Are you an expat parent? Are you wondering how your child feels about your language and your culture? Karolina's life story will give you insights on what it was for her to emigrate at age 8 and grow up with two languages and two cultures. She talks about her personal benefit of bilingualism and her goals for raising her multilingual daughter.
I was born in Poland. I grew up hearing my grandmother and her mom speak German to each other whenever they didn’t want the rest of the family to understand what they were discussing. I was aware that my mother had some level of Russian familiarity on account of it having been a required foreign language in school when she was growing up. But I didn’t start learning my second language – English – until I emigrated to the United States at the age of 8.
Once immersed in the American public school system, surrounded by native English speakers, I picked up the language in no time. Rather than being held back a grade, as was common practice for non-native English speakers entering the school system, I finished second and third grade in the same academic year.
But alas, contrary to what my relatives convinced me of, it was not as simple as merely adding a second language and carrying on with the first language as if nothing happened. Something did happen – my first language, Polish, was being replaced by English. It took me literally decades to finally come to terms with the fact that I lost something of my mother tongue by emigrating.
On the surface, I thought I had an easy adjustment. I was young when I arrived, I was immersed in the mainstream language right away, and my parents maintained the minority language at home. I maintained my Polish literacy (albeit at an elementary level) by writing letters to my grandmother and cousin. But on my visits back to Poland, I noticed I wasn’t familiar with the most recent slang, or that I couldn’t explain various aspects of my conversation topics on account of them being far more advanced than the second-grade Polish education I was working with.
For years, I did not associate my weaning native language skills with my scuffles with my parents. After all, all adolescents argue with their parents, right? However, I was cognizant enough to always keep in the back of my mind that on top of a generational gap, my parents and I also had a cultural gap.
I attributed my perceptions of my relatives’ comments to their personality traits. Usually, this meant that I saw them in a negative light – as rude, mean, or just plain insensitive. I had no idea that I was translating my American-learned value system into a Polish culture that operated within a very different set of values. Over the years, I’d ask my mother to explain to me why someone said something that I found offensive. With time, I started to question if this was just the way Polish people were, or if it was something unique to my family. It hadn’t occurred to me that my gap in understanding the Polish culture was a direct result of the way I became bilingual.
My parents and I settled in an area of the United States that did not have a large Polish diaspora community. At first, we attended a Polish parish, but within a couple of years, we moved too far to continue regular attendance at this church. It probably didn’t occur to my parents that they were cutting me off from a very critical language resource by limiting my Polish exposure to only the home. It was merely a matter of what was practical. No other Polish resources were available to us when I was growing up. There was no internet yet, and we couldn’t afford Polish language television. I had a subscription to a Polish children’s magazine for a time, but no contact with anyone outside of my family who spoke Polish.
As I matured, the topics of interest for me also matured, but my Polish vocabulary didn’t have a chance to keep up. There were things I didn’t feel comfortable discussing with my parents, and since there was no one else I could discuss them with in Polish, they just weren’t discussed in Polish at all. And soon, I noticed I was no longer thinking in Polish.
When I first noticed that I thought to myself in English, I tried to make it a point to consciously switch back whenever I caught myself. I felt guilty for letting my Polish slip like that. My parents couldn’t relate to what I was going through linguistically, since their Polish solidly remained their true mother tongue. I remember one incident where I was trying to say something to my dad about a lightbulb and I couldn’t remember the Polish word for “lightbulb”. I stuttered, trying to think of it, I may have even said the word in English in hopes of him helping me out. Instead, he got angry at me, not believing that I could’ve forgotten such an easy word. He thought I was lying.
Relationship with my mother.
My relationship with my mother also suffered because of the language disconnect. Even though we always spoke Polish in the home, there were less and less things I could discuss with her if for no other reason than that it was awkwardly peppered with a lot of code-switching (followed by feelings of guilt). Not only that, but Polish grammar has two ways of addressing a person, depending on the formality of the occasion and intimacy of the interlocutors. Many languages have a similar dichotomy: Spanish tu/Usted, French tu/vous, German Du/Sie. I grew up using the formal third person verb conjugation when addressing my mom. I didn’t have the benefit of hearing that this apparently changes at some point in a parent-child relationship.
I started to feel silly using the formal with my mom, yet it felt downright inconceivable to use the informal. And so I developed my own strategy for overcoming this obstacle. Since code-switching had already become part of my repertoire by this time, and my mom had also started using some English words in conversations with me, I simply utilized the universal English “you” in place of its equivalent in Polish. So for instance, instead of asking my mom the formal way, “Co mama chce na prezent?” or the equally unacceptable informal, “Co chcesz na prezent?” more and more of my sentences started to be bilingual when addressing my mom, resulting in the following compromise for the above question: “Co do you want na prezent?” (“What do you want for a gift?”)
