One Language or Two?

So if I had had a child ten years ago, soon after I came to the US, raising my child with bilingualism and biculturalism in mind wouldn’t have even become an issue. I went through a strange process when I first came to the US. I simply wanted to belong. I wanted to belong to no matter what. I wanted to be same as people around me, and I mostly went for the Americans who looked most American to me, those who wore shorts and sneakers like the tourists I saw in Belgrade, ate pizza for dinner and spoke accent-less English (here I mean the absence of a foreign accent as I was definitely not able to distinguish between different American accents such as, for example, Southern versus New York).

Maybe it was all about English. Maybe I felt that if I changed myself on the outside (put away my flowing flower-patterned dresses and skirts and switched to shorts and sneakers), English was going to flood my mind and lodge there, grammatically perfect, beautifully fluent, and accent-less, and Serbian, which many times felt like an obstacle to speaking perfect English, was going to be pushed into the far background. Little did I know that seven or eight years later I was indeed going to reach a point that looked somewhat like that (minus the accent and occasional grammatical uncertainties that were still present) and that I was going to feel like I was missing a limb, or even maybe an entire half of my body.

I sometimes wonder if other foreigners go through this process. And if the process I went through was indeed driven by my idea of complete immersion in the English language. The more I think about it, the more certain I am that English was the main force. After all, I only came to this country because it was one of the few countries where people spoke English and that was, at the same time, going to let a Serb in for an extended period of time (a year in my case, as an au-pair). Before I came to the US, I was a student of English language and literature at the University of Belgrade and I left the country before I graduated. After seven years of studying English language and literature at the university level, and six more before that, I was not fluent in English – after all, in most of those years I had very few opportunities to speak English. The language classes at the University of Belgrade consisted of lectures, translation and grammar exercises and some useless essay-writing classes, and the literature classes included endless lectures about books and texts where you were told what they meant and at the end of the year you were supposed to spit the same information back at your professors, mostly in Serbian. You took an exam at the end of the year, and then you were able to keep retaking it depending on how many times you flunked, and nobody ever – ever – questioned the ability of your  professors to teach, even if ninety percent of their students failed. While taking an oral exam, you had one or two or three professors sitting in front of you and a room full of your fellow students (thirty or forty on average) sitting behind you, waiting to take their exam, and in this lovely, stress-free setting you were supposed to let your English shine.

Well, my English didn’t shine. I was terrified, numb with fear, and I made grammatical mistakes that I knew were mistakes the second the sentences came out of my mouth. It felt like my mouth and my brain were never in sync, my brain frozen more often than my cheap Dell computer, and my voice unreliable, stuck in my throat.

I felt terrible about the whole thing: I, a-straight-A-student in my entire school career before the University of Belgrade, who managed to be one of the fifty-five students accepted in 1991 by the University of Belgrade to study English, felt like a complete failure. And at that point I didn’t even care if I were ever going to graduate, but I desperately wanted English, that English that I fell in love with years before, when I was in seventh grade, to flow easily from my brain to my lips, like a language should. And I wanted to be able to relish in the process.

In the only other country in which I lived for an extended period of time, Libya, I never went through the same process of abandoning my Serbianhood. The whole experience was very different. I was much younger, only thirteen when my parents and I came to live in Benghazi in 1985 and fifteen when we left. It was in Libya that I received my first English lessons. Unlike with German that I started studying a few years before that, and Arabic that I studied at the same time I studied English, I loved the magical flow of English in my brain and my mouth, and I even tried to keep my diary in English as soon as my vocabulary reached about 100 or 200 words.

The Libyan world was vastly different from the world I grew up in, and I never even tried to compare the two. My parents worked for the 7th April hospital in Benghazi, and we lived in a village located right next to the hospital, completely separated from the Libyan world. I went to Yugoslavian school and played mostly with Yugoslavian kids (Yugoslavia was my country until it fell apart in 1991). I had some curiosity about the male and female segregation typical of Muslim cultures, but that was about it. Largely, I didn’t care about much more than the mimosas blooming under my window, beautiful sunsets over the flat red land, wild sandy beaches and the pleasant Mediterranean climate (perfect for me as I have always loved the heat). In 1987 I went home, and I felt somewhat changed by the experience, but merely by the total absence of TV, radio, and any other form of mass communication, which forced me to read books, write, draw, paint, do crafts. Overall, I went in Libya through nothing that even remotely resembled the process I was going through in the first few years spent in the US.

My life in the first few years in the US kept changing fast. First, I was an au-pair, and I had quite a few hours during the day to myself (I took the kids to daycare/school in the morning, and then I was free until at least three in the afternoon). I had weekends to myself too, and I went from being somewhat of a tourist exploring the Smithsonian museums, Lincoln Memorial, Jefferson Memorial to strolling by the Potomac and making my way to the Serbian Church in D.C.

