Wednesday, May 05, 2010

Profile: Melissa's family with American English, Czech, and Slovak in England and Prague

Try saying this five times fast: Melissa is an American married to a Slovak with a daughter in England temporarily before moving to the Czech Republic--and they're raising her with all of the languages and cultures of the above! You can follow their adventures at her blog, Where going havo? Melissa is a proofreader and translator at a Czech law firm (currently on maternity leave), and her husand, who speaks five (!) languages, works in HR for an international company. Their daughter, Katka, a budding bilingual at age 2.5, enjoys Doctor Who and art projects. They plan on returning to their home in Prague where Katka was born. I'd like to thank Melissa for letting me profile her family on Bringing up Baby Bilingual!

What languages are spoken by the adults in your household and at what level of proficiency?

Matúš is a native speaker of Slovak and Hungarian (his region of Slovakia has a large Hungarian minority). He spoke Hungarian less as he grew older (Hungarian nanny until he went to school; he spoke Slovak with his parents) and never learned to read and write in Hungarian, though he can still have a conversation if he concentrates. He speaks American English at a very high level of fluency – people often ask what state he is from, or assume that I am the European spouse and he is the American. He learned English as a teenager but considers it very nearly as dominant as Slovak, though he never lived in an English-speaking country until now in UK. He also speaks French and Russian at lower levels of fluency.

I am a native speaker of English and moved to Prague in 2003, learning Czech in my early twenties. I understand Slovak but do not attempt to speak it (except to annoy my husband with my Czech accent). I speak Czech fluently enough to occasionally be mistaken for a native speaker, but I have a slight accent and make way too many grammar mistakes – especially after two years away!

What languages are you exposing your children to, and how?

Czech and Slovak are mutually intelligible languages--some people compare them to British and American English or to different dialects of German. We understand each other but we each speak our own language to each other. Of these two languages, our daughter is currently only exposed to Slovak, but ultimately she’ll grow up in a Czech environment.

Since she was born, we each speak to her in our own native language – him Slovak, me English. Together we speak mostly English or sometimes Slovak (i.e. him Slovak, me Czech). We are consistent in sticking to one language with our daughter but between ourselves we switch back and forth or throw words from one language into the other. In a few months we will move back to Prague and our daughter will have to learn Czech, but it is similar enough to Slovak that I don’t anticipate too horrendous of problems at her age…I hope….

Since we have lived in UK since she was six months old, Katka’s exposure to Slovak is limited to Matúš on a daily basis and any friends or family who come to see us (typically a couple of times a year). We have also been visiting either Prague (Czech) or Kosice (Slovak) twice a year or so. We usually manage to visit family in America for a week or so once a year, which we will continue to when we move back to a Czech environment do (maybe for longer periods, if possible, as Katka gets older).

Why do you want your child to know more than one language?

I have always regretted that my grandfather, born to Mexican parents in south Texas, didn’t teach his children Spanish, meaning that I had to learn it in school. Not to be too melodramatic about it, I felt a little cheated of my heritage. I think I came to this conclusion in about the 7th grade when I was having to study for Spanish class and thinking, hey, I should already know this. So maybe my motives weren’t that pure. I thought it would be so wonderful to just grow up knowing another language, not having to put in the effort it takes to learn as an adult. I valued languages and other cultures and broadening one’s horizons and all, and knowing another language is useful! All sorts of pragmatic reasons for language learning and passing on in general.

But then I married a person who actually SPEAKS another language, and that changed my motivation entirely. Sure, bilingualism has its advantages from an academic or business point of view, and I definitely value those, but to me all that is a distant second to the fact that my in-laws don’t speak English. My mother-in-law can’t even say, “I don’t speak English.” I want my children to be connected to their grandparents, and even more to their cultural background. There is a whole world of books, movies, pop music, cultural references, food, holidays, history, nursery rhymes, children’s songs…that Katka would lose if we didn’t make sure she speaks her family’s language.

