Tuesday, 24 October 2017

Bilingual benefits

By Anna Fronková |
Prague Daily Monitor |
27 March 2009

Being half-n-half is good for the brain and the character.

Reader Anna Fronková shares more stories from her Half-n-half family living in the Czech Republic.

When my husband finally arrived from England for a few weeks, he noticed a great difference in the children and his astounded exclamations ranged from "My, haven't you grown!" to "My, you look…quite Czech - all of you!" This response puzzled me; what could he possibly mean? True, I was wearing a forgotten, oversized Moravian hand-embroidered waistcoat and a Czech-flag kerchief on my head…and yes, the snow might have gone and little Alexander was still wearing the customary snowsuit and fur-lined-hat. But what else?

My husband Jeff immediately integrated himself into the bustle of daily life, thus getting the chance to further examine the family over the next few days. Similar to Emily in her article Bilingual Playtime, Jeff observed with slight reservation, that the children were spontaneously talking between themselves in Czech, dressing to fit in with the other kids at school, and while watching DVDs, selecting the Czech language option over English. He was quietly floored by the remarkable flexibility of three year old Alexander's brain because he had never experienced his ability to slide with ease between two languages. He was also slightly startled by the sudden attachment to his diminutive name, demanding to be called Sascha over Alexander.

Further developments that amazed Jeff was the dexterous waltz and polka-dancing that the kids had perfected in time for the village festival. He had to smile when his earnest five-year-old Betty, full of pride regarding her acquired language skills, insisted that she order and pay for his "pivo" in the pub. He was also surprised that the children now ate poppy seeds, walnuts, roll-mops (pickled herring), and most astonishing of all sauerkraut as part of their daily diet.

In regard to his observations of me, he affectionately mentioned that the only change was related to my figure: that my consumption of salami and buchty (sweet rolls) was starting to show. As if obesity was a Czech invention! All in all, with Moravian music playing in the background, he concluded his family had undergone a mass metamorphosis.

Such subtle changes are hard to see on a daily basis, but so it is with language and culture. When immersed in it, when living it and breathing it constantly, it becomes a part of you. One is not even aware of it. The kids have slotted into it without a stir, but my husband, flexible yet firmly English, is definitely anxious about the unfamiliar effects. Like most half-and-half parents, he worries that they will forget their English, or have trouble going back to school in the UK, or fall behind, or be mentally scarred somehow. But it is plainly obvious they can all understand a good deal and are loving the fresh change this country has had on them. All in all, when faced with the unfamiliar, us adults show a strong tendency to recoil back into the safety net of what we know.

On the other hand, I have the success story of my definitively bilingual family to look upon when faced with doubt. Here I stand, a product of Czechoslovakia, but for 25 years, I have lived in the UK. Here I live, near Brno now, breathing, speaking, writing and teaching in Czech. I am a grown-up example most half-and-half families can relate to.

For many of you, the Czech Republic has become a permanent home: be instantly cheered and comforted that your half-and-half children will be culturally advanced. The Czechs especially are wonderfully determined to keep national customs alive, which your children will delight in and accept as the norm.

Secondly, your children will almost definitely develop the typically wonderful Slavic personalities in order to survive life here: hospitable, genuine, generous but also fiery, hideously pushy and impatient. Neither their queuing ability nor their please-and-thank-yous will ever develop to sophisticated levels and as for their driving skills.... I had better move on.

More importantly, if you decide to live here permanently, your kids will most certainly develop Czech as a mother-tongue. I speak from experience: once my adopted mother tongue, English, took root in me, supported by schoolwork, school-friends and an alarming need to fit in and not appear as a foreigner, I remember becoming quite lazy and speaking to my Czech parents in English. My parents are linguists and qualified in the art of language; they knew what they were doing to keep the Czech language alive in the sea of English around us. They decided, no matter how hard, to speak only Czech at home, to answer us back in Czech, even if we spoke in English, and to encourage and develop our Czech writing skills with weekly letters to our huge family. They were almost militant about taking yearly visits to the Czech Republic for the six week summer holiday. Still the meanderings, quirks and patterns of Czech were firmly embedded, even if we were to never use it again.

