“To have another language is to possess a second soul.” — Charlemagne
I am a bit different.
At first sight, people assume I am just a normal mid-western woman with two kids following behind me like little ducks. But then I speak. For the most part, my o’s are not long when I say Fargo, though the a in ‘bag’ still sounds like the e in ‘egg.’
But the real difference comes when I speak to my kids. In another language.
My husband and I met (enough years ago that I don’t feel so young anymore) in an amazing small tourist town that has people from around the world work there. Like my husband. After that incredible first summer, I followed him to his home country of Ukraine. And (eventually!) learned the language.
Plus, a few other things besides new words I otherwise would have never known.
1. Even if you can speak two languages this doesn’t mean the other person will understand you.
You either love them or hate them. I never used to understand the desire in someone else’s behind.
Until I had kids.
Now butts are amazing. Those little cheeks from the face to the rear are squeezable — for now. And my husband’s isn’t too bad either.
Because of this, I call my goofy little girl ‘Butt.’ With much love, I tell her, “Oh you butt.” Or, “Come here, Butt.”
I did this the other night when we were walking in the grocery store and my mother-in-law said something about how my daughter isn’t a butt. She kindly didn’t think that’s what you should call a little girl.
And I kind of laughed because Ukrainians say not nice words to newborn babies out of love. Thinking it was strange the first time I heard this, I asked someone why they would say such things to a baby. Apparently, they do this to keep them from getting ‘spoiled’. A superstition of sorts.
Butt, in this case, does not compare.
All of this goes to show that even if you know the language and have perfect grammar, you may still not understand someone due to cultural differences.
Last night I tried to explain something to my mother-in-law and, though I said the sentence grammatically correct, she just couldn’t understand me. Because of culture. Because of butts.
2. When toddlers learn two languages, they use BOTH languages in one sentence.
My kids are pretty lucky that grandma and grandpa live with them for extended periods at a time. Not just for fun reasons such as extra home-made cookies or playing, but because it improves their language. My children, one of which is not even school-aged yet, are bilingual.
This is pretty normal in Ukraine where kids tend to know Ukrainian, Russian, and maybe some Polish or English. (Side note: Dora the Explorer speaks Ukrainian on TV there and teaches kids English. Cool!)
But the neatest thing, and something I didn’t know before, was how when children learn two languages they use whatever word is easiest for them at the time — whether that is Ukrainian or English. In the same sentence. Plus, the fun made-up words (gibberish) toddlers come up with.
Until the age of about three only a few people, namely my husband and I, could understand our kids.
And yes Mom, they really were saying real words to you.
3. While being bilingual is magical, you feel like a fool.
We were waiting to pick up some friends. I was in the backseat and I remember the driver speaking in Ukrainian, about apples. I mentioned to him how I love green apples and his mouth fell open. He decided then that maybe needed to watch his ‘boy talk’ around me to be safe.
Understanding his words felt like magic.
But it doesn’t make you feel any smarter. Being bilingual doesn’t make you a genius. In fact, most of the time I feel a bit more foolish when I talk in another language.
When I first uttered my new-found Ukrainian words to those around me their first reaction was to laugh, not with malicious intent but out of surprise to hear me speaking a language most Americans don’t try.
Even good intentions can make you shy.
And, though I can speak fluently now and no one giggles (often), I will never have perfect grammar and always with an accent. I will always sound like a child. There are times when people have a look in the other person’s face of confusion, whether from language or culture.
It has created in me more empathy for others not just with language, but in all situations.
Perhaps not everyone feels the way I have through this language process, yet these things were unknown to me before. And sure, while not all of them were easy, I’m glad I discovered each one.
- The look on my kids’ faces as we understood their words when no one else could.
- The magic of speaking and feeling foolish.
- And learning another culture and how that plays into the words used.
Because another thing you may not know is, it’s worth it. If you ever get the chance, go ahead and learn another language.
You might just learn some things you didn’t know before.
“One language sets you in a corridor for life. Two languages open every door along the way.” — Frank Smith