Mother Tongues Stories
The amusing life of a bilingual family
“I discovered the phenomenon of bilingualism for the first time when I was studying modern languages and applied linguistics some twenty years ago. In various countries around the world two, three, sometimes several languages are recognised as official, or are in everyday use. Poland isn’t really one of those countries, or perhaps it’s fair to say it wasn’t in the early noughties.
I remember learning about bilingualism at my university and finding it fascinating. Then I met my first “real life” case, a new friend whose grandmother was Russian. She would only speak Russian to her grandchildren. I learnt from my new friend how ‘code switching’ works in practice, what happens when the whole family gets together, say at a dinner table, and how the conversation flows in two languages simultaneously, or perhaps in parallel, rather.
Fast-forward to 2021, and bilingualism is my daily bread. Code switching from sunrise till sunset.
Every single day.
I am Polish, my husband Ken is Irish, and our daughters Lidia, aged 9, and Lucy, aged 5, are bilingual. I knew from the very beginning that I’ll be using my own mother tongue to communicate with my children. I also knew that they’d be surrounded by English, that English would eventually be their language of education, and most likely their stronger language. But I also felt it was the only natural way and I knew I wanted them to be able to communicate with their family and friends in Poland, even if they’d never learn to read and/ or write in my mother tongue.
Perhaps it might sound funny, but before our girls were born, we took a cat from the animal shelter and I always spoke Polish to her, so in a way Ken had a bit of a taste of what it would be like to have two languages at home on a daily basis.
Polish is part of our everyday's life
I always speak Polish to my daughters, unless we’re all together and the conversation relates to all of us. We have a few simple rules we try to follow. For example, I only ready books in Polish to my girls. When they were very small and I wouldn’t have enough books in Polish, I would ‘read’ English books out loud in Polish, translating them as I went along. I would purchase copious amounts of DVDs in Polish or with Polish dubbing. It’s amazing how quickly technology has moved on since Lidia was born in 2012. Now another rule we have at home is that if any show they want to watch on the streaming services is available in Polish, that’s the language setting we’re sticking to. Before the pandemic our older daughter first, and then both girls, would spend a few weeks with their grandparents in Poland in the summer, totally immersed in their heritage language. Frequent trips to and visits from family and friends were a huge boost.
As a result, my older daughter speaks Polish very well, her pronunciation is excellent, though naturally she makes various mistakes and forgets or doesn’t know certain words. In a weird twist, although the pandemic made travelling and meeting up with other important Polish speakers in her life impossible, it meant that we could add a bit of extra time to her home-schooling schedule and practise reading in Polish.
Every child is a different universe
However, the opposite was the case for my younger daughter. She was only 3 when the pandemic started. She’s been attending playschool here, she had an older sister and was already used to speaking English with her and her school friends. Then we could not see or visit anyone, and she’s spent the following year and half, nearly half of her life, effectively, immersed in English, with me being the only live source of Polish.
I would say Lucy has excellent passive Polish and can use it on a basic communicative level. I was genuinely surprised and very happy, when I heard her speak Polish to her grandparents this summer. Yes, she was making lots of mistakes, yes, she didn’t know how to conjugate the verbs properly, yes, she would mix up prepositions, etc. But she could tell that her nana and granddad genuinely didn’t understand her if she spoke English, so she’d switch into Polish.
A beautiful Babel
If you ever see us – or hear us – when we’re all together, you might get a headache. We all speak English when we’re talking about something we’re about to do or eat, or similar. I’ll speak Polish to Lidia, and she’ll reply in Polish, too. I’ll speak Polish to Lucy, and she may start by replying in Polish, before she switches into English. Then the girls will mostly speak English to each other, though they do speak Polish too, especially if Lidia starts the conversation. Sometimes I end up speaking Polish to Ken by default, as I forget myself. Very often Lidia will translate it back to him, before I get a chance to repeat the same in English. Just as well our cat can understand it all!” ☺
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