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Raising children who speak “Czechlish”

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Life when code-mixing is the norm

In our house, it’s common to hear 7-year-old Samuel say, “Mommy, can you zavazovat my tkaničky?”

To which I respond, “You want me to help you tie your shoelaces?”

“Yep.” He grins.

“They got so zamotaný when I tried to sundat my boty after the hříště.”

“You got them tangled when you tried to take your shoes off after you came in from the playground?”

“Yep.”

Blond-haired, blue-eyed Sam smiles wider. I loosen the knots in Sam’s mud-streaked, neon orange laces, and he slips his chubby foot into his black Adidas hiking shoes. It looks like he’s walked all afternoon dragging his untied, knotted laces through the slushy mud pit that his school’s playground turns into during the mild, rainy days we’ve had since Christmas. Sam knows he’s old enough to do his laces by himself. He also knows, if he’s persistent, I’ll help.

“There. Try to put the laces into bunny ears like I showed you.” While Sam struggles to tame his crusty laces into submission, I fight to push my frustration aside. Muddy laces can be washed.

But is it selfish of me to wish for my son to make one complete sentence in one language?

Sam isn’t the only one in our house who speaks Czechlish. When I ask if he has homework, 10-year-old Oliver says, “Nope. I don’t have many ukoly today. The teacher didn’t rozdávat the new učebnice.”

Before I can give him a lesson in English grammar (i.e. Don’t say “nope” to your mother and homework isn’t plural) or fuss at him for using Czech words when speaking English, 13-year-old Anna bursts into the room.

“Guys, who drank all the šťáva?” She glares at her brothers. The boys shrug their shoulders and look guilty.

All three of my children speak two languages fluently (Czech and English) and are learning a third (Spanish) and bits of a fourth (German). Instead of turning cartwheels at my family’s linguistic versatility, I find myself beating my head against a wall with the effort I put into decoding my children’s sentences.

I should be grateful that slipping in and out of languages is my children’s birthright. Instead, I am wringing my hands. Does it matter if Sam says most of his verbs in Czech? Should I tell Oliver (again) that the word for homework is uncountable in English? And, what do I say to Anna about a word like “šťáva?” In Czech, šťáva can mean anything from the juicy sauce of cooked meat to a sweet fruit or herb-flavored concentrate that is diluted with water to make a beverage. It’s not exactly “juice” but “syrup” doesn’t quite fit either.   

I know many parents of multilingual children who share my frustration.

Code-mixing is a common characteristic of bilingual children, particularly in early childhood when a word in one language might be easier to pronounce or to remember than its equivalent in the second language. Although studies show code-mixing may pose challenges to vocabulary development in early language acquisition, by now, my children are old enough to have developed substantial vocabulary in both languages.

And, I have noticed (unlike when they were younger), they don’t code-mix with everyone. When speaking with their Czech babička (grandmother), they speak Czech. Nor, do they confuse English for Czech at school. With my parents, they speak English. Same with their English-speaking friends. Code-mixing seems to be a treat they reserve for their father and me.

But why?

The thought has crossed my mind that code-mixing, or speaking Czechlish as my family likes to say, could be one of those things my children do just to drive me crazy. (It ranks right up there with picking their toenails in bed or leaving half-eaten sandwiches in their book bags.) But, I hated to make that assumption without proof. Most of the time it seemed as if my children code-mixed subconsciously, almost as if they didn’t even realize they had swapped out an English word for a Czech one.

On Science Daily, I found an article called, “Speaking Two Languages for the Price of One,” which suggested that bilinguals who switch languages consistently are able to avoid the negatives of code-mixing or code-switching. (Research for the article was originally published in the Psychological Science journal.)

From the article, I learned that if bilinguals used the same substitutions (for a word or a concept) each time they spoke about it, they could eliminate time lapses which were often associated with switching languages. However, the research study found that while bilinguals were used to code-mixing, many did not do so consistently when left to their own speech patterns.

What do the benefits of consistent code-mixing mean for my family?

Reading about the normalcy of code-mixing helped me take a step back from my frustrations. Years ago, as brand-new parents, Radek and I made the conscious decision to break the one-parent one language rule (OPOL) in favor of a more as-the-situation demands language. (Groan. I know. How could we?) In our defense, I think we were visiting babička and got fed up with all the back-and-forth translating.

We simply spoke English with English-speakers (and during visits to the US), and Czech with Czech family and friends (and everywhere else in the Czech Republic). The children learned Czech in school, but I spoke English to them at home. Somehow it worked. Apart from their Czechlish, our children weren’t lagging in their vocabulary skills in either language. (Their accents are a different story, but more on that next week.)

After reading about the benefits of consistent code-mixing, it suddenly didn’t seem that strange that my children favored speaking Czechlish with me. Since my children know that I speak decent Czech and would most likely understand their Czech words, I wasn’t surprised that they thought (at least subconsciously) that it was faster to use Czechlish than to translate their thoughts completely into English.

Did my realization mean I would stop correcting them?    

Certainly not.

However, it did make me feel better to know they aren’t code-mixing just to drive me crazy or because they’re lazy (two assumptions I had prior to discovering the research).

I can accept the fact that some words are harder for my children to translate from Czech into English, either because the direct translation doesn’t have as clear a meaning, or because they are words used primarily in a Czech situation (i.e. school words like šťáva, družina, skříňka, šatna, tělocvik – see Key below for translations).

Still, it doesn’t mean I plan to ignore their code-mixing.

Nope. I plan to keep correcting their Czechlish whenever I hear it. How else will their language skills continue to improve?

When I told my plan to Samuel, he said, “Ok, Mommy. I rozumět you. And, if you don’t zvladnout the Czech, don’t worry, I can pomoc you.”

(Groan.)

Yep. He’s still working on those tkaničky, too.

Does your family speak Czechlish? If you have any experiences of code-mixing (from any languages), I’d love to hear them.

Next week on Half-n-Half learn more about building strong language skills from a Czech speech therapist (who’s currently living in the US).

Key

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