bilingual parenting: 14 months in

It’s been a while since I’ve given an update on our bilingual parenting. If you read my interview on Gato+Canard, then you may have seen that we’re making progress and continuing with our aims of raising our daughter bilingually. Here is an overview of where we are now as our daughter is fourteen months old:

Our Method/What We Do:

The last time I wrote about this, our daughter was about nine months old and we were really just speaking at her. While we use the basic model of OPOL (One Parent One Language), we’re not rigid in our practice and deviate from it when needed. I like to think of our approach as more organic and intuitive. It allows me the freedom to react to the context at hand without making me feel stressed about using Romanian all the time at all costs. (Perhaps OPOL allows for this and I am taking the definition of the methodology too literally).

In practice, this looks as follows: I speak Romanian with our daughter whenever we’re together, including when we’re out in public and with non-Romanian speaking family and friends. I sometimes use a strategy I like to call “dubbing,” where I will repeat the command or question that I just gave to C. in Romanian using English the second time around. When I do this, it’s not for my daughter’s benefit as it is for the non-Romanian speaking friend so that they continue to be included in the conversation. (Especially when the conversation involves them, such as when I say, “give person X your toy, don’t you like the book person X just handed you,” etc).

My husband speaks English to C. and she obviously gets a lot of English language exposure every day from her surroundings: English-speaking friends make up the majority of our community and we go to an English-speaking toddler hour weekly at the library.

I deviate from Romanian when my husband’s around and we’re all speaking together because English is the language we use as a couple. I try to limit how much this affects my speaking to C. but sometimes I carry the English over in addressing her without noticing. When I do that, I try to stop and proceed in Romanian with her.

I also use English when reading to her at times. We have a large collection of children’s books of which only a handful are in Romanian. Although I most often narrate our English language books using Romanian and telling the story in “our” language, I sometimes stick with the English when the book has a beautiful rhyme or cadence that I just can’t emulate using Romanian on the fly. For instance, my Romanian version of Dr. Seuss just doesn’t do this literary genius justice. So we read it in English.

In turn, my husband uses a number of Romanian words with her. His vocabulary has grown a lot since listening to me speak with her although most of his Romanian is baby-specific. At first, I was worried that we were butchering the OPOL method too much by deviating like this but then I relaxed and realized that she’ll figure it out, code-switching notwithstanding. If doing it our way means we’re more likely to do it long-term, then I’d rather do what feels right and comfortable (even if it’s imperfect) because it means that we won’t see our language situation as forced, artificial, or a chore.

As a result, we have fallen into a comfortable and “natural” routine with this. Our bilingual interactions don’t feel stiff or contrived. I automatically switch to Romanian when addressing my daughter and sometimes even find myself slipping into Romanian with my friends’ babies since my brain seems to have forged a strong connection between babies (as represented by my daughter) and using Romanian.

What I Wish I Didn’t Do:

I do one thing that I am still working on not doing: using English not because I “slipped” and forgot to use Romanian but because I’m with someone who I assume would feel awkward or put out by my speaking another language. I hate that I do this because I don’t want to send my daughter the message that we should ever be ashamed of our language. And I also want to resist judging someone and making that assumption about their attitude towards foreigners. It’s a feeling I just sometimes get. And even if that feeling were justified, I know that I should challenge that person’s resistance to my foreignness rather than acquiescing to that perceived judgment and altering my behavior. And while I know that our state is not free of xenophobia, I truly have not experienced much of it personally at this point in my life (as in: since I lost most of my accent and since becoming part of a predominantly academic community).

What Our Daughter Does:

As I write this, C. is fourteen months old. She now understands a ton of commands and questions and signals her understanding by responding with the appropriate behavior (ie, performing the task we ask of her, toddler compliance willing).

We first realized and celebrated her bilingualism when we saw her respond to commands or questions regardless of whether they were stated in Romanian or English. For example, if we’d ask her to point to her dog, her nose, to papa, etc, she could do those things whether we asked them in Romanian or English. This still amazes and delights us to no end.

She has recently started to mimic the words and sounds we make. Her vocabulary at fourteen months consists of mostly sounds although she did say “mama” for the first time last week!

Her first word was “quack quack,” as in “what does the duck say?” Since that is the sound of a duck in both Romanian and English, it was a toss as to which language she spoke first. :)  She then started saying “coco” often and usually while pointing at our dog. I’m guessing that it could be her version of “cuțu,” the Romanian diminutive for dog. She’s also said “ga” for “girl” and “ba ba” for “back back,” (the command I’m most often giving our over-enthusiastic dog, especially when people come over. And yes, I speak English to our dog, it’s her native language).