Then one day when I was in my 20s, my mother told me about a conversation she had with her own mother, and how my grandmother was upset that my mom had started to use the informal with her. So I asked my mom when it was appropriate to make the switch. Was I old enough, perhaps? My mom didn’t even flinch. She had no problem with me addressing her in the informal. But I did. Since I didn’t speak Polish with anyone other than my parents, and every few years my grandparents and aunts when I’d visit Poland, I only ever used the formal in my spoken Polish. I heard myself say the informal to my elders and I cringed. It sounded wrong. Rude.
It took me many years to force myself to get used to it. The advent of modern technology helped. It was much easier to test the waters by addressing my mom as “you” in emails, and later in texts. Even to this day, I am consciously aware of saying “you” to my mom. But since after years of trying this out on her, my mom has yet to complain, I know I’m safe to continue.
However, as cumbersome as my weakening Polish skills have been to my relationship with my mom and with my family and understanding Polish culture and nuances in general, there is another detrimental result of my not having grown up “truly bilingual”. Growing up, I heard what an advantage it is in the work world to know multiple languages. The largely monolingual society I lived in seemed to also consider it something of a bonus, a sought-after resume-builder. But since I hadn’t yet figured out that there are levels of multilingualism, I considered myself bilingual, period (and later trilingual when I took 5 years of Spanish, including an immersion program, and eventually married a native Spanish-speaker). I proudly put Polish and Spanish on my resume, but when it came down to it, I didn’t actually have what it took to do the job. My English is way better than my Spanish and even Polish by leaps and bounds. Not only has nearly all of my formal education been in English, but all of my peer interactions from a young age have been in English as well. The truth is, I can’t translate between the languages except at a quite basic level, and any job that would require language skills requires far more than that.
While I consider myself multilingual and multiliterate, I am finally able to make peace with the fact that I’m not equally proficient in all three languages. I’ve made the journey from Pole to Polish-American.
Benefits of bilingualism.
So what good have my language skills been then?
They have enabled me to see the world from a very open-minded perspective. I’m aware of how differently speakers of different languages see the world, and this has helped form who I am today. It has encouraged me to seek out non-native English speakers for friends, and it provided me with a decade of fulfilling work teaching adults English as a second language.
It has given me the ability to enjoy cultural events, music, food, traditions, not only from the cultures associated with my languages, but from various other cultures as well. It allowed me to see marrying someone of a different cultural and linguistic upbringing as a no-brainer. It is in being different from the mainstream that I see comradery with other multilinguals. I feel more comfortable surrounded by people from various backgrounds than I do surrounded by all Poles.
Being multilingual has given me the ticket to considering myself a global citizen. My idea of “us versus them” is very different from most monolinguals. “We” are people who want to work together to build a better tomorrow, and “they” are those who are too wrapped up in their own monolithic identities to see past people’s differences and embrace a universal selfhood.
My goals for raising a multilingual child.
So I stand at a cross road when considering my goals for raising my daughter multilingual. Many parents desire full fluency in both languages for their kids. Had this been my parents’ goal for me, I would’ve reaped the benefits in many ways. But since I am no longer as emotionally vested in my first language as I was when it was still my native tongue, I have a much more laid back approach to language learning now. I want to provide the exposure for her inside and outside the home, so that she can enjoy the language in what she reads, what programs she watches, what music she listens to, and her choice of friends. I do not see language learning as a chore or a parental duty. I see it as a natural extension of who my husband and I are – we are a multilingual family. It couldn’t have been any other way.
My daughter does have an advantage over me in the way she’s growing up multilingual. I have a clear-cut language goal for her (though not a strict one), and I have the benefit of knowing that it takes more than mere at-home exposure to provide optimal opportunities for fluency.
I’ve made peace with my level of multilingualism, though I still have an emotional reaction to certain songs and poems in Polish, so perhaps it is still my “mother” tongue. But everyone knows that the baby chick eventually leaves its momma’s nest. Polish may have provided me with roots, but my wings are intertwined with a heavy dose of English and a decorative patch of Spanish. Perhaps what’s most important to know cannot be conveyed in language of any kind. After all, silence is golden. Milczenie jest złote.
Karolina and her husband Oscar live in the United States and enjoy communicating with their toddler daughter Natalia in Polish, English, Spanish, and American Sign Language, which they are learning together as a family.
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