In the Serbian church in Washington, D.C.Wilmington's tall sail ship I felt far from welcome at first. Distanced enough from my own culture, I clearly saw what Serbs were like: once they got to know you, you were their best friend, they would die or kill for you. But before they got to know you, well, you were just a stranger. They would never just drop a casual hello or talk to you about the weather. So, the first few times I went to church, I hardly spoke to anybody. But I kept going, despite the fact that I wasn’t the churchgoing type (I made friends with my spirituality in my teens and started going to church occasionally, but usually at random times, when I felt like it, when the liturgy was not in progress and when I could have just a few minutes of silence to myself, to ponder, pray, remember, whatever). But now, I was lonely enough that I kept going to liturgies religiously, hoping I would eventually make some friends.

Gradually, I made my way to the room where people hung out after the liturgy, and I made friends. I became one of them, and when NATO bombed Serbia in 1999, before my au-pair year was over, when the U.S. offered no solutions – absolutely no solutions – for Serbs who happened to be abroad when the bombing started and whose visa expired and who needed to go home while NATO was still striking Serbia every night, I wouldn’t have made it without the people from that church.

In September that year I was in school in Philadelphia studying nothing else but English literature (I was able to transfer two years’ worth of credits from the University of Belgrade, but based on how little I learned in Belgrade, I later thought my Philadelphia school shouldn’t have accepted anything). An au-pair year behind me, I was sharing a dorm room with eighteen-year-olds (one of the conditions of my scholarship was that I had to live on campus), feeling much older than I really was (not so bad age of twenty-seven). I read literature and I wrote about it. English was flowing through me, and I was happy.  First of all, I was happy because I was writing, and then, it happened that I was writing in English. I delighted in the process. Maybe, since the day one when I started studying English, or since the moment I decided I loved that language (the way I never liked German), my idea of foreign language mastery was to be able to write in it, to bask in it, to play with it the way I was able to in Serbian.

Now one might ask why I just didn’t stay with my native Serbian and make things easy for myself. Why I needed English to begin with. The honest answer is, I don’t know. Maybe because since the moment English entered my life, years ago, when I was living in Libya, it was always a major part of my education. First, as I started studying it in seventh grade, I had to do four years’ worth of material in only two years to be able to graduate from the school I attended in Libya. Then, In high school, I chose a course of study that included a lot of English split into three different subjects. Finally, at the University of Belgrade, I studied phonetics, morphology, syntax, and tons of most detailed grammar. After all these years, I desperately wanted to reach that point where my English was as good as my Serbian was. To be able to write as well as a native speaker would. To write my stories in English. I couldn’t write my stories in Serbian when I was now living my life in English.

By the time I got out of school, I fully owned my English. I used Serbian only when talking to my mother, which wasn’t often. I got a job as an editorial assistant for two trade magazines and was quickly promoted to an assistant editor. I started writing my own fiction. In English. And I started forgetting my Serbian. For real. When I talked to my mother, despite all of my focus and effort, more English than Serbian words would come out of my mouth. I strung words together following the syntactic rules of English. You forgot your native language, my mother said once emphasizing every single word. The whole thing  was funny and not funny. I was amazed at the process (Can you really forget your native language? Really?) and then I couldn’t escape the feeling of actually losing something. A Serbian saying would come to my mind (the one that doesn’t have an equivalent in English): Igracka-placka. Something you would say to a kid who is playing happily when he or she gets hurt in the process. You play and then you get hurt. Oh, well! You are OK! And indeed I was OK for a few years. I loved my English. The whole thing reminded me of my high school days when I fell in love with a pretty obese boyfriend, and I started gaining weight, for unclear reasons (for fun, or to look more like him and keep that wandering-eye-boy interested in me). I was gaining 2-3 pounds a week, I out of all people, the always too thin I. I thought the whole thing was funny. Until I realized my face got buried in the weight of my cheeks and I really needed to lose those twenty pounds I gained, which was not that easy.

Over the years, I built a life for myself in the US. I had the job I loved, I wrote stories, I made friends. I fought with my mother over the phone. I fought battles that I felt I should have fought years before then, but it was only then that I was strong enough to confront my mother. I sought answers in therapy. I dated men. I decided I wanted to have a family. I met my husband. We had a baby.

I held my son in my arms. I spoke to him in English and I called him sweet names. First he was Babika, then The Little Man, then Adoricus and Cutolino, and many other things. I tried singing to him in English, but I didn’t know the lyrics of many of the nursery rhymes. So I just hummed, and then I started making up both the lyrics and the tunes,

My baby, my baby, my baby maybe,

My baby, my baby, my maybe baby.

