Language-learning: an alive, natural, changing process

When I first thought about this month’s Multilingual Carnival topic on “lost languages“, I didn’t think we had all that much to share. Our kids are all under four years of age and they have only gained in language skills from their blank birth slate, right?

However, from the perspective of a linguist, any language choice I made for my kids at birth actually negates, or at a minimum puts a hold to those that they could be speaking today. Full disclosure: ongoing language acquisition has been such a monumental part of my own life, that on some days, the idea of my progeny being “just bilingual“ actually feels a little dull. A waste of my teachable skills perhaps. On busier days, I know that we currently do not have the luxury of living in a multilingual environment you might find in large expatriate cities and I am perfectly content and confident in establishing solid foundations in French and English in our household.

I never really considered imparting one of my weaker languages like Italian to my kids. There are all sorts of reasons and excused behind that. We live far away from Italy. My Italian today is all sorts of rusty, like a tired out wheelbarrow tossed to the side. Also, there simply aren’t enough hours in the waking day to squeeze it all in. I hereby pre-accept the regret I will have when we drive over to Courmayeur and my kids can’t order a pizza. So be it.

Then, there are languages that I have invested years and years of my time learning, falling in love with the people and culture. We’re talking about German and Mandarin. Those are by far harder for me to withhold from my kids today. Those are tongues I could consider “lost” on my kids until they are found. I liken it to the dilemma of a musician teaching his kids to play the guitar and piano but waiting to share his passion for that shiny saxophone. Do you teach those kids great foundations for them to discover their own musical love, or do you let them dabble in a bit of everything and accept they may never be able to achieve fast chromatic scales? Or do you work on piano and guitar thoroughly and then one day assess they are ready to discover the sax? Or will life be too busy to make time for it by then? Will they have lost interest in music altogether? Such a conundrum.

In terms of languages I have “lost”, well, they were the ones I never had a decent command of in the first place. I have lost the ability to speak Slavic languages. Polish and Russian were a fun game in college. Late evening classes for fun. When I had time for “why not“ classes. Ehem, profuse apologies to teacher Rafal but I am not even sure I can read a Cyrillic alphabet anymore. I go all bleary and cross-eyed. Lost languages. But then, but then. We were in Kiev a couple years back and I noticed my heart was beating out of my chest, in love with Ukranian. From the back of a cab, I whispered to my husband: “Babe, I. LOVE. THIS. LANGUAGE! I could totally learn it and live here!“ It wasn’t a flippant comment (although on another trip I also reportedly told him I had lost part of my heart in Calcutta too). There was a rekindling of something in me in that moment. Of a hobby that has been forcibly put to the side by the throws of life and more pressing issues.

I am still working at opening my linguistic world up to my family so that they know and see that mama listens to NPR on the radio in English, FranceInfos over the internet in French or Chinesepod in Mandarin, or why not, to read that German newspaper my husband brought back from a business trip. French, German, Mandarin – those aren’t lost languages but certainly ones at risk of being lost if I don’t just live a life surrounded by them, like I naturally used to.

You might recall that I took relaxed approach to teaching the kids some Chinese as we found time for it a while back. For about a year and a half, we’ve played Mandarin games, sung songs, watched LittlePim and I would occasionally build sentence games in their areas of interest. It’s disheartening but should come as no surprise to see far less progress than in the languages we have invested time and energy into. It was terribly bittersweet to come back from Adventures in China with small kids and temporarily close the door on the idea that our next season would be nestled in the Middle Kingdom. Entirely unexpectedly, Ayo, our oldest, fell in love with the culture and language like something I have never seen before. This little boy longed to communicate with everyone he met. I am quite confident that our littles would have become trilingual quite naturally in that setting.

Naturally. I have come to believe that this is precisely the point. For my kids to blossom and embrace language learning their life-long, it must be a natural part of their lives. A light and easy (yet consistent!) process that makes sense. Children aren’t daft. If there is no outlet, (eg. no kid to speak with about trains and pacifier addictions) they aren’t going to want to speak it.

Before becoming a parent, it might have seemed like the more languages the better. Wouldn’t you want to have the ability to speak to the people in this picture instead of going through an interpreter? Today, on my more coherent days, I am really proud of where we have come with such little minority language exposure. Today, I know that my kids have quite different personalities in each language. Language affects their view of the world and I embark on this journey a bit more knowingly. At the same time, I view learning as an organic process that adapts to our environment. That means it will grow and change. I certainly haven’t lost all hope that we will move to a Francophone environment and our family language routine might shift, say, to allow room for German as we develop more German-speaking relationships, for example.

I have written many times about the language journey being one requiring vision but more than anything great faith. It’s maybe a teeny tiny bit like choosing to marry someone for the goodness you see within them, without ever knowing who he/she might become. We only see life as it is today, with perhaps some idea of what it might look like tomorrow. In marriage like in language-learning, we commit to a journey of unknowns, investing in what we know today and we will hopefully adapt to changes along the way.

I want not to view these languages in their static state, as “gained” or “lost” for myself or my children. Rather as living and changing and adapting to our environment as we find the need for them. Of course, naturally embracing parts of many languages along the way as we form sweet relationships with people they represent.

3 thoughts on “Language-learning: an alive, natural, changing process

  1. Hi! I have nothing intelligent to add to this conversation, but this is just me waving hi to you through my computer to let you know I’m reading and loving the perspective you bring to parenting, culture, and langauge.

    1. Hey Pam! Not sure how your comment got lost but I came across it today. Thank you for your encouragement. I love how you process and choose to parent those darlings of your own. And with that, I am running over to your awesome blog to check out your latest!

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