home contact sitemap polski

The linguistic genius of babies

November 19th, 2011

This is a really fascinating talk by Patricia Kuhl, which gives us some better understanding of how second language acquisition works for babies. She answers questions, such as why it is important to start providing input in a second language as early as possible and why contact with a human being – a speaker of that language – is necessary. Babies do not acquire language from recordings and television!

As Kasper’s vocabulary is expanding with every week, I thought it would be nice to create a record of his first few words and expressions at the beginning of this New Year – something we can look back upon in the course of the year to remind ourselves how it all began. He is now aged 19 months and since recently has been exposed to German language additionally to the English and Polish he hears at home. Here are the results:


go-go – this is the universal word for everything that moves – cars, trains, buses, planes etc. It may have originated from a toy car which Kasper got a year ago for Christmas. After pressing a button it said Go, Roary, Go! Not sure, but this is my guess.

go – means ‘gone’. Kasper usually utters it with great sadness and falling intonation looking at his empty plate. Very different to the cheerful ‘go-go’! I think I know who he takes after.

choo-choo – train. Trains are very special for little boys and for Kasper in particular. Both of his grandparents’ houses in Poland and in the UK are located near railway tracks and listening out for passing trains has become a sort of a game. Kasper is also a big fan of Chuggington – a cartoon about trains and likes playing with his toy trains at home. Not to mention listening from the earliest days to the reading of the famous Polish poem about a steam train ‘Lokomotywa’. Yes, trains are very special for little boys.

shoe – no need for interpretation. Kasper knows about shoes and has a lovely habit of bringing us our slippers or shoes and trying to put them on our feet. Victorian mums and dads would be very proud if not jealous.

cheee – cheers. This accompanies the compulsory clinking of glasses. I don’t recall teaching Kasper this, so it must be based on his own observation. Slightly worrying!

daj – this is Polish. Strategic word meaning ‘give’. Is it a coincidence he would be saying this particular word in Polish? Does it suggest mummy as the main ‘giver’ of things? Or simply, is it easier to say than ‘give’? May soon become more and more redundant as Kasper perfects his climbing skills and learns to get things himself rather than relying on bigger people’s mercy.

no – the sweetest ‘no’ I have ever heard. Started off as a Polish ‘nie’, soon replaced by the English equivalent and a source of endless fun in conversation making. “Kasper, do you like sausage? – Nnnnnnnnno. Kasper, do you like chocolate? – Nnnnnnnnno. Kasper, do you like pizza? – Nnnno.” Neddless to say, Kasper loves all of those things. “Kasper, was your lunch nice? – Nnnno. Kasper, was your lunch awful? Nnnnooo.” Phew, finally we are getting somewhere.

mama and dada – for a while, ‘mama’ was a universal word for many things and many people. However, when sad or in trouble, the meaning of ‘mama’ suddenly becomes very precise and specific. Kasper also says ‘mummy’ which makes my heart melt. ‘Dada’ and ‘daddy’ are coming along a bit more shyly, but surely.

hello – one of the earliest words, now used very liberally at every opportunity to greet people and things, even food :). Haven’t seen Kasper for 3 minutes – and I get greeted with the most enthusiastic and heartfelt “Hellooooooo!” (So nice to see you, where have you been, haven’t seen you for a while, I missed you so, I’ll give you a hug. Let’s play now!)

halo – this is the Polish way of answering the phone which Kasper uses often when playing with phones, mobiles, bank card readers and calculators (anything that has a keypad on it and fits in a hand). Works well in Germany as it sounds just as the German greeting ‘Hallo’ too. 2 for 1 deal.

choo or tschü – ‘tschüss’ ?? Ok, this I think is Kasper’s first German word and means goodbye. Similar to the first sound of the Polish ‘cześć’ so I think it was easy to understand and very easy to say as it is almost like saying ‘shoe’. Still, I am amazed about Kasper picking this up from the Kindergarten so quickly.

Other words include caʔ for ‘cat’ with a beautiful glottal stop at the end, and Ka-purr for Kasper!

Roary the Racing Car

One of the perks of a freelancing job is the possibility to choose where you want to live. Although in practice this is always more complicated than just packings your bags and moving, within the European Union it is actually viable. So, we have decided to exploit this opportunity and for the last two months we have been living in our favourite European city – Berlin.

There are many good things about Berlin (the weather is definitely not one of them), but to us it has always had the appeal of being situated half-way between the UK and Poland. We have calculated that the journey time door-to-door is probably the same when taking the train to Lodz or when flying to London. This is somehow fairer to both families and balances the sense of guilt for not living a street down from one’s parents evenly between both spouses.

The extra bonuses are Berlin’s vibrant cultural scene, great architecture, high ceilings, Christmas markets, currywurst, doner kebabs, warm rolls from the baker and our dear friends who we get to see on a regular basis. Oh, and one more thing. The state subsidised Kindergarten costing roughly ONE TENTH (yes 10%) of what it would cost in the UK.

So this is an interesting question: why does the German government think it is good to encourage new mums to return to work (full-time or part-time, any capacity is supported) when they feel ready and the UK government thinks it is good for you to hand over your whole salary (or most of it) to private childcare or else sit on your bum all day (metaphorically speaking, that is) or work at nights if you are lucky enough to have a profession which allows that?

