The Heritage of Communication


The decision to raise our children bilingual, speaking English and Polish, was a bit of a surprise for my husband and me. Though it was unexpected, raising bilingual kids has become a true source of joy and fun in our family, for which I am so grateful.

I had grown up speaking Polish at home, the oldest daughter of recent asylees from Poland. When I was born, my parents were just starting to learn English as they built a new life in America. In elementary school, English quickly became my dominant language, and Polish faded to the background. By the time I was in middle school, the pattern was firmly established that my parents spoke to me in Polish, and I took the easy route and responded to them in English. They were happy that I was assimilating well into American culture, and didn’t push the issue of strengthening my heritage language. When I moved away for college, and later married an American man, Polish became an even more remote part of my life. When we had our first child, it didn’t really occur to me to speak to her in anything except for English.

Everything changed with a TED Talk : The Linguistic Genius of Babies. In it, Patricia Kuhl describes the “celestial openness” of the brains of babies to language, which allows babies to absorb the sounds they need to understand and speak any language that they are introduced to. But, this magical window of sound acquisition starts to close before the baby’s first birthday. At around the one year mark, babies start to lose the ability to distinguish between sounds they weren’t used to hearing. Of course, language acquisition is possible for older children and adults, but it does not come as effortlessly as in those early months and years.

Looking at our then 10-month old daughter, I realized that even then, the window was beginning to close. Now was the time that her brain would be most open to learning Polish, a language that is notoriously difficult for English-speaking adults to master as a second language. I had the startling realization that if I didn’t teach her Polish, starting immediately, that she may never learn. If she never learned Polish, she would be cut off not only from the language itself, but also from my family members living in Poland, the literature and music of her heritage, deep understanding of the culture of her ancestors, and the possibility of easily traveling or living in Poland.

I read a couple books about raising bilingual kids, which offered encouragement and pointers. The basic advice was to speak to the children in the target language as much as possible, and to reinforce that language through music, games, reading, trips, friendships with other speakers of that language, etc. As I read and explored, I talked it all over with my husband, who loved the idea that our daughter and any other children we had would speak Polish.

And so, our journey of bilingualism began. I started speaking to our baby in Polish. The language felt strange in my mouth. I found myself struggling to call to mind simple words, which I would have easily understood if someone else had said them to me. After all of those years of passivity, it was going to take some effort on my part to get back up to speed. My mom, who happens to be a Polish teacher, was delighted to supply books and resources to help me along the way. The more I spoke and learned, the easier it became, and the more my daughter started to understand.

As a toddler, my daughter seemed to understand very well in both languages, but would generally only speak in English. When she was 2 1/2, we moved in with my parents while we were transitioning back to the US from living abroad. For both of us, it was full Polish immersion. Within two months, she was speaking quite fluently in Polish, much to the delight of my parents and Polish relatives. The house was full of joyful laughter when she would blurt out Polish phrases with just the right comic inflection. By the time she was three, she easily moved between languages, knowing which one to use in a given situation.

Now, Polish has become a much more natural part of our family life. When our second daughter was born, there was no question about which languages we would speak to her. Polish and English are interwoven within our family, reflecting, honoring, and developing our cultural identity, past, present and future.

***

Teresa Zawadzka is a wife, mother, sister, daughter, friend and lover of God. She loves learning languages, exploring cultures, soaking in beauty, and listening to people’s stories. She is prone to fits of enthusiasm for science projects, enjoys ending each day with ice cream, and believes that life is better on a quest.

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