Category Archives: language

The language of 3 year olds

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.


Filed under children's brains, language, language acquisition, teaching English, twins

Mad July

I have been slacking on the blog front. For the whole of July I have been teaching 5 hours a day, and I am stretched in so many ways that I can hardly believe I am still standing at the end of the week. I spend all day (beginning at around 4:30 in the morning) in a ferment of lesson planning and teaching, and come home to the whirl of dinner-bathtime-bedtime. After which I fall into bed myself and the whole cycle begins again.

I’m happy and relieved to find the teaching exciting instead of terrifying. I have a class of 11 young Belarusians who amaze me and amuse me (“Rose, your tights remind me of a rabbit”) every day. Their neurons are also firing madly,  so we are in it together. They do not realise the extent to which I am experimenting on them-I feel like I need to try out any new trick I can think of while I have such an energetic and responsive audience.

So much of this is new. For the first time I am developing warm and constructive relationships with my colleagues. For the first time I am farming out my children all week long, so that I hardly see them. Sometimes I hear their sleepy early morning jabbering building as I exit the flat in the morning- more often, everyone is still sleeping when I leave.  I know that my parents (who have the kids 3 days a week and often do overtime on weekends) are stretched as well, and I barely see them either. I call in the afternoon to remind them I’ll be late and hear the sounds of their secret life together-we’re just in the kitchen having our nana, says my father, and then, he’s escaping too! We’ve got two Trobriand Islanders, and they’re not wearing their leg ropes!

I don’t plan to live like this on a permanent basis, though I know that many people do and somehow manage. But I don’t feel guilty either. For this month, I can wallow in work and see how it feels.

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Filed under English teaching, happiness, language, mental health, motherhood, teaching English, time management, twins

16 month lexicon

It occurs to me that these are the final moments when I will be able to even attempt counting the words that the kids know, and I will likely want to remember at some point what was going on when they started talking, so here is a list of words they use at the moment. Besides these words, they also have a repertoire of yelps and gasps to express surprise and shock.


bath (this word leads to a frantic rush to the bathroom and desperate attempts to tear off clothes and climb into the bath)


uwaga (look out!)

no,no,no, no, accompanied by a wagging finger

thank you

daj! (or try)


doon-doon (a word used in my family for generations to describe a cave made out of sheets or blankets)

lampa (light)

nana (all food and drink)

gloom (this clearly means milk, though I have no idea where it came from)

pić (drink)

tak (yes), maybe?

butybutybutybutybuty (shoesshoesshoesshoesshoes)

papa (byebye)

hauhau (woof woof- apparently this covers all animal noises, so koalas and cats also say hauhau)

tam (there)







Filed under language, language acqusition, Polish language


On Saturday, we were on Plac Grzybowski in Warsaw with the kids, chasing pigeons and having a picnic. Suddenly a group of English-speaking tourists appeared, trailing behind their guide across the bridge. I was with Janek, who stopped trying to jump off the picnic table as the parade went by and stood there like some knee-high old man in his corduroys and cardigan, mouth open, shamelessly staring.

One of the teenage boys with the group noticed him and stopped. He dug around in his bag and came up with a little bag of Canadian flag pins, and said, would you like one for him? I took it, not because I thought a pointy little choking hazard was a great present for a 16 month old, but because I suddenly remembered a time in my life when I desperately coveted a pin exactly like this.

I’m in year 2, so I must be 7 or 8. It’s most likely 1984,  and we have a great big ginger moustachioed exchange teacher from Canada called Mister Teeft. His son is called Patrick- he is  the same age as me and has the most exotic accent I have ever heard. This must be time for the initiation of adult memory, because I remember quite a lot of things from this year. It is the year that my penchant for going to the toilet in rainstorms is noticed and commented on. Our classroom is the demountable on the hill, not far from the principal’s residence, and the doors in the toilet block are painted pumpkin-orange.It is the year of my spelling triumph, when I successfully spell ‘ocean’ in our class test. Kylie Taylor, the pert, curly-haired, snubnosed policeman’s daughter,  writes ‘oshen’.

Anyway, Mr. Teeft gives out these pins as prizes throughout the year. I desperately want one, but despite my genius for spelling, I don’t manage to get my hands on one until the very end of his stay, when he clears out his maple-leaf pin supply and the whole class gets one. I keep it for years in a little box of treasures- I like collecting things, especially teeny-tiny things.

