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.
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.
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
daj! (or try)
doon-doon (a word used in my family for generations to describe a cave made out of sheets or blankets)
nana (all food and drink)
gloom (this clearly means milk, though I have no idea where it came from)
tak (yes), maybe?
hauhau (woof woof- apparently this covers all animal noises, so koalas and cats also say hauhau)
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.
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.
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.
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.