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Czech News in English » Columnists » Half-n-half » Language acquisition

Language acquisition

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I spent a fair amount of time during Anna’s toddler years obsessing over whether or not her language skills were progressing in both Czech and English. At almost three, Oliver is now past the age when Anna began to express herself fairly fluently in Czech, already being fluent in English. As with most aspects of raising a second child, my approach to language development this time around has been far more relaxed. Lack of extra time for worrying plus the experience of witnessing Anna’s bilingual success has lead me to conclude: “No need to worry. He’ll pick up Czech as soon as he starts school.”

Oliver’s own accepting attitude of Czech language and culture has also contributed to my more laid-back attitude. While our family language tends to be English, we live in a Czech community and Oliver has spent his entire life surrounded by native Czechs. He’s never expressed the sentiment that two-and-a-half year-old Anna once told Radek, “Daddy. Talk English to me. I don’t want to talk Czech.” It was just after we had returned from a visit to the US and transitioning between America and the Czech Republic used to be a major ordeal for Anna. In contrast, Oliver to-date seems to handle the transitions with ease. Although he doesn’t speak much Czech, he’s always up for watching a Czech fairy tale or listening to Czech music.

There are several instances each day when I see how Oliver is trying to use his Czech more actively. He often stops us at dinner to point to a food on his plate saying, “To je mrkva” (this is carrot) or motion to his neck saying, “krka” and then explaining, “that means ‘neck,'” Since Oliver hears Czech in a natural setting, I’m surprised by the grammatical mistakes he makes (mrkva should be mrkev and krka should be krk), although it’s clear he’s taken his vocabulary straight from what he’s overheard minus the necessary declinations. But beyond several basic phrases and a few verses from the most popular Czech nursery rhymes, Oliver doesn’t speak much in Czech, at least not while I’m around.

When Anna and Oliver play in English, it’s hard to remember that he’s two-and-a-half years younger. Oliver’s English language skills seem to be developing on time. For a young boy, he’s pretty apt at expressing himself and using adjectives and degrees of like/dislike to ensure that we all know exactly what he needs. Of course, a loud voice helps.

As Oliver’s third birthday draws closer, I decided that it’d be a good idea to visit a speech therapist and find out how a professional thinks Oliver’s Czech language acquisition is going. My first visit to a therapist a few years back happened when Anna Lee was referred over her “r” and “ř” sounds, plus the fact that she was from a bilingual family. At the time, I was nervous and felt like both Anna and I had a lot at stake; however, this time around, I was more or less just curious to see if the therapist would offer us any tips on how to bring Oliver’s Czech understanding to a more active level of usage. For although Oliver understands everything that he hears in Czech, he tends to favor English, almost exclusively, unless he’s certain the person he’s talking with only speaks Czech or unless he doesn’t know the word in English.

This tendency is natural, and I’ve seen it in action with his Czech relatives, our neighbors and, most recently, with a logopedka (speech therapist) that we visited this past week. Despite refusing to say much of anything to the therapist in the beginning, not even his name, Oliver quickly reacted to her offer of a razítko (stamp). Initially, he turned to me and whispered, “I want a razítko” and then turned to the therapist and said, “Já chci razítko.” Fortunately, he knows the word for “please” in Czech and was able to get what he wanted.

Just as I suspected, after talking with me and watching Oliver play with some toys in her office, the therapist suggested that we buy a special book with říkanky (nursery rhymes) and accompanying pictures, so that Oliver would have to practice not only saying vocabulary, but also putting his new words into their correct grammatical structure in the context of a simple story. Overall, she reasoned that Oliver’s bilingualism was the reason for his “delay” in actively using Czech, as she labeled English as his “maternal” language. I was surprised to hear her say that Oliver’s Czech was behind for his age, since I’d never heard a professional say that about Anna. I left her office feeling as if she’d put a label on my child that he might have trouble shedding, even if I knew it was true. Still, I know that time and a school setting will bring Oliver’s Czech up to speed more rapidly than any exercises I do with him; however, I figured any practice wouldn’t hurt either of us.

Listening to my five-year Anna switch back and forth between Czech and English, I’m amazed at how effortlessly she transitions between her two native languages. After a year of Czech preschool Anna’s linguistic skills seem right on par with her Czech classmates’. I’d be hard pressed to rate which language she favors now. I also felt bad knowing that Oliver could have a tough standard to measure himself against linguistically when he looked at his sister, and I promised I’d do my best not to compare the two.

Once removed from the therapist’s office, I realized that in the big picture, Oliver has a lifetime ahead of him to perfect his spoken Czech, and I have no doubt that my current worry will soon will be a distant memory replaced by the most pressing developmental concerns of the moment. Yet, I know that the earlier he’s able to express himself in Czech as well as he can in English, the better he’ll feel overall. I hate hearing him answer questions in Czech with “nevím” (I don’t know) and shake his head glumly and stomp his foot in frustration.

Having spent the past seven years of my life trying to improve my grasp on this arguably challenging language, I have utmost respect (and envy) for the way my children are able to naturally absorb the nuances of pronunciation and intonation in a way that I’ll never manage. I’m thankful that Oliver has such a close relationship with his birth country, even if his “maternal” language is English, at least for the moment.

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