Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Raising The Multilingual Child

It is a VERY difficult job. I have been doing it now for 3.5 years and I can tell you I have had better and more interesting tasks in the meantime. The one thing you need to know is that if you truly want your child to learn a second language at home, you have to pursue it with the persistence of a rabid dog.

Learning multiple languages by children is a fact of life in the Foreign Service. On one hand, a lot of the spouses as well as Foreign Service Officers themselves were originally born in a different country and speak a different native language from English. On the other, by virtue of living overseas, the child inevitably picks up the local language to some extent. Sadly, there is precious little material on the market about how to deal with the bombardment of foreign languages and make the most of it. So, I have had to wing it mostly.

This is how I fight the good fight. Born in Bulgaria, I speak fluent Bulgarian and it has been really important for me that Son learns the language. That way, he will be able to speak to my family during the obligatory summer visits there, as well as be able to charm the pretty Bulgarian girls whenever the need arises. Moreover, speaking Bulgarian will always be a way for him to know and remember some of his roots - a must in his future gypsy, world-roaming life. I began speaking Bulgarian to Son since the day he was born. While he was spending his cute little baby days exclusively at home with me, he slowly began speaking baby Bulgarian to me. He understood everything I said, and formed some rudimentary words. Watching Elmo in English on a daily basis was NOT helping on that front, but who can resist the furry animal with the annoyingly high pitched voice? Plus, watching Elmo on the potty while we were potty-training was a life-saver, so I let it pass.

The problem began once Son started daycare when he was a little over 1 year old. Miraculously, he began blabbing in English quite fast and, while he still understood every word I said to him in Bulgarian, he would moo his response back to me in English. Unfazed, I persisted. Fast forward a year later. The obstinate child flat out would NOT speak Bulgarian. And I would NOT speak English back. I just kept going at it. Whenever we sat down to read books, I'd translate them into Bulgarian (I did some remarkable renditions of Dr.Seuss in rhyme which I ought to copyright!). Whenever we watched Elmo, I'd make him explain to me what was going on in Bulgarian.

I taught him the numbers in Bulgarian and constantly made him count everything around us. The poor child must have counted to 10 a trillion times. I asked my mom to send me CDs with children songs and we played them so often at home that I can honestly tell you I detest all of them with passion. But singing along develops vocabulary like nothing else would (I admit to learning some real bad English from obsessing over the Beatles) and it really expanded his lexicon. Finally, if you can procure videos in the native language, preferably with captivating cartoons, that is also a great language tool.

But the best tool in the fight for the native language is immersion in Grandma's summer camp. When Son was almost 3, right before we moved to Dhaka, if you recall we decided to leave him with my Mom in Sofia while we settle in here. That did miracles. A month later, she delivered a perfectly bilingual child, who expressed himself quite well in short Bulgarian sentences along with slightly longer, better English ones.

As time progressed though, we noticed that his word order remains hopelessly English. For example, in English we say, "I want it!" (a phrase repeated by Son about 1,243,345 times a day). In Bulgarian, the phrase is "I it want". As you can guess by now, Son uses the English word order, which sounds like this , "Аз искам го!" Um, yeah. And no matter how many times I correct him (which is EVERY single time he speaks like this), he doesn't change it.

The second problem we noticed was that he often constructs sentences using both languages. Sometimes it is because he doesn't know the word in the other, and sometimes - just because. It sounds like this, "Mama, аз искам pomegranate, молааа!" I always plead ignorance of English (clearly an obvious and horrible lie since a minute later I'd lapse into a long tirade in English to the Diplomat) and tell him to repeat it back all in Bulgarian. I have to say that most times I am successful and he does repeat it back in Bulgarian (in a terrible word order, of course).

Son attends the French school in Dhaka, which has, of course, added a third language to the mix. Sadly, it is one which neither of us two speak, so at times I have the horrible suspicion that when angry with us, Son swears quietly at us in flowery French. I swear I distinctly overheard him say  "Merde!" the other day when I refused to add chocolate chips to his supertasty chicken. French has further complicated matters. Yesterday, we had the following exchange:
Me (sternly): Who has spilled red paint on this governmentally-issued couch?
Son: Аз съм Dinosaur! (I am a Dinosaur!)
Me (in Bulgarian, highly irritated, in high pitched voice): Who has spilled the red paint!!!!!???
Son: Мама, аз много обичкам те! (Momma, I you very much love!)
Me (further aggravated): I said, who has spil
Son (interrupting impertinently): MOI! (Me in French)
Me (speechless)
Son (leaves haughtily)
Me (scrubbing red paint off for 45 mins, swearing in Bulgarian)

The point of all this is: if you want your child to learn another language, whether it is your native tongue or some other, you have to give it your 1000%. You have to be persistent and absolutely consistent and always, ALWAYS speak that language with your child. Start as early as possible and keep talking. Read books, sing songs, tell stories, yell, scold and soothe in it. Your child has to know this is the language he or she will speak at home (if both you and your spouse speak it) or with you only. Refuse to understand when he or she speak English back to you. Correct and expand vocabulary as often as you can without getting annoying. Son's Bulgarian may not be of the highest literary quality, but he does speak it. Once he grows up old enough to be able to read and write in it, he will read books and self-correct, hopefully. For now, I remain optimistic.


