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)
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.