Remembering all this among the waving grasses of Plac Grzybowski, I realise my own children are embarking on their own path of  unfathomable, thwarted desire. They will urgently want things of which I will be totally unaware -I’m pretty sure Mr. Teeft had no idea how I yearned for a pin. I decide to keep it in mind at moments when their hankerings seem especially baffling.


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Filed under childhood, children's brains, family, history, language, memory, motherhood, pure autobiography

Comprehensively: a tale of bloodshed.

My Polish is much better than it was two years ago; so much so that I have gotten lazy about looking in the dictionary. If I can’t say what I want elegantly, at least I can come up with a competent paraphrase, which in my current state of intellectual torpor, is good enough for me. But lately, as I read my book about Victorian women travellers, so agog that the language became transparent and I forgot that it wasn’t my own, I was gifted with a word which I have wanted and needed for a while- doszczętnie.

Comprehensively. I use it all the time in English, and have often felt its lack as I try to exaggerate my way into being interesting in Polish. With great satisfaction, I slot it into my matrix. It’s so necessary to me that I don’t forget it, even though I’ve only seen it once.

I share my great revelation with Marcin, who rises to the occasion and, after fiddling about for a second on his phone, gives me the etymology of this word. Sczęt is an old Slavic word for children, which finds its echo in the modern word szczęniak  (puppy). These olden-days Slavs, he tells me, used to kill their enemies along with their children. Doszczętnie means something like ‘down to the last child,’ most often used to talk about degrees of destruction.

Not since his research into the mating habits of bedbugs has he acquired such a bloodthirsty piece of trivia. We both feel a strange satisfaction with this etymological revelation.


Filed under around Poland, history, language, Polish language

Back to work

Last Wednesday, I gave my first English lesson in almost a year. It was pouring with rain and union protests had gridlocked the city, but so keen was I that I still managed to be on time. I  was going to a former student of mine, so we already knew each other and I didn’t have to worry about the development of rapport, and I already had some idea what she might want and need from me. I actually felt sheer excitement as I put on my serious outfit and climbed onto the bus with my umbrella, pretending to be a real grownup professional woman with deep wisdom to impart.

This performance (that’s what it felt like) continued through our lesson- I scribbled notes, nodded gravely, thought about how I was going to plan our time together and completely forgot about my babies. When we were finished, she walked me to the door and shook my hand and thanked me. I sat in the bus with all the other wet-dog commuters and smiled to myself all the way home. I was sure that I had acted my part so successfully that nobody could see the dishevelled and half-mad mother of two small children inside my power pantaloons.

I wondered afterwards why it was so much more satisfying than my daily childcare triumphs . Is it because I am so conditioned that I also discount the effort it takes to get through the day with two babies? Or because I had the sense of joining in the great theatre of importance that constitutes life Outside the Home? Or because somebody thanked me?

Partly I think that I enjoyed making a mental effort which was not connected solely with logistics, and the idea that this effort might change something fairly quickly- my student might know something she didn’t know before. I liked her responsiveness to my suggestions.  I also liked the idea of getting paid. But mainly, I think the satisfaction came from feeling like a working woman again. It seems to be crucial to my self esteem.


Filed under feminism, language, motherhood, teaching English

Cognitive impairment

I still have a couple of persistent problems with cognition in Polish that I don’t have in English. I am constantly buying not-juice, for example, because I see a label screaming 100%!!!!!, and fail to notice the small print which informs me that it’s actually 100 % of my daily vitamin C requirement, not 100% juice. I can’t remember my phone number, since something in the Polish section of my brain resists numeric recall.

These are minor impairments, but I can also be terrifyingly literal minded. I remember laughing at Marcin in the supermarket in Australia when he suggested that we should buy ‘tasty cheese’ because it would obviously taste better than banal-sounding cheddar. Now I am on the receiving end.

When we were at the ultrasound, the technician showed us the cerebellum vermis on one of the baby brains. When you ‘drown the worm’, he explained, this is what you’re drowning. I imagined a pickled brain in a jar, sitting on a shelf. I thought he was saying that you only needed to preserve the cerebellum vermis. I found it slightly strange, since the pickled brains of my imagination were whole, but quickly dismissed my misgivings. The doctor surely knew more about pickling brains than I did.