With daily injections of Czech during our formative years, regular reading, persistent letter writing, supported by complete immersion in the country, the language, the culture every year, their aim of keeping us fluently bilingual was reached. In fact, being bilingual from a young age made my brain somehow more pliable, it was much easier for me to open up my mind to other languages in school too. I read Russian and German to degree level and this linguistic knowledge offered me much confidence in my youth.

Furthermore, having Czech as a first language will offer your children the added benefit of being superior spellers. If they learn to read first in a phonetic language, they will use these same patterns to eventually read in English. There is no such thing as a good or bad speller in Czech, everyone spells correctly because they follow set patterns and stick to consistent rules. Some English people never make sense of spelling, even in adulthood, yet this will not be the case for your kids. Your little darlings will have the Czech reading system built in; they will instinctively do what I still do now, when faced with difficult English words. They will automatically pronounce each letter, each sound, as they will be taught in první třída (primary school). It is this habitual "sounding" of the word that allows the brain time to save the pattern of the word and then instantly file it, memorised for the next time. Thus "immediately" will always have two Ms, "occasional" will always have two Cs and "definitely" will never become "definitAly," because it will not match the correct phonetic patterns previously saved in the brain.

Just because your children breathe and live the Czech language and culture as a priority, it does not mean English has to fall by the wayside. As long as the household is kept as English speaking as possible and one parent reads to regularly and talks to the children regularly in English, they will learn it as sure as a bird learns to sing. They might prefer to use Czech, like me using English as a child to fit in with my peers but the English language will still be embedding at a good rate. If you travel back regularly to English speaking lands, this will offer the brain priceless mental gymnastics and further rooting down of the language, which will stay with them forever.

Even if, like me, the worst comes to the worst, and you give you up speaking English to them in favour of Czech due to sheer pressure of parenthood, work or whatever; all can still be readily resolved, as long as you have the nerve to temporarily uproot them back to the States or England for a year or even two before they get too old. It's hard for all but it works.

I am thoroughly delighted in my children's progress after seven months here, they are really developing at a phenomenal rate. Before the age of 12, all young children have this startling power of language within them, they do not have to be intellectually gifted in order to learn. It is truly amazing that in such a short time, their brains can make such leaps - from virtually nothing to a massive rooting down of a new language. Their curiosity and their arresting facility of "file and save" is truly like a superior and brand new computer.

My eldest is only 9 and already she has started to drop the English-like inhalations that go hand in hand with English speakers learning Czech, and begin to speak with a sing-song Moravian twang. An "indigenous" sounding accent is developing which leads to sophisticated and convincing presentation. The 5-year-old calls from her dreams in Czech, itself an indicator of her brain-frenzy and language implantation. The 3-year-old can translate his complaints to his English daddy in a millisecond , which shows again his dexterity and Tom, the 8-year-old, fuelled on by the other boys at school and by hockey, has even dropped his reserved English character and developed a kind of gung-ho, pushy confidence. His bank of terribly rude words to harass the opposition is as alarming as it is important.

Jeff laments their behaviour loudly and tuts with disgust. "But dad," the kids explain, "we must jump the line, do you want us to get our lunch before it goes cold?" Jumping the queue would never happen in conservative England: these behaviour changes, whilst not always likeable, also show how much influence the language, culture and peer pressure instantly has on kids. I look at it positively though, their character is being tested and I hope a little of both cultures will eventually win through, moulding them into confident young people.

In fact, apart from giving your children all of the positive things I mentioned above, I also read somewhere that bilingual flexibility is so stimulating for the brain, it can even stave off Alzheimers! Food for thought indeed.

Every Friday Half-n-half highlights personal stories of bilingual families living in the Czech Republic. The main contributor is Emily Prucha, an American living in Prague with her Czech husband and two children. The Prague Daily Monitor and Emily welcome your feedback on Half-n-half; please comment below or write to emily@praguemonitor.com.