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!


What’s in a name?

Muž and I are expecting our first baby in June.  Preparing for baby has been an exhausting process. With nausea, fatigue, and emotional ups and downs permeating many of my days, keeping my cool in an incredibly challenging and stressful work environment while continuing to move forward in my training as an air traffic controller at a fast pace has been a struggle. One of the more joyful parts of the process of turning two into three has been choosing a name.

I’ve always held the belief that names are very important. Names are the first part of your identity that many people see or hear, and they are full of cultural nuance that I believe can help or hinder the named. I absolutely love my name and wouldn’t ever want anything different, it’s exactly me. My muž on the other hand, being born in Belgrade with a very Serbian name chose an American one for himself to help acclimate to society after immigrating to California. He chose a classic American name and it suits him perfectly. So now he has a handful of names and nicknames that he can choose at will; selecting to wear the one that best suits the current social climate.  To me, he’s just my “Voli Thing”. But most people do not get to name themselves, most people are stuck with the name their parents gave them without any say in the process.  I’m know I’m not just naming a baby boy; I’m naming a child, a teenager, a man who will one day work and love and eventually grow old. This name must carry him through life.

Being an international couple, we want an international name.  We want a name that he can use while traveling and living abroad if he chooses and in circles of global friendships that he surely will develop. We want a name that doesn’t sound too foreign to the average American, but one that his grandparents in Belgrade won’t stumble over. We want one that is unique, but not so unique that he will have to spell it out every time he introduces himself.  We want a name that is actually a name, not just a made up word, but nothing in the top 100 list. It must have the right balance of strength and likeability. It must be a trustworthy name, one that looks good on a resume, but also sounds good to a date.

We went through thousands of names; most of the obviously international favorites were just too popular for our taste – Dominic, Luka, Aleksandar, Stefan, etc. The Serbian ones were just too foreign sounding to the American ear – Lazar, Stanislav, Jovan, and somehow many of my suggestions curiously ended in “o” – Carlo, Corrado, Otto and Leo.   Then of course, we had our aviation names – Glenn, Neil, and Skyler. For a while we were fixated on Felix, inspired by Felix Baumgartner, the man who famously held the world’s attention in 2012 when he broke records by being the first man to skydive from outer space and break the speed of sound with his body in free fall. Conversations at our dinner table would sound something like this. “Is Felix the guy who brings coffee to the boss, or is Felix the boss himself?  Is Felix just the hot guy who is always off hang gliding or surfing, or is Felix the guy who puts a ring on it?” One by one, our long list of boy names dwindled as we vetoed them for some reason or another. We decided Felix had Peter Pan syndrome, and so he was off the list. Salvador was a tortured soul, and Nolan, well Nolan just didn’t stand up for himself enough, especially in relationships, and no guy named Trevor would ever cure cancer.

For a while we were at a stalemate, each vetoing the others name suggestions as soon as they were spoken.  For some time, Muž wanted to get a book of Slavic names, and he would google “Orthodox Calendar” and other things, looking for the most Serbian of all Serbian names. More than once, frustrated with the process, I pointed out to muž, not so lovingly, that our sons name would already include a Serbian last name, and that a Serbian first and last name made no sense, since after all, he is born to a Midwestern American mom living California. Our son would be American. Born in America, educated in America, and probably spend his lifetime in America.  Any time I mentioned this, an unspoken hesitation would flutter across muž’s face, as if he wasn’t really sure what to make of the idea of having an American son. Perhaps this very thought is why he launched into the search for a really Serbian name. If his son would be American, at least his name would be a reminder of his roots. I wonder if muž had ever considered that possibility growing up. I certainly never really considered the possibility that a child of mine would technically be a first generation American on one side.  I wonder how our son will think of his ancestry one day. His dad immigrating to the states in his mid-20s, with a rich and often misunderstood cultural past, and his moms family having come over to the New World with the pilgrims, as American as apple pie.

Pondering the cultural identity of my son brings up many questions. I wonder what his first word will be, and will his native language be Serblish, the hybrid Serbian-English that we speak only to each other at home?  Will Muž be Tata or Daddy? Will our son feel American or half Serbian? Will his grandparents in Belgrade be around long enough to tell him stories about the old country? Will he correct my Serbian grammar by age 3? Probably. Will he be a rock star, a neurosurgeon, or just a pilot like mom and dad? Will we be able to finally choose a name that honors both his father’s and mother’s heritage while still maintaining a timeless sense of style and allowing him to be accepted in both obscure villages and cosmopolitan circles?  The clock is ticking, but we are up for the challenge, the name game is on and we will play until the time is up.

“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet.”- William Shakespeare