daughter to bed. I went to the kitchen to try and re-collect myself. Later on I explained to him what happened, as well as the rest of the household.

The latest happened just last Friday. I was cleaning the downstairs portion of the house, also known as the laundry room, and since I was listening to my music, I was also dancing a bit. (Okay, so I dance while I clean, don’t look at me like that. You know you do it too. Especially when no one sees you.) Our daughter was with me, “helping”. As I was dancing I made a skating motion on the floor. (>.> Yeah, yeah I know…) Our daughter looked at me funny, put her hands on her hips (I swear she’s got the gestures and postures of my husbands’ family) and told me with a very stern look on her face: “Mommy don’t skliz (from klizati-ice skate, skid,slide), you’ll fall and break baka’s floor.” (baka= Croatian word for grandma, nana). I admit to tripping. I admit to almost falling. But not because of what I was doing. Her sentence completely tripped me up. Figuratively and literally. Her face tripped me up. My 5 year old daughter looking all adult and mommy like scorning me like I was her child.

I honestly fear what’s next. Given that she starts school here next year and that they have English from grade 1, I seriously cannot help but to wonder what that is going to look like. I hope she grows out of it. I hope she doesn’t come up with even weirder combinations; although given my background I have a pretty good idea of what that *could* look like. Like taking a Croatian verb and putting it into English tense. Or worse, running an English noun through all the Croatian cases. It’s been a fun ride. And I am willing to bet more fun is coming our way.

Are you a parent of bilingual child? Did you encounter issues like these? Please let us know in the comments!

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  1. Christine says

    Love it. She is clearly a sharp little munchkin, and a true joy to have in your lives. What fun to raise a bilingual child! Brava to you for ensuring she learns an important part of her heritage and future.

    • says

      She is definitely sharp as well as little Miss SmartyPants aka Purple Princess. I love every moment of it but like I said I also dread what’s coming next.

  2. says

    This is soooo cute! This happens a lot when people are learning 2 languages so no worries. The good thing about homeschooling my son is you know how we have English in school where we focus on grammar and writing and speaking correctly? I plan to do that with him in English and Spanish. But at 5 years old. I expect him to do exactly what your daughter is doing. I was in an Interpreting class one day for English and Spanish and one of the students was telling me this story about how a man was telling her to open the “envelo”….she had no idea what he was saying. “Sobre” is envelope in Spanish and she could tell that he was possibly saying “envelope” in English either. Turns out that was his made up Spanglish world for envelope! LOL. Thanks for sharing this with us at Countdown in Style! You were right. I enjoyed reading this. Don’t forget to stop by Friday to see if you are featured :)

    • says

      Thanks for dropping by. And yeah, I know it’s normal for bilingual kids so I am not overly worried about it. I still crack up when she does it… recently she told my mother “Zasto ti usas my voda?” which would roughly be why are you using my water. Half the sentence was in English, half in Croatian, her words were mixed up, I laughed, my mother started in on me that I should stop insisting on bilingualism. However, I am determined not to give up!

  3. says

    I would love to teach my children another language. Unfortunately, both my husband and I are American, so it’s kinda like we have to learn a language and then teach it to them. I grew up speaking French and Spanish, but it’s like any other skill, if you don’t use it, you lose it and both were school taught. Kids are so bright and it is adorable that your daughter is catching on. It’s a great thing that she’s mixing it up. She’ll grow out of it, the schools will make her… Ultimately, she’s a bright kid. Thanks for linking up with Countdown in Style.