His First (Bilingual) Words

I love watching – or perhaps a better word, listening – to my son learn his first words. I’m amazed at how quickly he learns it all. Everyday he learns a couple of new words. I know that it’s perfectly normal and not at all exceptional but it’s the first time that I’m actually experiencing a child learning his first words and sentences. And, as a language buff, I’m thoroughly enjoying the ride.

We’re raising our son bilingually, which makes experiencing his first words – for me – even more fun. I speak English, and my husband and pretty much everyone else in my son’s life speaks Dutch. About ninety percent of the words he says are Dutch, yet he understands the English words I say  just as well as when his father says it in Dutch. So, passively, the two languages are equal to one another.

What I find most interesting is that he translates. I say to him in English, “Why don’t you go stroke the dog.” And he’ll run up to the dog and say “aaien” (Dutch word for stroking.) Why not simply parrot me and use the English word?

He’ll also change languages if he thinks that will get him more attention. He was pointing at a book saying “paard” repeatedly, but I was busy with something so I didn’t respond. He stopped for a moment and then tried again, but this time in English, “Mama, horse.” Then he did get my attention because it was the first time he’d used the English word.

Also peculiar is his counting. In English he counts correctly up to five, but in Dutch he skips the number three. I’m not sure why as the Dutch word (drie) sounds similar to the English word. I know that it will soon sort itself out; I just wonder what goes on in his little brain on that issue.

And so his story continues.



6 thoughts on “His First (Bilingual) Words

  1. Fascinating read. I do hope that you chronicle his language acquisition. I’m curious to know how it continues to shape out.

  2. Very interesting story. Thank you for sharing. I too grew up much like your son in a multi-lingual family in Holland (Jeroen knows). My American father would sometimes speak English (he had learned to speak Dutch quite well, but my friends and I would still make fun of his accent, in a good way). My mom was German and would sometimes speak German, English, or Dutch. I remember always answering in Dutch, no matter in which language the question was asked. I really didn’t start speaking English until I started going to the international high school.
    I have now lived in the States for 27 years, but can still switch back to Dutch in an instant. My German is a little more rusty.
    My only advise to you would be to get him enrolled in an English language activity with other English speaking children to get him talking early on.

  3. A friend from my MFA program grew up in a household speaking Farsi, English, and French. For the longest time, she would use all three languages in the same sentence, not realizing they were different. As someone who came to other languages (and one a very limited basis) later in life, I find this fascinating. My husband grew up in Germany and Italy, and to this day he can slip back into German, Italian, Spanish, and French without a huge amount of effort. He says that he understands the structure, so he knows what to listen for in a sentence, while I get lost the minute I hear a word I don’t know. Our son is struggling to learn Spanish because we are not doing it through immersion. But at least is pronunciation sounds more like a native speaker because he can actually hear and reproduce the nuances of sounds that adult learners cannot. It’s sooooo cool!

  4. I find this fascinating, and hope you will post more as the days bring new discoveries. I grew up speaking multiple languages, but have never had the opportunity as an adult to observe how a child does that. This post brought back memories I didn’t know I still had; perhaps future posts may bring some personal insight into how language has affected my perspective and my poetry. Thank you for posting.

  5. Wonderful experience, growing up with a child’s bilingualism acquisition. My sons are adults now, but I haven’t forgotten the sheer joy of following their language growth in English/Finnish. What I found fascinating was that neither child ever translated, but simply used the most convenient word that came to mind, and both were quite capable of starting a sentence in one language, then continuing in the other, depending on the distance from either parent – and all 100% correct, without pause for thought. What’s more, the boys invented their own language, being essentially English words in a Finnish grammatical setting. What sounded like errors (for example, using a Finnish plural form, and adding the English plural to it) proved to be deliberate. They knew exactly what they were doing. We call it Finglish. It has strong grammatical rules of its own, and is perfectly understandable, if only within the family. I came to realise that what my sons learned was not English, and not Finnish, but rather just language, of which English and Finnish are subsets. This, I am convinced, is what made it relatively easy for them to learn Swedish at a native level later on, plus decent fluency in several other languages. Good luck to your son, and Dank u wel for sharing his story.

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