And around that time, my Serbian started coming back to me.

Tasi, tasi, tanana,

Evo jedna grana,

the way my mother and my aunt sang to me. I ordered a book of Serbian poems, Riznica Pesama za Decu by Jovan Jovanovic-Zmaj, the same one I had when I was a kid, with a yellow cover that had a bunch of kids flying a kite (the poet’s nickname is Zmaj, which means kite in Serbian). The book brought to life all those days I spent with that book, sometimes reading it, but before even I knew how to read, copying the illustrations from the book.

As I was reading the poems to my son in the first few months of his life, my voice bounced off the walls and I fell in love with the sound of my native language all over again. Actually, I never stopped loving my language. It was just that I felt my English and my Serbian were mutually exclusive. That they couldn’t comfortably co-exist in the pretty ADD me who couldn’t handle more than one thing at a time. Switching between two languages made me crazy. Like I couldn’t fit both of them into me at the same time. I needed one language in which I could write, and that was  English.

A few months went by. My husband approached the subject again. I’d really like you to teach Andrei Serbian, he said.

Do you know how hard that would be? I responded, convinced he didn’t and couldn’t really know how difficult it was for my brain to handle two of anything.

Still, I often sang to Andrei in Serbian, and kept repeating, mama, tata, baba, deda. Every now and then, I would play a you-tube video of some Serbian song: Tata kupi mi auto, Tata, pa ti me volis.

My son started sitting, crawling, walking (way too early). At eight months he got his first word out – mama. I have always felt that in English that word is more a means to an end than an end in itself. Mama coming out of a baby’s mouth soon becomes Mom or Mommy. In Serbian, mama is the ultimate. Mama.

Maybe that’s when I decided. Maybe a little later, when our Irish friend yelled at me (or just spoke to me in his typical voice with a strong Irish accent), You’re really not going to teach Andrei Serbian! ?!

The decision was somehow made. It evolved. I needed to try. I needed to do the best I could, like with everything else.

I ordered a book on raising bilingual children, Raising a Bilingual Child, by Barbara Zurer Pearson. A pretty good book, very informative. I found out about how other parents did it. I examined the logical strategies outlined in the book: One Parent-One Language; Minority Language at Home; Time and Place; and Mixed Language Policy. I acknowledged the fact that I was going to be it, no support system, only me, some music and some picture books. I knew I was not going to use any one of the techniques exclusively simply because I was not organized enough and the effort to do it would have killed me. But I decided I was going to try to speak to Andrei in Serbian anytime we were alone, and later I added an addendum, I was going to try to speak to Andrei in Serbian even when other people were with us, except when the other person was my husband and then, of course, we wanted to have family time and to understand one another.

So I started trying to speak to Andrei in Serbian whenever we were alone. In the beginning, I mixed English and Serbian a lot. A Serbian sentence with at least one English word. Or, a Serbian sentence, followed by an English sentence, and then a Serbian sentence. Or, three Serbian sentences, followed by three English sentences, the last one of which included a Serbian word.

It got better over time. And easier.

On some days I feel I get a lot of Serbian into our day. On some other days, I am not pleased with myself. I feel I give in to English too easily. I feel I should try harder.

Overall, I feel good about Andrei’s progress. He turned two a month ago, and English is definitely his primary language. He understands Serbian, he can say quite a few words, and he is just starting to string Serbian words together. I remind myself that whatever I accomplish is better than if I never tried.

And I keep talking and singing to my son. In my native language.

  1. Jen
    November 8, 2011 at 10:15 am

    What a lovely post. I’m so glad to see you in the Blogging Bilingual Carnival!

    I too started using more of my native language when my kids were born. In the part of Japan I live in, you have to speak Japanese, no other choice. I’ll never look or act Japanese but I can sometimes fake it on the phone! My husabnd and I used to only speak Japanese together, so it was more of an effort than a natural progression to speak English to my kids. Bu well worth it, as I am happy when they sing and love the same songs and nursery rhymes I did as a kid.

    • November 9, 2011 at 12:31 am

      Thanks! I still have difficulty accepting the fact speaking my native language is so much work, but it totally is! We seem to be in very similar situations. A month or two ago I heard my son for the first time sing a Serbian rhyme, and I was delighted. And I hope things will get easier as our kids get older and we start having some real conversations with them – in our native language.

  2. November 9, 2011 at 11:03 pm

    Thank you for taking the time to write this thoughtful post. I really enjoyed the story of your journey.

  1. October 31, 2011 at 11:15 am

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