Although there seem to be disputed theories about bilingual and multilingual children being late talkers, C. seems to be just about where her monolingual baby friends are or were at this age.

So really, at this point in the game, we’re less concerned with our commitment to parenting her in two languages or with her ability to process it all as we are with trying to “clean up” our language, regardless which one we’re using. She’s starting to mirror our actions and mimic our sounds so much that our daily focus is really just on keeping things clean and child-appropriate so that ours is not the child with the – albeit bilingual – sailor language on the playground. :)

Are you raising your child with more than one language and as part of more than one culture? Want to share your story? Contact me for details, we’d love to hear from you! And you can read more about bilingual and multilingual parenting here.

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15 Responses to bilingual parenting: 14 months in

  1. Ann Wyse says:

    Awesome! I’m so proud of you all!

    (I learned a lot of my German being around my husband who was speaking German to our son – between ‘traditional’ German classes, immersion language classes and being around a baby – being around a baby who was learning was hands down the best way to learn. :-))

  2. Deidra says:

    My daughters first words were “duck” and “quack quack.” I’m so excited to have her dress up as a duck for Halloween as a nod to her first foray into language!

  3. Karen says:

    S, thanks so much for this follow up post! I’ve been thinking about the ebbs and flows of bilingual parenting quite a bit recently, since A (now 11 months) just started daycare 4 days a week and now has much less exposure to Hebrew than he did. On the flip side, my husband (like yours) has started saying things to him in Hebrew.

    In any case, our approach has evolved and resembles yours quite a bit. I am looking forward to seeing how our language choices are reflected in A’s language use!

  4. L says:

    This is a great post! We don’t have children yet, but when we do we will certainly want to raise them bilingually as I am Italian and my husband is English. L x

  5. Franca says:

    This is pretty much exactly what we intend to do. I do harbour a secret hope that speaking to our little one in German will teach my husband more German (he does understand it, but I’m quite impatient and usually switch back to english fairly quickly instead of explaining stuff properly). We also found a German playgroup that will take little ones as young at one and a half.

  6. Kate C says:

    This is very cool. I actually have several friends who declared before their children were even born that they would be raised “bilingually.” Of course, coming from my friends, that meant that they would have to learn a second language as well! After baby is born… French went right out the window. Being a scientist, I thought it would be more useful for my kiddo to have exposure to the metric system growing up (than trying to decipher my terrible Spanish). We try to talk about walks and distances in m and km, and have looked for a cm height chart to use. This is shockingly difficult in the US! People look at you like you are insane if you give the temperature in C! This is so funny, as everybody else in the world uses the metric system. Why does it make *me* weird?

  7. Christina says:

    That’s a great approach you have going! You are so much better with it than I am. I don’t do enough German lately with our daughter and I need to get back on top of it. It seems once elementary school started for us, life got so busy with homework and keeping up with that learning that somehow I’ve fallen behind on language. We’re hoping one day our daughter can apply to German uni’s as well as American and I need her to have a decent grasp of German! I do have one fall back, and that is that she will be required to take German language class at the school level once it begins being offered. At least then we’re hopefully getting another source of exposure. My mother, her Oma, works with her … but also falls off the wagon. Good for you on keeping it steady!

  8. Rita says:

    :) I really like to hear about your experience so thanks for sharing. It is very useful for those of us in similar circumstances!

  9. MG says:

    While not raising a child in a bilingual environment, I worked for a few years in a childcare/early education center for 2-5 year-olds where both Spanish and English were spoken. In thinking about your comment under “things I wish I didn’t do” it reminded me of how kids were so adept at identifying how people around them coded. They would naturally switch from one to the other depending on the audience. I see your concern about the potential of communicating that you are not proud of speaking a particular language, but I think sometimes it’s an issue of practicality and even young children intuit that.

  10. Shannon says:

    Great description of a unique experience! I would love to raise my future children bilingual, but unfortunately, neither my husband or I speaks another language fluently. I’m hoping that we can at least get some Spanish vocabulary in there once the kid gets older, as we have a lot of Spanish-speaking neighbors and it would be good to have that in particular as a second language, even if not from birth. For now, I’m plugging away on my Rosetta Stone CDs!

  11. Nadine says:

    So interesting! I LOVE that you start speaking Romanian to babies in general. :)

  12. Pingback: bilingual parenting: an interview with my daughter at 19 months » Simply Bike

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