Polinglish: Our Bilingual Journey Thus Far

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My son is about to turn 3, so for about half of his life he has been talking. During this time, I have learned why raising your child to be bilingual is commonly referred to as a journey. Like a journey (whether physical, mental, spiritual, etc.), teaching my son Polish has been filled with highs and lows, disappointments and achievements. Yet I am truly impressed, proud, and in awe of my son’s bilingual development.

My son switches between languages, a process called code switching, without hesitation and has associated each language with certain people. He will tell me about how the słońce świeci, only to repeat to my husband that the sun is shining. My son also started to associate language with people, and knows to speak Polish to me, my parents, and family members, and English to his dad, day care mates, children he meets at the playground, people we encounter at the store, etc.

When at a loss for vocabulary (in either language), my son will mix languages to get his point across. According to the American Speak Language Hearing Association, “From time to time, children may mix grammar rules, or they might use words from both languages in the same sentence. This is a normal part of bilingual language development.”

My son does it when he is uncertain of a word for a specific object or action in a particular language but knows it in the other language. Hence, when telling me how he climbed on the couch and fell and hurt his knee, he will say “climbed” in English (as he either doesn’t know the word, forgot it, or has difficulty pronouncing it in Polish) and the rest of the sentence in Polish.

Then there are the times when my son will go from speaking only Polish to me, to only responding in English. I get really discouraged during such days, but I know that during such times I have to put on an even bigger smile and continue speaking more Polish to him.

When my son does respond to me in English or using a combination of both Polish and English, I use the following strategies, as suggested by Polish linguist Elżbieta Ławczys, to encourage my son to speak Polish:

  • Repeat/paraphrase in Polish what was said. Hence, when he tells me he tripped on his toy and hurt his knee, I will respond along the lines of, “Oh no! You tripped on your train and hurt your knee? Let me kiss it and make it feel better. You need to clean up all of yours toys so they are out of the way. Lets go put them away together” in Polish.
  • Ask questions. When my son tells me that he would like a juice, I ask him, “You want a juice? Would you like apple juice or orange juice? Apple/orange juice is really good. Would you like something to eat as well?”
  • Remind child to use the appropriate language. I don’t do this too often, but I do kindly remind him that mama speaks Polish and ask him if he can tell me in Polish what he wants to say. If he resists, I don’t push and just revert to the two steps above. I do also remind him that other people (like the lady at church who picked up his toy) speak English so that he has to say thank you instead of dziękuję.

I also use the above approach when my son says something in Polish incorrectly. I don’t interrupt, correct, or laugh at him. Instead, I repeat what he said either by paraphrasing or asking a question.

I have noticed that my son is more prone to speak English when he is very tired. I think that the combination of being tired and wanting to express himself as quickly and effortlessly as possible makes him choose the language with which he has the most exposure. This doesn’t surprise me at all, as I personally revert to English when writing, thinking, counting, etc. because it is easier and faster for me. However, I am trying to break that habit and have made it a conscious effort to write all the things I would normally write in English (shopping/to do lists, recipes, etc.) in Polish.

Aside from learning to be more patient and not grow discouraged, an equally important lesson I have learned while on this bilingual journey has to do with perspective. When my son does respond only in English, as discouraging as it may be, I have to remind myself that this is not a setback or disappointment but a normal part of a child’s bilingual development and a learning opportunity. Those moments, along with the progress that my son makes, are truly fascinating to witness, and leave me in even greater awe and fill me with pride every time he makes strides in his Polish language acquisition.