Raising A Bilingual Baby

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I grew up speaking four different languages and I understood atleast six languages in India. Everybody in my country is pretty much multilingual. You learn English in school, Hindi is our national language spoken quite widely by people, Marathi is our state language again spoken by the people of the state and taught in school very extensively and then if you happen to have a different mother tongue which I did, Bengali, you would learn that from errmm your mother!

So you see why it is so important for me that my child is atleast bilingual. I failed at it with Reuben and Irene. That is because they were proficient in Korean and I was not. I was trying to teach them English when they came to England because that was a priority at the time. And by the time I realised that it would be nice if they could speak my language, they were quite a bit older and I was relatively younger and unprepared for the challenge.

With baby Ro, I had nine whole months to decide and prepare myself for the challenge ahead. You see in India it is easy to pick up languages because you hear all these languages around you all the time but here English is so widely spoken and you yourself are so used to speaking in English that when you have to speak to somebody who is not capable of reciprocating in the same language as you, it is difficult to even talk in your own language, let alone speak with the intention of teaching it to somebody else.

However, I have chosen to teach my baby my mother tongue, and I have no idea whether he will eventually learn my language or not, that fear will live with me until he can speak properly in both English and my mother tongue, Bengali.

At present, Roshan understands a lot of what I say and sometimes will respond more to words spoken in Bengali than in English but at 14 months whatever he says is nothing more than babbles and sometimes plain gibberish. He calls his father “baba” and then refers to our dog Rustle as “Bubba”. Now we can differentiate what he means because we put his gibberish into context but how much of it is language is a mystery.

I have read no books and have no friends in a similar situation as mine who could inspire me. I am doing everything by instinct and trial and error. It is definitely a challenge but we are plodding along slowly. Here are some of the ways in which I try to teach my baby to be bilingual:

One Parent, One language

I try and speak to Roshan in Bengali. The idea is that one parent speaks to the baby in one language exclusively. Slowly the child associate that parent with the language and starts engaging in the language he associates that parent with.

For me , exclusivity is difficult because of my other two children. When there is nobody home, I speak to Roshan in Bengali but when the kids or Ed is home, I am speaking in English majority of the time and end up communicating with Roshan in English.

One thing I have started doing though is, as soon as I speak to Roshan in English, I then very quickly translate it into bengali in the hope that he picks up the language.

Reading books

This one is my favourite and quite difficult. Ideally, I’d buy books in bengali for Roshan but it is very difficult to get hold of in the UK. So I try to translate any book that we have into bengali for him.

Singing songs

I sing a lot to Roshan. And eventhough I don’t know a lot of bengali songs myself, I sometimes make up songs in my language. We have a bathtime song, poo-time song and even nappy change song. Words keep changing because, well I make it as I go along.

Skyping family

I skype my mother, practically everyday. My mother lives in a joint family and everybody tries to come and speak to Roshan. Everybody speaks to him in Bengali. I try to create a sense of community for my baby in those 20 minutes of skype time.

Watching films and listening to music

We don’t watch a lot of tv but every now and again I try and put on music videos that are in bengali. Roshan enjoys hindi songs more though.

I also try and put on bengali songs for him whilst we are playing, eating or just lounging. Again, Roshan prefers his dad’s hip hop more!

Selective Response

Roshan is too young for this. But the idea is when he can start talking, I am going to insist that he speaks to me in bengali if he wants to get a response. Initially I will translate his request into bengali and ask him to repeat it just how we teach our children to say “please’ and “thank you”. In time, he will develop an association and understand that if he wants mummy’s attention he needs to speak in bengali.

I think this one might seem a bit brutal but is essential because baby will try to avoid speaking in the language he finds hard to come up with words in. In order to encourage him this method will come handy.

Translate and repeat

As mentioned above, as a parent you might have to translate and make them repeat. Children are going to find it very hard to learn a language that they are not listening to around them. It will be especially difficult to find certain words and they’d be tempted to use the words in a language that they are used to listening to more. In order to help them find words more easily this method will be helpful.

I already do it with Roshan. I ask him to repeat words and phrases after me and eventhough he can’t quite speak the words he has mastered the art of mimicking the tone of the words or phrases, which I think is a step forward already.

Patience & Persevere

Please be patient. I have no experience but I think as a parent if I persevere, baby Ro will activate his subconscious and learn the language eventually.