Anyway, it turns out that ‘drowning the worm’ is slang for getting drunk- apt, since the cerebellum vermis is responsible for posture and locomotion. So much for my linguistic genius.



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Filed under language, migrant life, Polish language

Reasons to hate the internet (for pregnant linguists)

For a curious person and an incurable hypochondriac, the internet is both an ally and an enemy in pregnancy.  The disadvantages of horror stories and misinformation are more or less balanced out by access to good advice or news of hopeful outcomes in bad situations. But one of the things I have really suffered from is the horrible, saccharin acronyms of fertility. After an initial period of resistance, I could accept that being unable to place an apostrophe isn’t a contraceptive, and that only snobbery had led me to believe otherwise. I even learned to accept DH (dear husband), OH (other half) DD/DS (guess), supposing that there might be some sense in easy reference to these interested parties. But I draw the line at the greatest transgression against linguistic good taste – the abbreviation BD. From context I could see immediately that it referred to what you might otherwise call (if you were unlucky enough to have a conversation on the topic with your middle-aged male gyno) ‘relations’. Liking a good puzzle, I gave myself a good week to see if I could figure out the etymology for myself, but drew a blank. When I realised what it stood for, I was grateful that my mind doesn’t move along such coy and euphemistic lines. It stands for ‘baby dancing’.

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Filed under language, pregnancy, Uncategorized

Christmas in Pruszków

I am not inclined to pine for home during the festive season, being old enough to be convinced that it’s the same gluttonous and vaguely disappointing occasion wherever you celebrate it. Besides, the Polish Christmas has its own charms, though this year they don’t include snow.

One of them (since this is my first ) is anthropological and linguistic charm. There is a whole vocabulary connected to Christmas which is unfamiliar to me and I learn the words for midnight mass, creche,  and the unconsecrated wafer which you break with your brethren (or brethren- in- law) before the Christmas Eve dinner,   and one line of an archaic and very boring carol which is still circulating in my head a week later. There was also the novelty of hearing people complain that they’re still hungry after the Christmas Eve dinner, which doesn’t include any real meat because it’s a ‘fast meal’ . (What this means in reality is 12 courses of fish but the absence of pig causes a psychological craving in some.)

The simplicity of the food was compensated for by the extravagance of the dress. We received about 500 phone calls to talk us out of cycling to Pruszków because Marcin’s parents were convinced we would appear at the festive board encased in muddy lycra.  Kuba’s stepson asked  him where his mother (who was swathed in lace) had got her curtain from.

We went to the neighbour’s house, since Kuba (Marcin’s brother) is married to the girl next door and there is now a grandson in common. Convenient for me as my winter boots had broken and were in repair; all we had to do was mince across to the next klatka and hey presto, there we were. A slightly stiff occasion which was only eased by the children and presents and the ensuing mayhem.

Afterwards we went to drop in on Babcia, who celebrated her 93rd  birthday in the summer. A terrifying joyride with Marcin’s father at the wheel- he had a stroke in September but can’t admit that his vision and coordination are not what they were. It was wet and slippery and when he skidded he just said, “Well, it was a controlled skid..” Babcia was lying in bed, recovering from that mysterious ailment which strikes the old, young and unresistant in Poland- almost-pneumonia ( I wouldn’t be surprised if I’ve had it myself.) Since we got to Poland I’ve barely heard her say a word and we always wonder after seeing her if any pleasure remains in her life. One of the grandsons in law had been detailed to keep watch over her, and being unable to work out how to use the remote control, he had settled to ‘reflecting’, as he put it, in a horizontal position on the couch with his eyes closed.

But my favourite part of Christmas was a walk with Marcin’s old schoolfriend Czaja through the old mental hospital in Tworki. On the afternoon of the 25th, suffering from cabin fever, we decided on a prolonged stroll with a can of beer through the grounds of this place, whose inhabitants were murdered by Hitler and friends in the 40s. It was grey and damp and the fishermen who fish the rehabilitated river were at home torturing their families. All the maniacs were inside. This walk lasted for several hours while we excavated Marcin and Czaja’s family history, marvelled at the sheer effectiveness of the Nazis (who would think, in the middle of a war, that it would occur to somebody to liquidate the mentally ill of Tworki?), sang a carol by phone to Jeziorek in India, finished our beer, bought some vodka and finally had a last drink under the viaduct before returning merrily home in the pitch dark at 4:30.

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Filed under language, migrant life, observations on Polish society