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.
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.
Arriving in Hungary
But once we were on the plane, I didn’t have the time or energy to get caught up in these distressing thoughts: between changing Eddie’s pants and underwear (we didn’t make it after all) and Blair’s entire outfit (a rough landing didn’t agree with her stomach), worrying about their language ability was the last thing on my mind. In fact, by the time we landed in Budapest, I was ready for anything as long as someone else took charge of the kids, the luggage, and our itinerary.
My wish was granted as soon as we walked out the gate. Within seconds, the kids were in Mama and Papa’s arms, our luggage was loaded into the car, there was babbling about big planes and little planes, shoes were kicked off and stinky feet had to be smelled, giggles were shared, and before I could even feel overwhelmed by the need to use two languages and explain everything to everyone, the kids fell into a peaceful sleep holding Mama’s hand.
I immediately knew, then, that we were going to be okay, that communication consists of so much more than words; that even if I had failed to teach them to speak proper Hungarian, our regular conversations on Skype had established a relationship with their grandparents, a bond that goes way beyond vocabulary and grammar. We had a solid emotional base to work from; we were set up for a wonderful trip and success with our two languages.
Our first week was spent getting accustomed to city life in the old/new country: we discovered the joys of walking everywhere, ate homemade sausages every morning, and most of all, enjoyed spring! We had driven to the St. Louis airport in snow, but in Hungary, there were leaves on the trees everywhere we looked. And the blooming flowers just had to be smelled.
Before we made day trips to visit relatives, we took care of some practical things in town, like haircuts and dental check-ups for everyone. This gave us some low-pressure chances for basic interaction, and made me feel better about myself as a mom. Blair’s manners earned compliments, and so did her clear pronunciation and ability to explain difficult concepts, even if she couldn’t find the exact words she was looking for. Her intonation didn’t sound natural, but overall, her language skills impressed everyone from the cashier lady at the store to the neighbor who used to engage in the same small talk with me when I was a child.
Meanwhile, Eddie started using a few Hungarian words spontaneously, like “yes” and “no” and “I want.” We discovered that he understands things surprisingly well. Even more important, he was willing to repeat anything he heard, especially if his sister said it. At this point, Blair was earning praise for teaching him, which created a wonderful atmosphere for further progress.
Over the next few weeks we tried catching up with relatives and friends, creating memories along the way, immersing us all in the culture, and consciously providing opportunities to form relationships.
At the time I booked our flights, I bought tickets to a concert by Judit Halász, a well-known Hungarian performer of children’s songs. I have a horrible voice, but that doesn’t stop me from singing with the kids in both languages. These songs have become part of our daily bit of Hungarian, so they were both ready to sing along—just like I did 30 years ago!
We also spent two days visiting nearby zoos, and I found that repeating an activity helped with learning vocabulary and deepening knowledge. When their little cousin joined us for the second zoo visit, watching the three kids together was another reminder that shared experiences involve so much more than the use of language.
We made another friend, too: we had the chance to hand-feed some giraffes! Did you know that their tongues are not only long and wet, they’re blue and feel like sandpaper?
Coming from rural Missouri, the land of corn fields, we couldn’t miss the corn-husk doll exhibition in town, which opened toward the end of our trip. Our attempts at making the dolls at home last fall were pathetic compared to the dolls on display at the museum. My father couldn’t come with us, which gave us another excellent opportunity for communication: everything my kids experienced on that outing had to be shared with their Papa afterward. Eddie was the first to greet him, and it was wonderful to see my little boy want to express himself and try so hard to make his Papa understand.
Just before we left, Easter brought us all together for a last day of celebration: we visited an Easter egg museum, and took part in the Easter Monday tradition of boys visiting girls and sprinkling them with water, a pre-Christian way of celebrating spring in Hungary. The kids both learned the traditional poem that goes with this custom:
Through the woods going,
I saw a blue violet growing,
It is beginning to wither,
May I give it some water?
After the poem, the boys promptly sprinkle the girls—or in some cases, throw a bucket of cold well water on them, or even dip them in a lake or stream. The girls, in return, present the boys with beautifully painted Easter eggs, homemade cakes or cookies, and if appropriate, a drink. I was happy to see that the kids took part in this tradition with enthusiasm, and afterward, they had a great time playing with some friends their own age—by this time, communication in Hungarian was natural and spontaneous.
From embarrassment to pride
Within a month, the embarrassment I felt on the way to Hungary was completely replaced by pride. We’re now switching back and forth between the two languages naturally, and I know for a fact that both kids understand what I ask them to do, no matter how they may try to ignore my requests. I’m confident that the baby steps we take each day will continue to improve their ability in Hungarian.
In fact, I’m so optimistic about everything, I might even let Eddie go to bed without a diaper tonight.
Read more posts in this series…