My partner is native Spanish. My mother tongue is Hungarian. We primarily speak English between us. Before our child was born, we agreed that each of us would use our native language to talk to the child. In the following, I summarize our approach to the topic and our contemplation of the past two years.
Since our baby was born, she grew up in the presence of both parents. The mother has been full-time present in her life, and I’ve been working from home. She didn’t go to child-care. She met other people at family gatherings, activities with friends, and on the playground. She was regularly exposed to various languages (mainly English, German, French, and Sanskrit) through friends from different countries, musical lyrics, and mantras. Around the age of 18 months, we moved together with two other families (French-speaking Swiss, and Argentinean). Every other day we would also gather with two families who had kids of the same age.
It’s also worth noting the bigger context we live in. We are located in Asturias, Spain. We are embedded in a Spanish (Castellano) and Asturian (the local language) speaking environment. Talk is an essential part of Spanish culture. For instance, people would stop us on the street or the hiking trail and talk to us. This is foreign to the culture I come from. I guess we also chatted a lot with her. Early on we created a habit: whatever one parent said in the presence of the other, it was then repeated by the other parent in their native language. (This was helpful for us parents too because we didn’t understand our partner’s native language yet.) We also read lots of books with her and tell her bedtime stories. We listen to kids’ songs in both languages and sing along. Finally, we intend to take time and explain everything to her so she would understand it–at least have the chance. We’ve been doing this since a very early age.
We didn’t have a goal of teaching languages, nor did we expect our child to start speaking at any time. In general, we wanted to create a safe and loving environment for all of us. Whenever it was the time for our child to start doing something, was just the right time for us.
Our child is a little over 2 years old now. She started to say the first words around age one (her name, “mama”, “teta” as boob in English, “lámpa” as lamp in Hungarian). If I tell her something in Hungarian, then she would often go to her mother and say the same thing in Spanish. She speaks to her dolls mainly in Spanish. We heard her talking in her dreams both in Spanish and Hungarian. We think that she understands everything we say to her. Sometimes it takes a while for her to process it, but then she would bring back the topic in a couple of days. She speaks in simple, grammatically correct Spanish sentences. She uses past, present, and future tense. She can express her feelings and talk about observations of events.
– No quiero dormir, quiero teta. (I don’t want to sleep, I’d like boob.)
– He escuchado un parajo en el camino. (I’ve heard a bird [while walking] on the path.)
– El niño esta llorando porque se ha caido. (The kid is crying because it’s fallen off.)
– Quieres leer este libro conmigo? (Would you like to read this book with me?)
Her Hungarian level is less advanced. I guess because it’s only me regularly talking to her in Hungarian. When she directly talks to me, she almost exclusively uses Hungarian now. It seemingly takes more effort for her but she’s persistent. When we are together as a family, and she wants to say something not particularly to me but to us, she speaks Spanish. (She knows that I understand Spanish too.)
– Mama hazajött. (Mama came home.)
– Gyere papa, játszunk a vonatokkal. (Come papa, let’s play with the trains.)
– Tamu szépen zongorázik. (Tamu plays the piano well.)
It’s lovely to see that she can have a conversation with friends and family members. She understands my mother doesn’t speak Spanish so she speaks Hungarian to her. If she says something to me, and I don’t get it, she might say it in the other language. This is especially amusing when I finally catch her word because she repeats it in Spanish. She knows some English and French words. She uses them occasionally and mostly with her native-speaker friends.
Looking back at the past two years, we are content with how things turned out. In general, we wouldn’t change anything in our approach if we had another child. There are two things we noted though. First, it was strange for me to talk to our newborn in Hungarian in the beginning since nobody around me understood what I was saying. It took a couple of months to get comfortable with it. Second, my partner didn’t speak any Hungarian before our baby was born. She learns the language passively through my interactions with our child. Since I started to use more elaborate expressions in Hungarian, it’s become more difficult for her to follow along. She sometimes feels left out. For now, we decided that I’d repeat things in Spanish too in her presence to make family communication clear and accessible for everyone.