Tales of a bilingual toddler

As our son is only 18 months old, he hasn’t yet given me much feedback on how he thinks I’m doing as a bilingual parent. Instead, I thought I’d write this post about how things have been going so far. I talked about the reasons why my wife and I are bringing up our son bilingually in one of the first posts on this blog and I’ve also described my experiences on Olga Centeno’s fantasic podcast Bilingual Kids Rock.

Welsh is my third language and one that I only started to learn in 2007 when I moved to Wales to start a job as a lecturer in French at Bangor University. By the time our son was on his way, I was already using Welsh regularly in and out of work. However, it did feel odd when I started to speaking Welsh to our son when he was just a bump and also when he was born just over a year and a half ago.

I’ve sometimes wondered how bringing him up using my third language will affect his language development, especially as my wife (who speaks English to him) spends more time with our son than I do due our working arrangements. However, we are working as a team in order to bring him up bilingually. Indeed, my wife went to a parent and baby Welsh clash where she learned lots of Welsh language nursery rhymes when our son was only a few months old. We’ve also taken in turns to take him to ‘Swn a Sbri’ (meaning ‘Sound and Fun’) sessions in local libraries where he has learned more songs in Welsh and met other babies.

For a lot of the last 18 months, I’ve wondered what impact the Welsh I’ve been speaking with our son has been having. Most of his first few words were in English, although he did quickly learn to say ‘mwy’ (meaning ‘more’) when he wanted more food, which perhaps points towards what he saw as one of his communication priorities. At times, I did wonder if I was doing enough to expose our son to sufficient Welsh. I’ve been trying to address this recently by reading him story books in Welsh at bed time and he’s able to respond to questions like ‘Wyt ti eisiau darllen stori?’ (‘do you want to read a story?’) by wandering over to his pile of toys and picking out a book.

When I was taking our son to the play park recently, I also noticed that he often seems to know when someone is asking a question. He is able to say ‘yes’ and ‘no’ in English, and also ‘ie’ and ‘na’ in Welsh. This is a good place to be at, although it also means that there are several dozen other words for ‘yes’ and ‘no’ in Welsh that he still has to learn as these depend on the types of structures and tenses used in questions. This is something that took me a while to get my head round as an adult learner of the language, so I’m hoping that our son will somehow manage to pick it up naturally.

Realising that our son understands some simple questions in Welsh is fun as well as quite satisfying. He can currently do a variety of different animal sounds when we ask him what noise certain animals make in either Welsh or English. He seems to particularly enjoy making pig and snake noises, but needs to more clearly differentiate between the sounds made by sheep and lions.

Our son’s also at a fun stage where he sometimes finds a word that he likes and walks around repeating it. I particularly like it when I come in from work and hear him repeatedly say ‘daddy, daddy, daddy’. When I was in the garden picking apples recently, he spontaneously started saying ‘apple’ several times without me having said the word. Before long, I managed to get him to say ‘afal’ (the Welsh equivalent). Just last week, I asked him ‘wyt ti eisiau cael bath?’ (‘do you want to have a bath?’) and mimicked the response ‘oes plis, tad’ (yes please, dad) as he enthusiastically started climbing the stairs. Almost instantly, he said back ‘oes, tad, plis’ (‘yes, dad, please’).

As our son progresses along the language learning path, I’m also going to have to learn some new tricks to help him out. At the moment, singing ‘Old MacDonald had a farm’ is often a good way of getting him to stop crying when he’s tired or upset. However, I currently only know how to sing this song in English. When my wife and I are in the car, it feels like it’d be kind of wrong to follow our ‘one parent one language’ (OPOL) approach to the extent that I’d only join in with the animal sounds that are the same in Welsh and English. However, I am now on a mission to learn the Welsh version of this song. I know the Welsh version of ‘The Wheels on the Bus’ but unfortunately my repertoire of Welsh language nursery rhymes is pretty limited.

Perhaps it’s time to start listening to one our many Welsh language nursery rhyme CDs on the bus on the way to work. I’ll just have to hope that I don’t end up singing out loud, although an early morning nursery rhyme sing along could help to lighten the atmosphere on our often crowded local buses as they wind their way towards Bangor.

Are you bringing up your kids bilingually? How important do you think it is to speak different languages? Please feel free to share your views and experiences in the comments section below or on the ‘Dad’s The Way I Like It’ pages on Facebook or Google+.

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