Bilingual from the first baby babblings

In Budapest, a Hungarian father and an American mother raise their two young daughters in a bilingual household.

Budapest schoolchildren hold hands in line.

Life in our bilingual household must look unintelligible to outsiders, but to us it’s perfectly coherent. I am an American who speaks mediocre Hungarian, my husband is a Hungarian who speaks English like a native, and we live in Budapest where we are raising our two little girls to be bilingual.

Anna, age 4, is a chatterbox who speaks both languages fluently and proudly. Among her huge collection of teddy bears, some speak English, some speak Hungarian, and some speak “bear talk.” She translates between them, and they all seem happy.

Roza, 2, is beginning to make complete sentences in her two mother tongues. So far, both girls have picked up both languages effortlessly. Our strategy is simple: My husband speaks to them strictly in Hungarian, and I speak in English. When we are together, conversations are a jumble of Hungarian and English. Technically, this technique is termed the “one parent, one language” philosophy. To us, it just evolved naturally.

I am in awe (and a bit envious) of the way they have adopted two languages, and even slightly different identities. Because they think in two languages – and cultures – they perceive language and the world entirely differently than I did as a child. Their exposure to Hungarian far outweighs their exposure to English. They go to Hungarian schools, hear Hungarian spoken in public, and play with their cousins in Hungarian. I am their main exposure to English. To balance that, we use Skype for video calls to the United States, we are avid readers, and we take an annual long American vacation. During our last trip, Anna had become so absorbed in English that she refused to speak in Hungarian to her father on the phone. He talked; she silently listened.

I’m over my initial angst now that I’ve seen our experiment in bilingualism progress so smoothly. Before Anna could speak, I worried how her language skills would develop, that she wouldn’t want to speak English, that she’d have a strong accent, and that she wouldn’t feel comfortable in either language. Although none of that happened, I was secretly disappointed when her first word was a Hungarian one: baba (baby). I then took it as a sign that she would be more comfortable in Hungarian. But now I am equally proud when they learn new songs in Hungarian as I am when they recite English nursery rhymes. Even the girls are more relaxed now. Even before she could speak, Anna had “daddy books” and “mommy books.” Until recently she would never ask one parent to read the other’s books to her. Daddy now has the right to read English books – as long as he translates the story into Hungarian, and doesn’t skip anything. He is sharply reprimanded if the translation is off.

Experts say that bilingual kids will speak later than monolingual ones, but that wasn’t the case with us. Switching back and forth between Hungarian and English comes naturally for Anna. She doesn’t mix words between the two languages. If she doesn’t know a word she tends to stop and search for it, rather than saying it in the other language. Occasionally, she will mix up her grammar and apply Hungarian grammar to English or vice versa. She loves to show off her languages, taking every chance to translate what I say for her dad or what he says for me.

Anna sees language as her secret power. When she wants to be funny she’ll speak to her dad in English, trying to provoke him to reply. Sometimes he’ll play along, which leads to lots of giggles. She identifies with me in English so strongly that she wouldn’t even sing Hungarian songs in front of me for a while. If I say something in Hungarian to her, she’ll give me a funny look. She has even started to correct my grammar not only in Hungarian, but also in English.

The benefits of bilingualism include lots of books. The girls probably own twice as many as the average kid. They are growing up rooted in the stories, traditions, and complexities of two cultures. When they are ready to learn a third language, I think they will go at it fearlessly. Anna has expressed interest in learning Spanish (her father also speaks it). Coincidentally, she recently revealed that one of her bears now speaks Spanish.

During our foray into bilingualism, we have avoided how-to manuals. Our philosophy has been to do what seems natural. I still have questions about how this experiment will play out, but I can’t imagine life without this added dimension. It didn’t even faze me when Roza spoke her first word and, just like her big sister, it was baba.

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