Recent Posts

Bilingual Baby and the Mother Tongue

Like many American kids, I studied Spanish in elementary school, but my understanding of the language is pretty limited.

I also studied Latin in middle school, French in high school, Chinese in college, and now I study Serbian as an adult. Yet despite all this language exposure, I do not speak any other language fluently. I do have an appreciation for languages, understanding how cultural nuances can be gleaned from slang, and how the presence of foreign words in modern day jargon gives insight into a languages history. This is all well and great, but its like someone who can appreciate music but not play. Sure I can enjoy a night at the symphony, but when I try to play the violin, I’m an amateur.

I’ve spent countless hours studying the Serbian language, my stack of vocabulary cards is massive, my grammar charts declinating the cases are extensive, but when someone puts me on the spot at a party to speak Serbian, I freeze. I realize now, being a new parent of a beautiful baby boy, that I have an opportunity. The opportunity to give him something I don’t have. The gift of being bilingual. The freedom from wrestling with a language, the gift of natural fluency. I also realize that being bilingual is not something that is ensured simply because his father is. I see so many kids who were born in America to foreign parents, who don’t speak their parents native language well. They usually understand it easily enough, but they respond in English, and its only with a lot of prodding that they utter even a few words in that language. Why is this? Is it because they are surrounded by so much English all around them that this becomes more dominant in their brains? Is it because the parents did not insist on Serbian being spoken or whatever the secondary language is in the home, from day 1? Or is it, as I am starting to wonder now, that the window of language opportunity has closed, and the child’s brain is now wired for English, and speaking anything else requires mental work.  A New York Times article discussing the difference in brain activity between monolingual and bilingual babies talks about “neural commitment” in babies as young as 6 months old. It explains how by 10-12 months, monolingual babies brains are wired differently than bilingual babies brains, and monolingual babies have started to lose the ability to distinguish phonetics from any other language other than their own.


After researching babies understanding of language and how they process sounds, meanings, and distinguish one language from the other, I’m even more motivated than before to encourage my child to be exposed to Serbian. But despite my efforts and my constant nagging of my husband to speak Serbian to our baby, I wonder if its all in vain. Even by modern standards, my husband is a very involved dad – skilled at swaddling, diapering, bathing, and bedtimes. But still, I have to admit that I probably speak way more to our baby than he does. Its just the natural way of things I suppose, our baby hears his mothers voice more. So say that I speak 70% of the words to the baby, and my husband speaks 30%. Of that 30%, perhaps half is in Serbian. Or, put another way, our baby hears several types of language in the home. Direct conversation with me, direct conversation with my husband, and overheard conversation between my husband and me. Of those 3 types, only one has the potential to be in Serbian, and probably only half the time it is. Is it realistic to assume that this miniscule amount of exposure to Serbian during infancy and childhood will ensure that 30 years from now he’ll be toasting in fluent Serbian at a slava?

At a kids birthday party recently, I discussed these ideas with a few other young parents. It was one of those great conversations where I found myself talking with a Serbian girl friend, a French woman, and her Israeli husband. I found myself laughing as they looked on with horror as they watched some American kids bashing a piñata. We discussed the differences in birthday traditions and shared stories about language and cultural barriers at home. We realized that the phrase native language or as we would say the “mother tongue” has a direct translation in both Serbian and French. In French, its “Langue Maternelle“, and in Serbian, “Maternji Jezik”. Both phrases have the word “mother” in them, hinting at the idea that its the mother who most influences the language of the child. If this is true, than perhaps my baby has little hope of becoming truly bilingual and will at best speak some form of “Serblish” like me, regardless of how many times I prod my husband to “govoriš Srpski to the baby, bre!”.

Do you have any experience raising a bilingual babe? Struggle to get your child to speak in anything other than English? What has worked for you? Let me know!

  1. What’s in a name? 17 Replies
  2. Island Hopping in Dalmatia – Korcula, Hvar, Palmizana 5 Replies