Tag Archives: language learning

Raising children who speak “Czechlish”

Czechlish pic 2.JPGLife 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

  • zavazovat = to tie
  • tkaničky = shoelaces
  • zamotaný = to be tangled up
  • sundat = to take off
  • boty = shoes
  • hříště = playground
  • ukol/y = homework
  • rozdávat = to give out
  • učebnice = lesson book
  • šťáva = fruit drink
  • babička = grandmother
  • děda = grandfather
  • družina = after school care
  • šatna = locker room
  • skříňka = locker
  • tělocvik = gym class
  • mobil = mobile telephone
  • rozumět = to understand
  • zvládnout = to manage
  • pomoc = help
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An apple a day

apple pictureStaying balanced by teaching English

After 15 years of teaching English as a Foreign Language (EFL) in Prague (with a few gaps for birthing babies), this year I decided to quit. In lieu of teaching, I planned more writing, researching, and proofreading assignments – jobs I could do waiting at sports practices, after I put the children to bed, or in the mornings when they were at school.

I had been teaching the same afternoon conversation lessons to the same group of students (elementary school learners in first – fifth grades) for the past four years. I believed both my students (and I) needed a change.

Also, I needed more flexibility to provide better support (i.e. transportation, cheer leading, and homework help) for my own children during the hours when I had previously taught. Radek worked away from home during the school week, and I was the primary caretaker. The responsibility took its toll.

At the end of the summer, I informed the school and my students that my English conversation courses wouldn’t be held this year. I turned down offers for private lessons and arranged my schedule to be available when my children needed me. Then, I tried to work. But, I couldn’t focus.

During the month of September, I nearly drove my children (and Radek) mad with my inability to settle. I felt guilty when I greeted the parents of the children I had previously taught, and I tried to explain (again) why I couldn’t even teach private lessons this year.

When I expressed my frustration to friends, they replied, “But wasn’t that what you wanted? Freedom from teaching?” I nodded, but every time I said no to an offer to teach, I felt a bit empty myself.

Could it be that teaching was what I needed to make the rest of my life balanced?

Each night when I packed my children’s snacks, I put a sandwich, a piece of fruit, and a sweet treat (i.e. a muffin or a muesli bar) into their snack boxes. My two older children were willing to experiment with the fruits I gave them. Oliver liked grapes, plums, and pomegranates, while Anna favored bananas, kiwis, and berries. Samuel always wanted an apple. When I tried to substitute a different fruit, he brought me his snack box after school saying, “My svačina was good, but where was my jabko, Mommy?”

I tried to explain to Samuel that he needed to diversify his palate and eat different fruits. He nodded and said, “I really like apples, Mommy.”

To get inspiration for the memoir I was writing, I reread my journals from arriving in Prague in the winter of 2002. Back then, teaching English was THE reason I had come to the Czech Republic, and my gateway to Czech culture.

On January 11, 2002, I wrote, “It is late, and I am exhausted. We taught our first lesson today. I was nervous. The 40-minute lesson flew by. In an instant, we were saying thank you and goodbye. The students are delightful. I am looking forward to developing a relationship with them over the coming weeks. I think I could become attached to teaching. So much planning. Then, your work is done. You are a bit like a zoo animal on stage during class. But, if you walk around, direct attention to the students, encourage interaction, then you disappear.”

I recorded my students’ words in my journal. Jarka, an adult student in my 7:00 a.m. morning class described her Prince Charming. “My prince has a beautiful, butterfly tie.” Miroslav, an engineer, wrote, “I learning English for five years in university but I learn English whitch brakes.”

 In response to Miroslav, I wrote, “Cheers to that. If we could all speak a little more English, ‘whtich brakes’ and convey the essence of our thoughts, it would not be bad at all.”