Sometimes people (one I remember quite clearly) ask why on EARTH would you teach your child Slovak? When in life will she use that?? Teach her Spanish! Or Chinese! I think Spanish and Chinese are great languages and I’d love for us all three to learn them one day, but to me it doesn’t matter that only 5 million people speak Slovak. That’s a whole 5 million people whose language and culture Katka can share, because she is Slovak. I would never consider not teaching her English, for the same reason – not because it is useful and widely spoken (a nice bonus), but because it is where she comes from. 5 million people or 500 million is irrelevant. I’d make sure she knew Slovak just as well even if only 5 people spoke it.

I would love to instill in our children such a love of language and culture that they continue on their own to learn even other languages. I would really love for them to be proficient enough in both native languages to be able to freely choose which country to study and live in. At the very least I would want them to be able to talk to both sides of their family! I guess we’ll see how it goes.

How well does your child understand and speak the different languages? How has her language use evolved?

Katka spoke and understood almost nothing until she was 14 or 15 months old (she babbled, but no meaningful “mama,” “dada,” etc., and she didn’t understand the simplest words I said). At that point she caught on and started using some single words. She put together her first two-word sentences at about 20 months. At 2.5 Katka understands and speaks English at a similar level to a monolingual child her age – some of her peers speak better, some worse, from what I have observed (and based on language acquisition checklists for different ages). Though understanding and obeying are sadly not quite the same thing….

With her limited exposure to Slovak, her progress has been slower. For a long time she said very few Slovak words and wouldn’t even repeat them when she heard them. In the past couple of months her Slovak vocabulary has really been picking up. It is about a quarter of the size of English, maybe, and she uses Slovak words in English sentences but doesn’t really make sentences in Slovak. She does sometimes use word order more appropriate to Slovak than English, but that might be giving her more credit than she deserves at this word-salad stage of English speaking! She understands Slovak fairly well (can follow instructions, point to an object, etc.) but not as well as English.

The bright spot is that she is quite willing to use the Slovak that she knows. She accepts it as part of life and doesn’t try to avoid speaking. She does answer back in English, but to be honest she is just as likely to answer me (or anyone else!) using Slovak words, too. It seems like she really hasn’t sorted out yet who speaks what. She doesn’t differentiate by person or context so far.

It is hard to talk about evolution over a period of the few months since she started making sentences, but I really like the recent trend of more and more Slovak comprehension and word acquisition. It’s an uphill battle, in an English environment, learning from a non-caretaker parent (he goes to work, I’m at home), but they are managing it.

How have you been able to expose your child to the cultures where the different languages are spoken?

We listen to Slovak children’s music, play baby games (peekaboo, etc.), sing songs and nursery rhymes, and whatever we can think of. I participate in those type of activities, too, even though I’m officially the English Parent. We try to incorporate Slovak customs into our celebration of holidays, for instance we have two Christmases: Slovak on the 24th, and American on the 25th. We actually did that before we started a family, too. I guess I haven’t exposed Katka to American culture as separate from British culture, other than dressing up for Halloween while visiting family in America. When we’re living in a culture farther removed from America, I will need to do more.

I think the possibilities will increase as Katka gets older and better able to understand and participate, too. After all, culture isn’t just holidays, snacks and national songs; it’s attitudes, taboos, how you relate to people (do you smile at strangers?), how you treat a cold, how you drink your milk, how you behave in public, what you think is funny and what is TOTALLY NOT FUNNY. Those things are too subtle for a pre-schooler to pick up on, I think, at least in any organized way!

What resources and activities have been most useful to you? What, on the other hand, has not been useful?

We used about 12 – 15 signs (well, a few more, but that was how many she used back) with Katka when she was younger, and they made a dramatic difference in our observation. She was well over a year and not just wasn’t talking, she didn’t understand either of us talking even about the most common things – food, milk, toys, nothing. When she finally used her first sign (food, at 14 or 15 months), she learned new signs quickly and showed that she understood the word and the sign, in English and Slovak, both separately and together. She just really didn’t make the connection between words and their meanings until they were connected with a sign.

Matúš and I coordinated in advance which sign we would use (note that sign language between countries is different, sometimes very different – we used or adapted ASL signs for consistency’s sake) and each of us used the sign with our own language. This did seem to serve as a bridge for Katka to make the connection that mliečko and milk have the same sign and both mean that she gets some milk, so I think it helped her with learning both languages, as well as getting on the language train in general.

