Anatomy of a decision to speak two languages at home

Usually a spouse born outside the United States wants to transmit the language of his or her homeland to children. However, my wife, a native of Romania, has mixed feelings about teaching our son her native tongue.

It has taken me years to understand why.

The value of a second language seemed self-evident to me. By learning Romanian, our son can communicate better with Olimpia's family, gain access to another culture, and lay a foundation for learning other Romance languages: Spanish, French, Italian, Portuguese.

My pidgin Romanian, learned during visits with her parents and from tapes, permits only basic conversation. My father-in-law, unlike most of my wife's family, does not speak English very well. We both find it frustrating to rely on our spouses for translations.

I love the sound of the Romanian language, which strikes most American ears as musical and mysterious.

While I find the language romantic, Olimpia considers it a tie to a past she would rather leave behind.

For most of her life, the repressive dictator Nicolae Ceausescu and his state police, the Securitate, dominated Romania.

Perhaps as much as a third of the population had ties to the Securitate at one time, permeating the country with paranoia about open communication.

Olimpia recalls speaking on the phone with a cousin back in the 1980s, one of Romania's darkest times. As they chatted about typical teenager topics, practicing their German, a third party cut in. "Vorbeste Romaneste!" the eavesdropper demanded. "Speak Romanian" - or else, he implied.

When I say "Vorbeste Romaneste!" to encourage Olimpia to share that language with me or our son we share a black, symbolic joke.

Unfortunately, most of the economic and political news from Romania since 1990 also has been dark. Although she loves her homeland, Olimpia fears it as well. And deep down, that apprehension is connected to her first language.

On the other hand, English represents for her one of the best things about the United States. She enjoys the liberating qualities of American English, a language she finds free of "hand kissing" phrases used to communicate indirectly and to meet social norms of hierarchy.

Olimpia also wondered if hearing English at day care and Romanian at home would confuse our son. She felt he would be at a disadvantage in reading and writing when he entered elementary school. Fortunately, I could point to millions of successful children of immigrants who spoke one language at home and another in the community.

My wife ultimately has agreed that teaching our son two languages is a gift. Meanwhile, I am learning that there are more obstacles to rearing a bilingual child than my spouse's reservations.

Recently a slug - not a bullet, the creature that chews plants at night - illustrated why children might find it easier to acquire English than Romanian.

Mitchell, our preschooler, found a slimy mollusk during a family hike. Upon touching it he jumped, shouted "Yaugh!" in revulsion, and toddled away. After we laughed and reassured him, I asked Olimpia the Romanian word for slug.

"Melc fara casa," she replied, which translates "snail without a house." I noted "slug" has one syllable, melc fara casa five.

Since then we have been counting syllables, comparing English with Romanian words. While there are exceptions, Latin-based words run longer than their English counterparts.

Mitch can't yet say long words. He points to vaca (two syllables), but prefers to say "cow." He says "knee," but only points to his genunchi (three syllables). And though he is always ready for a "snack," it may be another year before he can pronounce prajitura (four syllables).

We're expecting a baby girl - whom we've already named Valeria (Romanian for "strong"). Perhaps she will take to her mother's tongue more readily when she begins speaking.

In any case, Olimpia and I now recognize we will need extra strength, patience, and understanding - and not just with kids - to teach our children two languages.


To submit a first-person essay on your own parenting experiences, send an e-mail to

Bruce Dorries is a father and teacher who lives in Virginia.

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