This article starts a new series of guest posts at Bilingual Monkeys called “Bilingual Travelers.” What sort of impact does travel to a location where the minority language is spoken widely have on a child’s bilingual development and bicultural upbringing? In this series we’ll join other families as they make trips to destinations around the world and report back on their experiences.
If you’d like to contribute an article to the “Bilingual Travelers” series—or the series Thank You Letter From a Bilingual Child—please contact me to express your interest in guest posting at Bilingual Monkeys.
, originally from Hungary, now resides with her American husband in rural Missouri, located in the U.S. heartland. (In fact, she lives just 30 minutes by car from my hometown of Quincy, Illinois!)
Nellie has two children, a girl, 5, and a boy, (nearly) 3, who are being raised in English and Hungarian. (For this article, they will be known by the names Blair and Eddie.) She is multilingual, and works as a translator, though her location—where no other speakers of Hungarian are present and resources are scarce—has made handing down her mother tongue a sizable challenge.
“If we don’t count afternoon naps,” announced Blair, jumping out of bed before 6 a.m. as usual, “we only have to sleep four more times before we go to Mama and Papa’s!” We would soon be traveling across the ocean to stay for a month, and I shared her excitement fully while trying not to think about how much I hated packing.
It had only been about a year since our last visit to Hungary, but the decision to go again was made partly because of the boost we all hoped this would give to the kids’ ability in Hungarian. On the last trip, Eddie was not quite a year and a half and was just beginning to put words together. Half the time no one could tell which language he was trying to speak. Once we were back in the United States, my typical toddler often ignored what I asked him to do in both languages—and since I had better luck using English, our majority language, by the end of this year we had reached the point where I was hardly using Hungarian at all, even with my 5-year-old daughter.
Optimism, hope, and…embarrassment
I had gone through a similar phase of using mostly English with Blair, but trips to Hungary had always brought miraculous improvement, so I was eager for Eddie to make the same kind of progress. While Daddy was back home in America, I envisioned the three of us talking in Hungarian all day; I imagined them reciting nursery rhymes in both languages; and I looked forward to them arguing over toys in Hungarian for a change.
By the time everything was packed, I was so full of optimism and hope that I said “yes” when my barely 2.5-year-old son, not quite potty trained, asked if he could wear underwear instead of diapers for the 24-hour trip. Only one thing cast a shadow on my excitement: embarrassment.
From our regular Skype video chats with my parents (known as “Mama” and “Papa”), I knew Blair was capable of carrying on a conversation in Hungarian, even though her Hungarian vocabulary was lagging behind her English. But Eddie, unlike his sister, has rarely shown the burning desire to share something, to communicate, so he would mostly just listen. I knew my parents would never fault me for anything, but it still made me sad to think how they wouldn’t understand the things he did try to say, how any emotion expressed in words would be hard to interpret for them quickly enough.
And what about the rest of my family and the friends we would be meeting? I would have to be right there to interpret, and explain how on earth I could have failed to teach the kids my own native language, why their mother tongue is really their father’s.
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