Skype of course is priceless. Katka talks with her grandparents every day or two, which does a fantastic job of letting her hear more language speakers than just the two of us and also of maintaining the grandparent-grandchild relationship so that we can make the most of our limited visits without too much getting-to-know-you bashfulness at the beginning.

The English town where we live for our second year in England (unfortunately not the first year) turned out to have a good-sized community of Czechs and Slovaks, especially Slovaks. I’ve met some moms on the playground and in the neighborhood playgroup--it’s been great for my social life! Not to mention my ability to string together a coherent Czech sentence after months of hearing only my husband’s Slovak.

Our local children’s center even has a Slovak playgroup (what fantastically good luck!) that meets once a month, which, unfortunately, has not been overwhelming in its usefulness. It’s a good way of meeting people, but looking around the room, the only ones speaking Slovak are the parents (or a few are Czech). The kids are running around speaking English together, so I can’t say it’s had any effect on my daughter’s Slovak language ability beyond overhearing some other adults talking. All of these families have one or both parents Slovak (or Czech), so the problem isn’t that we’re the only family with a native speaker in the home. Actually, I’m the only non-native speaker. One encouraging aspect I guess is that Katka’s Slovak ability isn’t really behind the others in relation to her age. All in all it’s a bit of fun, I get to converse with someone I’m not married to (and therefore telepathically understands what I mean to say even if I don’t get it out quite right) and we can compare notes on living in UK with people who understand us. But it doesn’t teach my girl Slovak.

What challenges have you faced as you raise your child with more than one language?

We haven’t had any too terrible challenges so far (but she’s only two! I’m sure the challenges are still coming!), mainly smallish things like how can you tell what she’s saying when she leaves out half the consonants and you don’t even know which language to be listening for. That doubles the possibilities! Fortunately people seem to take it in stride, and we haven’t noticed any nasty comments or anything. Occasionally some misconceptions, but those are more amusing than annoying at this point.

Also in our particular situation in UK, Slovak gets the short end of the stick since Katka spends all day with me, the English speaker. In the short term it would help for me to speak Czech, or even Slovak, with her to maximize her exposure, but in the long term I think it’s better to start out the way we’ll be carrying on, and we do intend to live in Prague long-term, so ultimately English will be the language that needs encouraging.

Finding a way for me to actively encourage Slovak without actually being the Slovak Parent has been kind of challenging. I am pretty good at pushing the “play” button on our favorite Slovak children’s CD, but I’d like to be a little more proactive than that! Mainly I try to give a lot of support to Matus, give him ideas to try and don’t let him get discouraged. I encourage the grandparent relationship and try to get any Slovak speakers we’re around to actually speak Slovak to Katka instead of defaulting to English.

Do you have any advice for us--for example, how do you encourage your children to use the second language, or how do you cope with family members who don't speak the child's second language?

Don’t tell the OPOL police (haha), but I actually found that Katka was more willing to try saying Slovak words if I said them. She went through a phase last year of not wanting to repeat after anyone but me, but if I said the word in Slovak she would try it, and later was willing to repeat it after Matúš as well. I’m not sure what was going on there but it really did seem to help, even though I kept it to a single-word level (not a running commentary in Slovak--less chance of corrupting it with my Czech influence that way). She’s gotten past it and is steadily picking up more and more Slovak vocabulary now. I’m not sure I’d make that a blanket recommendation for anybody, because it would be easy to lose focus and switch back and forth indiscriminately, but it works for us in small doses.

Overall I guess I find it helpful to be committed and intentional about it all, but also not to suck all the fun out. It’s important to just relax and enjoy your kids, too!

What do you think parents, caretakers, teachers, and/or researchers need to know about teaching a second language to children? What do you wish you had known when you started? What, if anything, would you do differently now?

