My children know 2 languages. This sometimes still amazes me, since by the time I started learning languages it was too late for me to be properly bilingual. They know they speak two languages, and have for a long time. They call it ‘having two words’.
I am, frankly, also amazed by how well they do it. We speak a lot of Polish at home and they go to a Polish preschool, but their English is better than it has ever been, and after our trip to Australia they have even started to play together in English. Maybe it’s because my parents have always been around for a few months of the year to give them more exposure.
They switch languages effortlessly depending on who they talk to.They know what the languages are called and if they don’t know a word they ask (Mummy, how you say ‘restauracja’ in English?) Their development in both languages seems to be pretty normal for their age- I can’t see any discernible delays, though I don’t have much to compare them with as far as their English goes.
Sometimes they mix the names of the languages up (mummy, how you say ‘remont’ in Polish?). They have a bit of an accent when they speak English which led our friend Laura to comment that they sound like Russian film villains. Sometimes they use phrases (lonely as a finger) or grammar structures (I too want one) from Polish when they speak English. Overall, though, I’m satisfied with their ability to communicate in my language.
I expect it to become more difficult when they get into the Polish school system and start to find me less important and spend more time with their friends. I also realise that I will be faced with the responsibility of teaching them to read in English, which is daunting. But for the moment, it’s working better than I expected.
Janek and Maja are almost 32 months old, and they can talk. In two languages. Quite fluently, though sometimes with hilarious grammar. They can form the regular past tense in Polish and English, use some irregular past verbs in English (saw, found) ask grammatical questions (sometimes), tell stories. I am so proud of their English it’s ridiculous, taking full credit for it even though I know I also have my family’s regular visits to thank. They haven’t developed the speed of adult speech but they do have the elision in place, so I often hear them say, in their little bell- like voices, things like Mummy, I want to meet ‘im.
Conversations with them are frequently surreal. Janek wakes up from his nap in an embrace with the magnetic moose my sister brought him from Norway, and begins the following commentary.
Moose no say moo. Cows do a moo. I saw a cow, in the bushes. I’m a cow. MOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO.
And now Maja joins in.
I’m not scared. I saw a cow, outside, on the big bikes. And there were fishes here. (This is all true. In May we went on a bike ride to a monastery in eastern Poland and indeed saw a cow in the bushes and some fishes). I saw a cow’s milk. On the belly button it was coming out. And it’s have to drink a milk.
(This part mystifies me a bit. )
My other favourite thing is to hear them sing songs. After a while I realise that ‘the bear climbed up the hill’, which I had initially attributed to their authorship, is actually the better known children’s hit The bear went over the mountain. Maja sings Ba Ba Black Sheep with the following text:
Baa baa black sheep/ Any any wool? /Yes-a, yes-a three bags full/ One for the Masai (we met one in Dubai airport on our way to Australia, so she knows this word)/ one for the day/ one for the little boy who lives down the lane.
I am so time-rich that I am even contemplating the purchase (or theft) of a special notebook which I will carry with me at all times to record these gems.
Janek and Maja have just turned 2. The night before they were born, I was watching Skyfall with Marcin in Złoty Tarasy and intentionally avoiding meditating on what awaited me. 24 hours later, I was off my head on morphine and a mother of 2. This system (no baby one day, baby the next) never fails to amaze me.
And they’re still here, 2 years later, changed beyond all recognition. The fact of them stretches out to colour a time before they ever existed- sometimes when I think about the cycling trip we made to Poland, I catch myself wondering where they were- what did we do with them while we were sleeping in an Iranian caravanserai or crossing a pass in Tajikistan? The things they have learnt in these 2 years stun me- I don’t know if they will ever have another time in their life where they come to grips with so many new skills.
It seems clear to me that I love them more now than I did then. The fact that I just let somebody else take care of them on their first night on earth now horrifies me, to the point where I would like to have another baby just to redeem myself. When I think about the 10 days we spent in hospital together after their birth, my memory is full of horror-film special effects- the dressing gowns, the groans and wails, the night walking, the fear and confusion in the air. The icicles dangling in the yellow lamplight. And so forth. The sight of newborns, with their veiled, sleepy eyes and creaky wails, fills me with a complicated mix of tenderness and fear.
