Luke’s nearly 15 months old and is toddling around and climbing up stuff he has no business climbing up. He says ‘mamá’ (mummy), ‘babá’ (daddy), ‘yiayiá’ (granny), ‘Ee-a’ (Lia, his nanny), ‘Ee’ (Lee, his sister) and the Greek baby work ‘mam’ (food). The only thing he’s uttered in English is ‘daddy’, but with emphasis on the ‘-dy’, as is the case with many Greek words. Anyway, it seems generally directed at the universe, rather than me in particular, so I’m not sure what he means when he says it.
Most of these are not really words, of course. With the exception of ‘mam’, I think they’re just the first sounds that come out of a baby’s mouth naturally that sound like words (being a combination of vowels and consonants). The mothers and fathers of lore then sprang on them and claimed their little one was calling them. It’s just a theory, but I believe that baby’s invented those words.
So really we just have ‘mam’ – food – and a smacking sound he makes with his lips that means ‘water’. Basic things, but important.
The thing about babies is that you have to do a lot of things on faith, since you don’t see the results until weeks or months (or years) down the line. I remember teaching Lee and Luke not to go off the couch or a bed headfirst, but to turn around and slide on the belly until the feet touched. I kept turning them and sliding them, and they kept trying to dive off headfirst (sometimes succeeding). Then one day, just like that, they turned on there own.
English was like that for Lee, but the wait was longer. She understood me perfectly well, but though she could come out with bits and bobs when it suited her, the language she was most comfortable speaking in was Greek. It was natural – Greek’s all around her, and it’s the most useful language to her. And language, in the end, is a tool, so you’re obviously going to learn to use the tool with the most utility.
Then, nearly two years ago, we went to London for my brother’s wedding, spent a week there and a week in Dublin with my mum. I remember the look on Lee’s face when she realised nobody understood what she said in Greece. Dumbfounded, then thoughtful. She was pretty quiet in London, but a few days into the stay in Dublin, she just started speaking English. Entire sentences, too, not just words. It was my turn to be dumbfounded.
That’s the thing with the ‘second’ mother tongue – the one that’s not the dominant one, spoken by the majority in the child environment. It there. Everything’s going in, and though it may takes a little longer to come out, it will eventually – especially if it’s got a good reason to.
With Lee we followed a common strategy for bilingual families: I spoke only English to her and her mother used only Greek. Between my wife (who I’ll call Anna) and me, we used a mixture (my Greek’s pretty good; Anna’s English is fluent).
We live in Greece, so that’s the immersion language – she gets it everywhere, from grandparents, at nursery school etc – but the idea is that the other language becomes a secret language between that parent and the child, and is learned in parallel and discretely (rather than on top of the mother tongue, as second languages are usually mapped). This way, two mother tongues develop – and brain scans have shown differences between the brains of monolingual and bilingual kids.
Now, there are some who say that for the best results, you shouldn’t respond to your kid unless they use the language you use to them, but I never thought that was fair. Language is a tool, after all, and if she used Greek to communicate with me – and succeeded – who was I to pretend she had failed. I also bent the rules when it came to Greek nursery rhymes and songs.
That’s the theory, anyway. In the next post, I’ll tell you how that worked out.
I’ve got a 5yo girl, who I’ll call Lee, and a 15mo boy I’ll call Luke. I work in English (as a second) language teaching and live in Greece with a Greek wife, so I was interested in my daughter’s language development as a bilingual child. The thing was, I didn’t write any of it down and I feel that as a real loss. Luke is just starting to say things beyond “baba” (Greek for “Dad”) etc and I wanted to record it all this time round – for the interest of other parents who are trying to raise kids in a two-language house (and teach kids two mother tongues) and also for my own sake, as an aid to an increasingly terrible memory.