I think there is a lot of misinformation out there even still--bilingualism myths like you have to teach one language first, then others later, and similar widespread (but unfounded!) beliefs. I think it’s important to be consistent and patient, and not to be discouraged even when you wonder if your child will EVER speak your language properly. I worry about how informed my daughter’s future teachers will be about bilingual children and if they will treat her, or me, differently because of it. I don’t want to be in the position of being told to stop using one language or the other by a teacher or doctor or anyone, because I wouldn’t do it.

I can’t think of anything I would have done differently, but we are just at the beginning of the road. Who knows what regrets I may have in five or ten years’ time, but at the end of the day, I am sure that teaching our kids English, Slovak and Czech won’t be among them!
This post is part of the April Blogging Carnival on Bilingualism.


  1. This profile raises so many questions and comments for me that I kind of wish I was back in grad school and could discuss this like an article with the benefit of my professor's insights! But if the readers of this blog weigh in, we could get quite a good discussion going anyway.

    For example...How cool is it that both Melissa and Matus speak their second languages like natives, especially when they didn't learn them till their teens and twenties? I'm guessing that Melissa must have learned through pure immersion, whereas Matus must have had really good teachers in high school, maybe also studied abroad? Melissa, how did you both do it?

    And...will the fact that her daughter is growing up near London and in Prague make her a Third Culture Kid? (TCKs, as best I understand, are children who grow up in a country that neither parent is from and as a result can face challenges because of that.) Or, since people speak her mom's native tongue in England and Czech and Slovak are mutually intelligible mean that the TCK label doesn't really fit here?

    And...has anyone ever seen research about minority language playgroups and whether the simple fact that the parents are speaking that language makes a difference in the children's language use and/or attitudes about the minority language? (Like in Melissa's Slovak playgroup, most of the kids at our French playgroup are too young to say much to begin with, and the older ones do tend to use English most of the time.)

    And...I love Melissa's list of some of the elements that make up a culture, like how to treat a cold! Culture is so much more than who painted what picture in which style during which period near which important monument in a capital city.

    And finally...three years of maternity leave? I am SO jealous! The US is just absolutely clueless.

  2. Three years of maternity leave, baby! If I manage to start baby #2 by October, I get another three years.

    I don't want to overstate the "like a native" bit - people do occasionally assume I'm Czech, but they might be thinking I'm Czech with a speech impediment or something!

    Matus learned English from a former Russian teacher who was requalifying in English and was two lessons ahead of them in the book! He learned real English from a bunch of college-age American kids who came to his town and hung out with him and his friends, and he also spent three summers working in Maryland.

    I learned Czech first at a language school five days a week for 3 months, then paid for individual lessons 1-2x a week for two years or so. Marrying a Slovak didn't directly help my Czech, but he did make me watch the news and different old movies with him, which was a big stretch for me at the time! I would say the deciding factor in my language learning was time (I had a job that expected me to learn Czech, so they gave me the time to devote to it) and effort (I put in a great amount of effort, always asking questions nobody could answer, trying to read or watch movies, etc.).

    I do think just hearing other people use the target language can help children's attitudes toward the language because they see that it is a real language that real people use - that shouldn't be underestimated. Having said that, I would have been happy if we sang some Slovak Christmas carols, and not...Jingle Bells. In English. *laugh*

    I am so not joking about how to treat a cold or other cultural attitudes, either. And that's not even touching on child-rearing! Now there are some major differences. :)

  3. Thank you, both! It's so interesting to see all those different situations into which kids are plunked and one way or other, they figure out the languages that go with it.

    Sarah, I'm pretty sure I've seen articles saying that hearing other people speak the minority language is a good thing, in that it helps the kids understand that the language is important and is not just something their parent/grandparent/aunt/whatever speaks. Supposedly, it helps them put some more value onto the language, thereby providing them with some (more?) motivation to use it themselves.

    My kids sure like to hear others speak German, but I'm not sure it's made a difference. I guess it'd be hard to prove.

    And Melissa, I'm often mistaken for a native speaker with, like you're saying, either a speech impediment or hailing from some far-flung place that is known to have a strange accent. I'm never entirely sure whether the speech impediment thing is funny or weird, so I'm choosing to focus on 'got mistaken for a native speaker - woo hooo' :)

    Good luck with things as Katka gets older!