In these two years, I have spent plenty of time feeling either judged or self-righteous. Who knew that parenting was such a competition? Maybe it’s because there’s so much at stake that the thought that you’re doing it all wrong is unbearable. There’s a small, sneaky satisfaction that I can’t deny in seeing someone else lose patience with their child, or palm them off with an electronic device to get a bit of peace and quiet. If I had any plans to become a better person, I would start by trying to eliminate this Schadenfreude.
My blog is falling by the wayside because I have become obsessed with teaching. If I am not doing it I’m planning it or thinking about it. I am clearly not very talented or I wouldn’t need to spend so much time on it all, but I am fascinated by trying to find the tricks and magic formulas which make things go well in the classroom. I have never had a job that absorbed me like this- it’s simultaneously exhausting and exciting.
Part of the excitement is just the onset of the school year after a long, slow summer. Part of it is that I did the extension to CELTA for teaching kids at the beginning of September, and now I have my own classes of 10-year olds to contend with, with their ever-shifting social alliances and wild enthusiasm for giving answers and their very involved parents. It’s a different universe to the classrooms I have inhabited until now, with their jaded accountants and teenagers who will do anything to fly under the radar.
For the first time I have to impose a system of rewards- initially I thought, with my almost 40 year old system of priorities, that nobody would do anything to get a star next to their name, but it turns out I was wrong. I try to remember being 10 myself and suddenly recall my desperate contortions at Friday aerobics, trying to get the free drink from the school canteen that was given to hard triers. It’s a trip back in time for me, and a foreshadowing of what is to come with my own children. The time is fast approaching when I will stop worrying about their eating and sleeping and start to worry about their social life and education, a far more complex set of problems.
Listening to my own children start talking, I remember words our family used when we were little which were purely invented. Monie for tomato, bogga for spider, the niche-filling doon-doon, described elsewhere, my youngest brother’s ‘butter-up-top’ for the peanut butter which was kept on the top shelf.
Janek and Maja are making their own contributions. Some words are just bastardisations of words as yet too difficult to say (neczko for słoneczko- sun) or molot instead of samolot (plane.) Others are more mysterious. Gloom for milk is purely their own invention. And the other day Maja was sitting in her high chair licking a lemon and saying over and over again, Fushka! Fushka! When she got down, she went to Marcin in the bath to tell him all about her fushka too.
We are quickly infected. Our own language is peppered with gloom and fushkas and molots. I hope I can keep it contained and out of the workplace.
This is what my mother used to tell us when our constant competitive childhood ranking (his is better, his is bigger, she got more!) was getting her goat. It sounds like a piece of wisdom inherited from her own mother, and possibly used for the same purpose.
I make them anyway. It’s a constant source of amazement to me, how different my children are. I could touch each of their bodies with one finger and know whose it was- Janek’s dense wombat-flesh, Maja’s springy little muscles. I watch their different kinds of bravery- Maja, who hides behind my leg and wards off strangers with a murderous scowl, has no qualms about sliding headfirst down the slippery-dip. Janek is devoid of any fear whatsoever of unknown humans, and goes about the playground stretching out his arms to other people’s Babcias, saying try!try! (this is what they say when they want to do something and need help).
Their absolute and irrefutable difference has saved me endless mothering guilt, in particular over Janek’s eczema, which I would otherwise think was my fault. It’s one of the biggest advantages of twins- seeing the way they turn out to be themselves, regardless.
Do you want to go back to bed? No, no, no.
Is Babi coming today? tak, tak, tak. (emphatic nodding of the head).
Holy mother of God- she is talking back! She also has her first bilingual words- shoes/buty and light/ lampa. It’s like the walking – I know everybody does it, but when my kids do, I am amazed and delighted.