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Being bilingual, but not bashful

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I was listening to my children chatter away as they cleaned up their toys with Radek the other night, and I was struck by their sudden and complete “Czechness.” English is the predominant language in our house when I’m around, so it’s always a surprise to hear a barrage of Czech come out of the kids when they speak with their father. But on this occasion it wasn’t just the language that seemed different, observing their clean-up-time from a distance was like watching a different family in action. The children, particularly Anna, took on different personas. When she interacted with her dad and Oliver in Czech, Anna seemed bossier and more confident, as well as more able to make jokes. I marveled again at their ability to switch languages (and personalities) in a snap, and I’m grateful that we’d decided years ago to come back to live in Prague.

The same feeling came over me last week at dance class when I saw Anna’s half-Spanish friend and her mother switch abruptly from speaking Czech with Anna and English with me into full-blown Spanish together. At once, they seemed more animated and their gestures more pronounced. As their conversation continued, I heard Oliver try to repeat a couple of the Spanish words. Although my kids haven’t been exposed to a third language in any consistent form, it’s interesting how quickly they notice when someone is speaking something different. Czech children have also watched me inquisitively when I speak to my kids in English. There are even some students who don’t attend my English class at the preschool, but still greet me at the door with a boisterous “hello.”

Being bilingual isn’t that unusual nowadays. Even in the traditionally mono-linguistic US, there are more opportunities for children to acquire a second language. There are bilingual schools and preschools, language playgroups and DVDs, all of which use a variety of methods, including music, movement and the concept of play to engage children from the toddler-age up. In the past few years, research has revealed later-in-life health benefits for bilinguals as well including delayed onset of Alzheimer’s or dementia. Parents have started to rethink their approach to their children’s linguistic development. It is no longer good enough for a child to know his ABC’s in English, he should be able to say them like the popular cartoon character Dora does, in Spanish too.

I think the new types of language learning tools and programs are beneficial, and I applaud parents for actively investing in their children’s linguistic future in any way they can. Yet I still believe it’s hard to beat the benefits of pure language immersion and strong family support from an early age. No matter how hard I study Czech, I know I’ll never have the linguistic flexibility that my children do, since their language skills are being acquired at a point when their brains are still-forming; they are making and rewiring connections faster than I can type. Even more importantly they are able to switch back and forth between languages naturally, without moments of self-doubt and bashfulness, which I still struggle with. I do have a strong, practical need to speak Czech decently and my language skills now are, without question, eons more refined than the French skills I once learned in high school. Still, I feel my face go red when a waitress asks me to repeat an order that she didn’t catch, or I have to get the salesclerk to tell me the grocery total for a second time because I didn’t catch it clearly the first.

I see the same bashfulness and self-doubt in my beginner level adult English students. Although highly motivated to learn, they are so self-conscious of every pronunciation error and grammar mistake that I find myself spending as much time bolstering their confidence as I do correcting their mispronunciations. Although my class for Czech children is also at a beginner level, the children’s sense of inhibition usually melts away as soon as I push play on our English sing-along CD. While they may mouth only the beginning sounds of words or miss some words altogether, their faces show enjoyment of the lyrics and the rhythm. Even the shy children seem to get a confidence boost once the music is turned on.

Growing up bilingual isn’t always psychologically easy, particularly when making the transition from one home country to the other. I recently spoke with a friend who has a preschool-aged child who is going through a difficult time at Czech school after being away for the winter holiday. Although our children made the transition more smoothly than I did this year, I remember that as a toddler Anna seemed to resent returning to Prague and needing to speak Czech again. For a few weeks after every visit to the US, she refused to speak Czech to Radek. She clung to me on the playgrounds and was less-confident in her playgroups where Czech was the predominant language. Although I hated to see her struggling, usually after a good, long weekend with her Czech babička she settled back into her Czech life and her lively Czech personality reemerged. With time, I am certain that my friend’s child will also make the transition more smoothly. My friend mentioned that instead of school, she might let her child spend more time with her Czech grandparents for a while. My bet is that a good dose of extra attention from loving grandparents might just be the right medicine.

Even after living here for years, I’m still struggling to keep up my confidence when speaking Czech in certain situations. Just the other day, Anna began a sentence in English then inserted a couple of Czech words in it. I was surprised; usually she switches fluently between the two languages. If not, then she’ll ask me what a word is in English if she doesn’t know it, instead of substituting the Czech word. Oliver, who is younger and has a more limited-vocabulary, however, does blend his languages more frequently. I asked Anna why she was talking in “Czech-lish”, and her reply hit me in the gut. She said lightheartedly, “Oh, I’m just doing what you do, Mommy, just mixing it up for fun.” I let her go on believing that I do it for fun, but her remarks certainly got me thinking. Later in the week after a Sunday lunch with some Czech friends, Radek confirmed that I quite often insert English phrases like, “Umm, let me see,” in the middle of my Czech. Unaware, my first inclination was to get defensive, but I realized that if I’m that sensitive to my family making an innocent observation related to my language skills, I either needed to thicken my skin or improve my Czech. I also imagine that as the language skills of my bilingual kids advance, the jokes (at my expense), will only grow cleverer.

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