Infant Linguistics

My wife and I are were both born and raised in the USA, coming from non-recent immigrant stock.  Being so, we are unfortunately fluent in only one language, English.  While we can string a few sentences together in Bangla and a little smattering of Spanish, we are essentially useless outside of our native tongue.  One of the advantages of raising a family abroad was the thought that at least our children would be exposed to multiple languages and might have a better chance at picking up something beyond English.  Well, this leads to our problem.

M, as of yet, has not developed much of a vocabulary; and we are in that awful period where all of us (including M) wishes that we could communicate more clearly with the spoken word.  We can tell he is trying really hard and wants to tell us something (typically involving food), and when we don’t understand, his (and our) frustration levels peak.  This is a typical stage of infant to toddler development, and I have plenty of frustrated memories of working through this with my eldest son K.  K, however, developed a pretty impressive vocabulary early on and I think that we were able to push through this frustrated communication stages pretty quickly.

When in Yangon, we sent K part-time to a Japanese run preschool.  While the instruction was English medium, each day they focused on key lessons in a different language.  So each week, K was exposed to Japanese, Chinese, Burmese, French, and English.  We thought this would just provide him some solid exposure but did not expect him to pick any of those languages up.  Well, after a few months K’s toddler gibberish really took off and we swear he was sneaking in some Japanese and Chinese into it.  Then, some of our Burmese-speaking friends informed us that K could understand and follow quite a bit of instructions spoken in Burmese.  Very cool…but since we didn’t speak any of those languages we were unable to support his learning or reinforce it.  And now that we are in Sweden, it has all faded away for K.

Here in Sweden, we have just started M in a Swedish dagis (preschool) while I attend my own Swedish classes.  While M is starting much earlier than K did, we still don’t expect him to pick up Swedish, just the exposure at a young age to a different language should help him pick up one later on in life.  Well, maybe he is picking some Swedish up.  Today I was putting him in his car seat, he was blabbing away in his toddler gibberish when suddenly he clearly says, “titta” and points to a lady walking a dog.  M loves to look at dogs and always points them out when he sees them.  And to the untrained ear, “titta” would fit right in with nonsensical toddler language.  But, as I am also learning Swedish, I recognized “titta” as a close variation of “tittar”, which means, “to look”, and he was pointing directly at the dog.

Hmmm…is M speaking Swedish or is he gibbering and I am trying to force meaning into his toddler language?  This is our problem.  How do we form effective early communication with our sons when they very well might be using a language we don’t understand?  We taught both of our boys a bit of sign language, which has been an amazing help in the early stages of communication; but, when we reach these frustrating toddler months, sign language is not enough.  M desperately wants to use words, and we desperately want him to use his words; but what happens when his words are not in English?  It is incredibly annoying to work so hard to expose my boys to other languages in the hope that they will be able to speak more than just English; and then not be able to support them and reciprocate their communication attempts when not done in English.

Well hopefully, if I keep up my Swedish lessons then I might have a chance to further support M if he decides to use more Swedish.  This will work well, at least while we remain in Sweden.  After this, what country will we be in and what language will they speak?  Knowing that we probably would not be in Sweden for the long-term, we enrolled K in an English-medium preschool so that we would be able to make friends easier and not be hindered by a new unknown language.  But, if we keep that up, both boys will inevitably end up with only English…exactly what we don’t want to happen.

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