  1. how lucky your Mom is, to have a persisting daughter like this; long back i have given up when my wife persisted like many in india to speak with her children only in english; whatever little they learnt of my mother tongue, Tamil, was during the eight year stint of mine in chennai. keep it up, i am sure my grandson will write poetry in his mother tongue when he grows!

  2. is the word order in Bulgarian similar to the word order in Bangla? it must be really tough teaching different language and at the same time learning different language with different word order. Kepp it up!

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    1. I have spent the last 2 hours reading through the pages of this blog, and I must say that it is hugely insightful and very helpful. Thank you! I wonder if there are other books, articles, sites or blogs like yours which I can read. I have so many questions!

      Enkelejda, I am Albanian as well. I was born there but spent half my life here in the US. I am also very advanced in Spanish and Italian. I'm wondering if I can perhaps speak with you. I've just graduated college and am interested in the FSO career track. There was no other way to reach you! Faleminderit!

  4. Thank you for this post! I love your blog in general but this post really hit home at the right time. My husband and will soon be moving to Bulgaria when my son is about 2 and a half. We don't already speak another language but are learning Russian and Bulgarian and are excited about our son learning the language but confused as to the best way to do it. This post was full of great ideas - thanks!

  5. Good job! Dont give up! My mom did the same, she spoke Polish to me and my brother all the time when we were little. I dont remember learning Polish and my polish family says, i always spoke the language as if i was raised there. But! My brother never learned to speak as well as I do!! The 3 months of each year summer camping at my grandma helped him improve, but he has a strong Bulgarian accent and his vocabulary is poor. At one point mom gave up as he was growing up and now there is a huge difference between mine and his Polish! Prodalzavaj da govorish na Son i ne se otkazvaj!

  6. Fully agree with Magi. My Ukranian mother did not put in as much effort in teaching my younger brother Russian, with the result that his grammar, accent and orthography are poor (and ironically, he now has a Russian wife). I speak both Bulgarian and Russian to daughter and actively insist she learns both well. In her third month at the NJ nursery school two years ago, first strong exposure to English, she announced she would only speak English from then on. Ha-ha, she did not know whom she was dealing with. I retorted that unless she would speak good Russian and Bulgarian at home, I would not give her any food and fulfill any request. Now she speaks and reads and writes (the third with mistakes, but she is not yet 6), fluently Bulgarian and Russian, speaks, reads and writes in script in very authentic British English at school, has trouble progressing with the school French because their teacher does not know how to teach languages to very young kids (the previous teacher was much better), and does good progress with her before-school Spanish club with thd Equadorian senora (club chosen as it helps me get on time to work on that day). It is a lot of work for her and me, I make my best to correct her mistakes and get her to repeat it right, but she has the desire, and the result is worth the effort. So, keep up the front!

  7. I wish I had read tips like yours, 25 years ago when I was raising my children! I tried at first but I gave up too soon. As a result, my children speak very little to no Greek today. Luckily the Service gave them to opportunity to learn Spanish, Italian and Portuguese at the international schools they attended. We now rely on the Rosetta Stone but they will never be native Greek speakers. :(

  8. Us, over-achievers-mommies of the Ostblok ;) No easy life for us and kids won't have it easy! Seriously. But, hey, I insist on speaking Russian to my daughter too, but she responds to me in German only :( Maybe one day...

  9. Ladies, thank you!! Much appreciated comments in my uneven battle of the languages. For those still working on it, like me - see, you are so not alone! To those way ahead of the game - thank you for the tips!

  10. Great post! I guess it's too early for your son to perfect the three languages. But it's a good start! Just keep exposing him to people who speak Bulgarian.

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  12. Hi, I found your blog very helpful. I just graduated from law school, was admitted to the bar and although I love the law, I would love to be a FSO. I am registering for the FSOT and came upon the career track question, so I wanted to know this: if you choose the economic track, are you more likely to be assigned in more developed countries, as opposed to the political track? I am very interested in both tracks, but I have to consider my family members while making the choice.

  13. Hello. There is absolutely no rule where you will be assigned based on your track - they need econ and pol people everywhere, even in Bujumbura. And btw, for the record, developing countries are easier for the family since that is where you usually get cheap help.

  14. Honestly, that sounds awful for your son. You want him to be something and are forcing it on him. How confused must he be. Especially in school when it's hard enough to cope anyway and now you have given him a basis for learning in the wrong language. Two wrong languages, in fact. How is teaching him Bulgarian and English supposed to set him up for a French education? Pushy mum much?

  15. Dear Anonymous. I am a little lost as to which is the "wrong language" in Son's case? He was in French school because that was the one available at the time. Now he is in a Portuguese one! Oops. Oh yes, and his Bulgarian is great as well as his English. I think there are no wrong languages to teach a child, and it only helps to exercise his brain and prepare him for what is, truly, a very global world.