There might be a phase where baby Ro might only reciprocate in English and that might be an excuse for me to stop speaking to him in Bengali. But if I persevere and carry on speaking to him in Bengali he might get over his phase and start speaking to me in my language.

I have seen some children do that. Some children speak in English in public out of embarrassment to their parents whilst the parents still carry o Hunn speaking in some native language. Same children, go home and speak very eloquently in their mother tongue.  

Have you raised a bilingual child? Do you have any tips for me?

 

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English Is A Funny Language

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When I first moved to England, I was overwhelmed by everything. I wanted to fit in so badly that I never questioned any cultural habits I was adopting. Now my family back home mock my mannerisms, calling me “one of them”. I guess I have integrated very well!

This realisation was revisited last month when my mum and aunt visited my family home in England and I saw them struggle with two of the most abused words in English in the UK – “Thank You” and “Sorry”.

Saying thank you and sorry to people here is a routine thing, whereas in India those two words are never used so loosely. In fact, if you say sorry to someone who just took money from you for your purchase, you are sure to get told off or laughed upon. It isn’t because Indians are impolite, but because somehow there is more value to those words than I can explain in words. They are not formalities.

In my lifetime, I have rarely said thank you to my mum but now I expect my children to thank me when I put food on the table for them. So when this time my mum and aunt visited me, they observed and tried to absorb the English culture as much as they could. They kept thanking me for cooking, for taking them out, etc.

Now this gesture would mean nothing or nothing in the sense that it won’t grab my special emotional attention if it came from an Englishman because I know it is a routine thing. But when my mum and aunt did it, it struck me quite strongly how awkward it is between us to thank each other (they fed me all my life and now they are thanking me? Oh please, I am ashamed!) and how much effort it takes from their part to simply say those words.

Now I use the term, “abuse” after careful consideration. I think these words are being abused because when we are taught English, an appropriate response to “thank you” is often “don’t mention it” or most commonly used in India is “You are welcome”. Also, a natural response to “Sorry” is either “That’s ok” or “Oh don’t be”.

In contrast, people in England respond to thank you and sorry with another thank you and sorry. So to explain this further: one awkward experience we had at the supermarket with my mum was when my mum stood at the entrance waiting for me to get the trolley. A man totally engrossed in conversation with his spouse (I assume) came from behind and accidentally pushed pass my mum. Of course, he was English and polite so he said sorry. My mum’s instinct was to say, “Oh that’s ok”. And the disgust on the man’s face was unforgettable. My mum was obviously confused.

I explained her that an appropriate response to sorry is strangely a sorry. And then I faced a look of disgust on my mum’s face. She is an English teacher back home and this was utterly unacceptable fact. But she went with it for the rest of the trip as she believes in integrating like me.

Going back to the Indian culture. We are very intimate people and we rely on family and friends for our day to day needs. We often operate on a barter system of love and affection expressed very physically in the form of feeding someone, teaching someone, looking after them or simply welcoming someone in your intimate space which could be your home or heart. Saying thank you makes things very formal, and within Indian households formalities have no place because formalities are for outsiders. Hence, thanking your relative for feeding you could almost offend them or baffle them.

There is also this hierarchy system that rules us. We believe in mutually accepted roles and obligations. It is understood that it is a parent’s duty to feed, clothed and love their children, and it is a child’s responsibility to maintain their pride. If all those things are in tune, we are good. There is no need for thank you(s) or sorry(s).

In India, finishing a plateful of food that was served to you is a big thank you to the person who cooked (hence not finishing food is considered very disrespectful), wearing that pretty dress your husband brought you with elegance and pride is thanking him for buying you the dress and finishing your studies and standing on your feet is a big thank you to your parents for looking after you all these years. It is all emotional and not formal.

Having said all of that, I love English culture. I love the fact that they say “I love you” so easily without any awkwardness. Those are the three words that can never be abused no matter how or how often you use them. In India, we don’t even say I love you to our parents and loved ones so easily. Love is to be felt and expressed not told or imposed. I am sure the western influence is changing that notion now but when I was a kid, we never said that to our family. But I love the liberty I feel in saying I love you to my lovely children and husband every day, numerous amounts of time. I love to see my husband’s eyes lit up every time I say it to him and my children melt in my arms with warmth and a sense of security. It is simply marvellous!

Lastly, a very big thank you for reading my post (and I hope to see some appropriate responses to that).