Home > Bilingualism, Language Acquisition, Language Learning > Forget the Grammar Please

Forget the Grammar Please

DrumMy son likes to play with the little girl next door. She is four months older and as persistent as he is. As intense as he is. Maybe that’s why they get along. Or don’t. Andrei tried to hit her a few times and managed to hit her once or twice. Caroline tried to punch him once and she seems to be physically stronger and more capable of wrestling toys out of Andrei’s hands.

This being said (nothing really atypical of two-year-olds), Caroline and Andrei love each other. They genuinely enjoy each other’s company. Sometimes they play literally together: Andrei plays the drum and Caroline plays the guitar as they are performing for me; they hide in the tent in Andrei’s room and ask me to look for them. More often they do the “parallel play” typical of two-year-olds: she makes snakes from play dough, he is trying to bounce the ball. When we don’t have a play date for a few days, I am sure to hear all sorts of things, Wonna see Taya; Taya’s house; Taya’s phone; Taya hot (After I ask Andrei if he is hot and after he says, Yes.). Taya poopies. Taya this, Taya that. When they finally see each other, Caroline and Andrei run towards each other in a way that reminds me of Gone with the Wind.

We see Caroline quite often. She stays at home with her dad. Her dad and I exchange babysitting services often (hence the time to actually start this blog). It’s quite a great arrangement. But Caroline, of course, doesn’t speak Serbian. And I am trying to make the time Andrei and I spend with Caroline NOT be English-only time (in a way that’s not imposing, unfair and disconnecting).

At first, Andrei and my time with Caroline was exclusively in  English. After an hour or so of my speaking to Andrei exclusively in English (Andrei might manage to squeeze in vodida, which is Andrei’s version of the Serbian word for water and Andrei’s dominant word for water), something just wouldn’t  feel right. Of course, it was definitely easy, very easy, for me to speak to Andrei (or anybody) in English, words would come easily to me, precise and light, on the surface it was all good. Maybe it was guilt that got me tangled up in that sense of things not feeling quite right. Maybe my determination to teach Andrei Serbian and therefore my commitment to not be without Serbian during the day, which was my primary Serbian time with Andrei.

So first I started with the Serbian version of Ring Around the Rosie, Ringe Ringe Raja. Andrei had always liked this (unlike Ring Around the Rosie, which he tended to refuse to participate in when our playgroup leader would sing it). Caroline started liking Ringe Ringe Raja too so every time we got together, Andrei, Caroline and I would do our Ringe Raja circle dance many, many times. Caroline even became the most frequent instigator. I would sing, Andrei and Caroline would even go as far as to repeat the last word of each line, and then we would all squat down at the end and pretend we were falling down, and we would continue to roll on the floor and laugh.

Next I started taking each opportunity to count in Serbian. When we would go up the stairs or down the stairs, we would all count. Jedan, dva, tri, cetiri, … deset. I would be the leader, Andrei and Caroline would do quite a good job of repeating the numbers in chorus. Caroline’s pronunciation would often be quite clear.

Then I tried to infuse even more Serbian in Andrei  and my time with Caroline.

Puppy, Caroline and Andrei would say at about the same time.

Puppy is barking, I said. Kuca laje, I repeated in Serbian.

Now this approach seemed to have some side effects.

A minute later, Caroline pointed to my Franklin Institute “bracelet” that was still on my wrist from the trip Andrei and I took earlier in the day and asked, What’s that?

Narukvica, I answered in Serbian.

Buba Duba Buba (or something that sounds like that), Caroline said. I realized that I switched to Serbian without even noticing. I corrected myself, That’s bracelet. I was shocked that I got confused so fast, so easily. My brain is only capable to handle one thing at a time. Period.

Andrei and Caroline continued to ride their bikes. I followed them and continued to provide comments in two languages. Ray is fixing his car. Rej popravlja kola. Yes, that’s a tree. With pointed leaves. Drvo, sa ostrim listovima. And then, I yelled, Stani! Stani! Stani! Okreni  se, as Caroline and Andrei were heading towards the busy street. Andrei stopped, Caroline didn’t so I ran after her, saying Stani, and then it hit me, Stop! Stop! That was the right word.

There are some major differences between Serbian and English, and I am afraid those are working against me. Maybe I shouldn’t even think about them, but sometimes I do, probably because I am aware of the fact that I am the totality of Andrei’s Serbian (plus some books and some music). I am aware of the fact that there is no real, organic need for Andrei to speak Serbian (after all, I speak English). Of course, I am trying to create some sort of emotional need, but…am I doing a good job? Will Andrei trust my love for Serbian when I write my stories (and this blog) in English? Will he be able to sense and absorb the love that I have ingrained in me and can never part with it because I was born there and grew up there and had Serbian as my only language for quite a few years.

Yet, I can’t help noticing some things that are working against me. Serbian words are long with a lot of “ch” and “sh” sounds. Compare shoe to cipela, fork to viljuska, bowl to cinija, trip to putovanje. Sometimes it feels funny when I say this long Serbian word, and in the second I am saying it, I hear the English equivalent in my head, a single syllable, so easy, one beat. The English word seems to be just so much easier to remember. So…my job here is to somehow motivate my son and teach him to appreciate the melodic qualities of the Serbian word. To disregard the length. And the number of syllables. To like the winding ways of Slavic languages.

What about the Serbian grammar? In English, my son is quite familiar with “that” and “those.” That house. Those shoes. He’s been practicing these two pronouns for many months. In Serbian, I try to say, Ta kuca, simply to indicate the gender and maybe the category of number (singular), and I am trying to forget about the cases (that’s why I wanted Andrei to learn Serbian at the same time he was learning English; otherwise he would actually have to memorize and make sense of twenty-one forms for one English “that” and that just sounds cruel unless it’s your native language). But whenever I say a sentence in Serbian, and most sentences include at least two nouns, at least one of which is most likely in a case other than nominative, part of me feels powerless, My love, I don’t know how to help you with this! You just gotta figure it out! For example, Hoces da zoves babu? (Do you want to call grandma?). He repeats babu, I say baba, because unless it’s used in a sentence, the word babu doesn’t make much sense, the actual word is baba. And I can’t help comparing this to English, where you have one simple form, Grandma, no matter what you say. Grandma is going shopping. You want to show your book to Grandma. You want to see Grandma. It’s always Grandma.

Then I try to stop myself. I can’t control much more than the quantity of Serbian I give to my son. So I better just keep talking. In Serbian. Without thinking too much.

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