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!


6 thoughts on “Bilingual Baby and the Mother Tongue

  1. i, too, am an american with language training, and after 35 years of living with a Serbian man, my serbian still sucks. But i understand (if i am listening). our only child, a son, is 32 years old now and a father himself. my husband ONLY SPOKE SERBIAN to him, and still only speaks serbian to him–and, our beautiful son, speaks Serbian! so don’t give up. but your husband MUST BE DILIGENT. and son does not like me to attempt speaking serbian–it is that bad! Good luck.

    • Wow, Marsha, this is so encouraging! I mean – its a little discouraging that your Serbian is still lacking after so long, but it does give me hope for my son. I read your comment to my husband about being diligent. I hope he takes it to heart. Thanks for reading!

  2. Hello 🙂 I read your post and felt happy that finally there was someone else out there who freezes in a social situation when confronted with serbian language! #yay I have no reason why I shy away from the opportunity to flaunt this lingo? deep down its because i cant pull it off so naturally that id rather save myself the embarrassment lol… but i mean it is not my native tongue so why have this expectation of myself?… Well this attitude did change when we had our daughter a couple of months ago. My native tongue is Tahitian and French, I learned english at school, My father is french and mother is tahitian so i grew up learning two languages in the same household english was the extra language i had to learn in which i had private tutoring. So Tahitian and French come more naturally to me as this is how I communicated at home with my family. My husband is the same both his parents are serbian so his native tongue is serbian but he went to school in Quebec Canada where he had to learn french and english. We both live in Australia and now speak English and communicate with our families in our own native language. We decided that our daughter will be fully immersed into her fathers serbian culture and language from the get go because we feel that it is important for her to learn that language from a young age learning english or french will be something she can pick up later on. So now I have Baba here everyday to talk to her grand daughter and to keep my serbian in line and to help me conjugate,regulate, stimulate, etc….etc… I swear learning serbian is the easy part speaking it on a daily basis and recognising there are so many different ways to communicate is the part where I discover new levels of crazy within myself 🙂 I guess as parents you do whatever it will take to equip your child with the necessary tools they need for life and well if you want your child to speak serbian you have to make it happen and it will! I mean i dont want to sound racist in which i hope i dont right now…but when I heard Asians on the serbian news speaking serbian like it was their own language i thought “thats it theres no excuse for me now!”

    Best regards from us here in Australia 🙂

  3. Wow, how lucky you are to have grown up in a bilingual household and then learned English on the side as a child as your 3rd language. Amazing! And it seems like a good choice you made o have your daughter learn Serbian, since that is the most difficult language to learn, and have her pick up French and English later. Like you said, I do need to do whatever it takes, and this includes brushing up on my own Serbian. I do find myself speaking more Serbian now that the baby is here. It’d be nice to have had a Baba in town too to help out and add another speaker to the mix.
    Thanks for reading, and good luck on your language immersion for your baby girl! Let me know what obstacles you encounter or discoveries you make along the way 🙂

  4. I agree, your husband must be diligent with your son and speak Serbian all of the time. My kids are 2 and 6 months. Right now their Serbian Baba is here in America visiting for a month. Baba only speaks Serbian, so now my 2 year old is running around speaking Serbian/English which is just amazing to me because she picks it up so quickly. My husband isn’t diligent, and I know that as soon as Baba leaves he’s going to go back to speaking English again most of the time. We decided that we wanted our children to be bilingual too because I am half Thai and my mother never taught me any Thai growing up. Like you, I studied several languages and I’m only really fluent in one (English). It totally stinks. I taught myself Thai and can sorta speak on a juvenile level. I think I speak Serbian better than Thai. Serbian is freaking hard though. I struggle like crazy with the different conjugations. I’ve never encountered a language before that the noun changes. We decided to move to Serbia soon so that our kids can learn the language natively. In just 2 more years I’ll be there and then maybe I’ll learn it too 😉

    • Wow thats great that you can have the baba there to help speak. And yes, Serbian is so hard. Its the grammar that makes it nearly impossible for someone who doesnt already speak something similar like polish or russian.
      The padež (cases) are infuriating!
      Thats so amazing that you are moving to Serbia. We have entertained the idea but dont know what we would do for work.
      Good luck and thanks for reading!

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