The latter would be my fate if we continued living in the UK. For the past few months, I have had a fair share of working late nights translating as this is the only time for me to focus. This is not good for me nor my health, and it hardly leaves any time for my partner. OK, it is my choice, you can blame me for having professional ambitions or being greedy and not appreciating the hard work of the childcare workers who need to be justly remunerated for this hardest job of all. I apologise for wanting to progress and wanting to pay more taxes… I did try though, I have been on a waiting list for a crèche located conveniently for my UK work for over a year now. Maybe we get a place when Kasper is 16 years old and is ready to move out from home anyway…

Childcare subsidy costs are certainly contributing to Berlin’s financial dire straits. For a few years now we have been hearing that the city is bankrupt, but somehow it keeps going and there is no news on cutting down the support for young families. In turn, it allows me to increase my work output, pay higher taxes and keeps me a happy citizen feeling useful and good about myself. Yes, talk about making savings on medical cost of treating apathy and depression among women and cut divorce rate by 25%. Isn’t this bill worth footing after all?

One thing I will say that I miss about Britain while in Germany (apart from good tea) is children’s BBC channel. This is British culture at its best – the quality of the programmes is top notch and they are well pitched at the youngest and highly selective viewers. I owe thanks to CBeebies for the precious moments of reclaimed time when I had a chance to enjoy a cup of tea or have a little doze early in the morning.

Thank you CBeebies!

A recent jaw-dropping event prompts me to continue the story of my son’s adventures with bilingualism.


We are spending a week and a half in Poland visiting my family. My son is now 11 months and practises his syllables such as ma-ma-ma-ma, or da-da-da-da (translates to Polish as ta-ta-ta-ta) etc. He hasn’t yet uttered anything more complex that would resemble a word, although babbling is very much on full blast.

We are enjoying some tea in my parents’ living-room with the baby playing on the floor when my parents’ cat decides to run across the room and into the hall.

Me (in Polish): Kasper, where is the cat (“kotek”) gone? Where is the cat gone?
Kasper (looking up from his building blocks and following the cat with his eyes): ko-tek
Me, Dad, Mum (jaws on the floor): ????
Dad: Did you all hear that??! This boy is a genius!


Genius or not, it was certainly amazing to hear the little boy repeat a word the meaning of which he clearly understands. Hearing the word “kotek” prompts his eyes to wonder to the cat’s usual hanging out spots – the radiator or the top of the cupboard. His pronouncing of the word must have been a bit of a fluke, but not coincidental.

A friend of mine who is raising a child bilingually in German and English said her daughter’s first word was ‘Katze’! Is this yet another proof of cats’ magical powers or some puzzling trigger in linguistic development of bilingual children?

Are there any parents out there with some interesting bilingualism stories to share? Please write in comments.

Kofi, my parents' cat, likes to keep an eye on everybody.

Kofi, my parents' cat, likes to keep an eye on everybody.

Translator Mum

March 23rd, 2009

My little son was born with his hands on the computer keyboard. Well, almost. The amount of time I spend on my laptop – translating, researching, learning, broadcasting, socialising, listening to music and radio, telephoning, playing, killing time, managing, organising, living – is just too scary to think about.

When Kasper arrived, I often found myself typing with one hand while holding the sleeping child on my lap with the other. Having fairly long fingers helps with AltGr+2 (=@ on the Polish keyboard) or AltGr+a (=ą) key combinations. I challenge you to have a go if you haven’t tried it before…

But it wasn’t until Kasper was 7 months old that I embarked on a large translation project and announced with a big bang being back in business. On Mother’s Day (UK – 22nd March) and with the project nearly finished, here are some thoughts on being a new mum and a freelance translator – trying to manage without additional childcare.

Translation Super-Mum

You need the following ingredients:
1. one determined translator mum
2. one cooperative infant
3. one patient partner
4. one translation project that better be worth it
5. one good project manager (if applicable)

So you are a determined translator mum. Accept that from now on the concept of free time does not exist. As a new mum this is probably nothing new – what free time? you ask. Ha! That free time you have just started to recoup in the evenings with your baby’s newly developed sleeping routine. If you follow the advice literature, your cooperative baby (round 6 months) now goes to bed around 7pm and, apart from a late evening feed, sleeps through the night until morning (‘morning’ in baby talk means anything between 3-7am).

So the deal is – you can work from 7pm as long as you can keep your eyes open – but remember this routine must be sustainable – you can’t kill yourself staying up till early hours as that will have a knock-on effect on your productivity the following day.

So, let’s agree that 7-12pm is doable – 5 hours of work, then 6-7 hours sleep if you’re lucky – also sensible. The day belongs to your baby and their routine – feeds, walks, playtime, so don’t try and do too much. Don’t feel guilty about not doing any translation work, and take a nap during the day (while your cooperative baby naps) to charge your batteries a bit. If you think a regular full time working week is 37.5 hours (5 days x 7.5 hours), then you get near this if you work 7 days x 5 hours= 35. The extra 2.5 hours you make up during the weekend, when your partner takes the baby for a walk and to visit the grandparents – and voila – this proves you can theoretically squeeze in a full-time workload into a mum’s day.

Now, the patient partner comes into play. They must be patient as your shared ‘quality time’ is out of the equation. Those nice evenings cuddling up in front of the telly after a whole day of baby talk and potato pure (in mum’s case) – they are on hold for the duration of your project. Your partner needs to show a lot of understanding and help out as much as possible with your baby in the evenings/early mornings and weekends. If they are willing and able to help – then you are a lucky translator mum. I count myself as one – and am very grateful for it!

As for the translation project and the project manager – the better conditions they offer (interesting topic of translation, decent pay, reasonable deadline, good communication style, professionalism, etc), the happier you will be to be back at your desk every night! Thank you Benny for being my James Perfect.

It feels really great to be able to achieve this and feel to be back on the professional arena without missing out on your baby’s development. It is definitely a shared effort and a compromise, but remember that every project has an end date and hopefully you get a chance to relax and take a deep breath before the next job comes up.

The alternative is to move to a country with free childcare!

So that’s my recipe. It is ready to serve!