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Bilingualism Matters

October 19th, 2017

Last Tuesday, I took my kids to a workshop for bilingual children, which was held at the Summerhall as part of the Kite and Trumpet Festival of Polish Art for Children. The workshop was run by Bilingualism Matters – a Centre at the University of Edinburgh.

The workshop was full of fun, but at the same time a great trigger for discussion with children about the importance of keeping their second (and third) language alive by any means available.

I particularly liked the balloon metaphor – language being like a balloon, which can float away if we do not anchor it with various ways of using the language, such as speaking, singing, playing, reading and keeping in touch with family abroad. I have never openly spoken to my children about language loss – it was always implicit in my efforts to encourage contact with Polish by various means. The workshop has helped make them more aware of this challenge. Raising bilingual children is not easy, so I welcome the support offered to parents through events like this and the opportunity to meet other parents facing the same obstacles as myself.

Adventures with Bilingualism

November 19th, 2011

Kasper is now 3,5 years old and his linguistic explorations continue to amaze and entertain us in both languages. I speak mostly Polish to him, while the shared language at our home and in the nursery is English. It is proving more and more difficult to keep the two languages separate, but also to use Polish consistently on my part. The English-language surroundings are becoming more prominent, as Kasper is becoming increasingly more interactive, conversational and interested in socialising with his peers (as well as snails, dogs, cats, sheep and any other creatures we encounter on a regular basis).

Kasper’s vocabulary is expanding every day and his sentences are becoming more complex and grammatically correct. Since starting the nursery, his English stock of phrases has been enriched by typical play/interaction vocabulary, which indicates acquiring new social skills of negotiation and rule-making:
-What colour do you want? (dividing up the toys to ensure everyone knows whose in charge of which train)
-That’s wrong. This way! (verbalising rules of the game)

At the same time, he is learning to express his feelings (-Kasper is very cross! or in Polish – Kasper gniewa) and his wishes (-I don’t like that! or in Polish –Nie lubię. Coś innego (Something else)).

Kasper continues to mix up both languages, although he will make entirely English or entirely Polish sentences. He will also make phrases using both languages and inflect English words with Polish endings (e.g. meerkatów, even though he knows very well the Polish term “surykatka“). His grasp of grammar in both languages is becoming more and more apparent, however, it also reveals the limitations of learning Polish mainly from one source of language. Kasper often uses the feminine form when referring to himself (Polish verbs contain this information in their endings, while English ones don’t), and would say –Zrobiłam / Posprzątałam / Wstałam…I am trying to signal to him that there is a difference between the way boys and girls express stuff, but hope that he will naturally pick up some cues from his Polish cousins.

Kasper likes to repeat new words and Polish pronunciation poses no difficulty to him, but sometimes he gets the words wrong. Recently, as a result of learning the word “policja” (the police) and Alicja (my name) – he started mispronouncing “ulica” (street/road) as “ulicja”, a word he previously used correctly. When practising the correct pronunciation, he sometimes loses his patience with me and mocks me and my didactic tone of voice. Similarly, he used to be able to say “babcia Jadzia” referring to his Polish great grandmother, but in recent days has started saying “babcia dziadzia” (it’s easier), which I find hilarious (sounds like he was saying “grandfather’s grandmother”), but also a little embarrassing in front of my grandma.

We have just spent some time in Poland, which I think charged his Polish language batteries a bit. Kasper managed to communicate very well with my family, although confusions are still inevitable and we, the parents, remain the only people on the planet who really get the more obscure utterings and references in this 3,5-year-old’s code, whether in English or in Polish or both.

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

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.