When I reread my journals, I remembered how much I had loved my beginner students. I wrote, “I can feel their pain, see the grimaces on their faces as they strain to understand me or watch as their cheeks flush and they stammer their words – slowly, painfully releasing them into the air. Waiting for a nod of approval from me, their teacher.”

In some lessons, particularly those with children, I felt much like a student myself. From teaching the preschool-aged Novak children, I learned more Czech than I did in my once-a-week “Czech For Foreigners Course.”

Before our English lessons, five-year-old Honzík said, “I am a Czech man. I speak only Czech, no English.”

His mother, answered, “Oh, if we want to be smart Czech, we must learn English.”

Sometimes she stayed during the lessons. “Where are your feets?” she would ask Honzík. “Tickly, tickly on your feets.”

While Honzík and his brothers chattered in Czech to me, I used hand gestures, symbols, and games to teach them colors, numbers, and basic phrases in English. I taught them the words for “hands” and “arms” since the children used the Czech word ruky for both; “feet” and “legs” since they said simply nohy; and I explained that in English there is a different word for “fingers” (prsty) than “toes” (prsty na nohách).

And, when it was the right time, I told Honzík’s mother that the plural form of “foot” is “feet.”

The Novak family seemed to like my playful approach, and I appreciated being in a Czech home and getting a taste of Czech family life. Not to mention all the Czech vocabulary I learned.

It wasn’t only my lessons with children where learning went beyond the language school. Once I hosted a “potluck” party for my high school students. Each student surprised me with a favorite homemade dish. We feasted on jaternice (sauasage), salty mushroom pastries, sweet poppy seed cake, apple strudel, and a homemade beránek (an almond flavored cake baked in the shape of a lamb). I made chocolate chip cookies, hot spinach artichoke dip, and deviled eggs. At first, everyone watched me eat and drink, a situation which I described in my journal as “funny” and “slightly uncomfortable.” Eventually, my students (and I) relaxed, and we spoke both English and Czech together.

For me, teaching English had always been an exchange – of languages, cultures, ideas, and words. Even though more than a decade had passed since my first lesson, nothing had changed about my desire to connect with Czech culture (and Czechs) by teaching English. Even though I now had my own children to look after, I realized (only by not teaching) what an important role teaching English played in my life.

I might not have been able to teach in the classroom this year, but the answer to my time-management dilemma was not to quit teaching altogether.

In late September, when an adult student that I had taught a few years ago wanted to start up private morning lessons again, I didn’t hesitate to say yes. Teaching adult learners was something I had missed in recent years. Then, I went back to the first parents who had approached me about small group conversation lessons. I told them I was willing to try.

These days, instead of teaching in a classroom, I tote my teacher’s bag around Prague. It’s a black canvas bag from Books-A-Million. It’s filled with stickers, paperback First Readers, Highlights Magazines, and other tools to encourage English conversation. Like I used to 15 years ago, I teach in the public library and at my students’ homes.

My children were so disappointed when they learned I wouldn’t be teaching at their school (even if they had been the motivation for the change), they agreed to do all they could to help me continue teaching. When my lessons run into the afternoon, Oliver walks to the library where he reads while I teach. Anna has learned to take the bus home from school on her own. Samuel plays in družina until I can pick him up. On occasion, I may have to pause my lesson to take a call from a child who has forgotten what time practice starts or one who needs a lift. However, interruptions are minimal.

The week I started teaching again, Radek was working from home, which was a rare treat. He remarked what a good mood I was in, saying, “I’ve never seen you this happy before. Usually, only when your parents are here visiting.”

I told Radek I was in a good mood because he was home during the week, which was true. We all enjoy family life more together than apart.

However, I also knew that the energy I had been missing was coming back. For me, teaching wasn’t just a job, it was an essential component in my balanced life. I needed my students as much as they needed me.

On the days I teach, I eat lunch on-the-go. Like Sam, along with my sandwich and my treat, I’ve got an apple in my lunch bag.

Sometimes, sticking to what you like, may be the best way forward.