Der Hund Says Guau-Guau

Our son is getting to the age where every day he is pushing the boundaries of his linguistic prowess. Auto! ¡Agua! Nein! No walk! Innä! ¡Más pan! Orange! Gömergopielä!

No one and nothing prepared us for the reality that our child(ren) would be natively speaking a language different than our own. This is one facet of the adventure that sort of snuck up on Wifey and me, but the one that sort of intrigues me the most. Part of the growing pains of such a situation is struggling to understand some of the utterances that fly out of his mouth.

“(something incomprehensible.)”

“Huh? What did you say, buddy?”

“(same incomprehensible thing.)”

“OK—(something that sounds similar to incomprehensible thing).”


“Ooooh, (something else that sounds similar to incomprehensible thing).”

“NEIN, AITA* (SOMETHING INCOMPREHENSIBLE!!!!!!!)” [Throws Thomas the Tank Engine across the room]

So glad for his mean streak he inherited from Wifey. I love adventures. I love toddlers. And trains.

To be frank, my wife and I understand only a fraction of what he says. Part of the problem is his being 2.3 years old and his sucky pronunciation. The other part is the trifecta+** of languages his little brain is juggling.

We live in a bilingual household and our son is being raised trilingual (the math doesn’t make sense to me either). I have great pride in my language and my wife does as well in hers; I’d argue, however, that most times I’m not as militant as she, but we can save that for another time. Yet, despite my diligence in molding Little Guy into an English speaker, I love that he will (most likely) have Swiss German as his strongest language, followed closely by High German as he learns it in school, and then by his mother’s chilly northern Castilian Spanish and his old man’s gruff American English jockeying for third. We are thankful that he is learning Swiss German at daycare. We are thankful in part because we’ll have an in-house native to help us when things get stickily Swiss and we find ourselves struggling to process the barrage of weird German at Somethingofficialamt. We are thankful because he is learning the language of the country in which we are living as guests***.

I want him to have a high level of Spanish and English and my wife and I work hard toward this end; but the reality we face and understand is, short of us moving to an Spanish- or English-speaking country, all of our work will result in third—second place at best—in the language race currently being run in our son’s head.

And I am fully at peace with that.

The population of third-culture kids is booming, and they are shaping up to be an incredible generation. Moms and dads from every corner of the Earth, multiple languages, multiple passports: true citizens of the world. An introduction that lasts longer than a cigarette is no longer weird. “I was born in Zurich, but my mom is Spanish, well Basque, and my dad is American, well, Californian. The Asian comes from my dad, he was born in Korea, but adopted by white people. The mean streak comes from my mom, obviously, along with my professional-grade swearing ability.” Long, sure, but par for the course.

Common knowledge, at least among parents, is that multilingual babies start to speak later. There are plenty of studies that purport this and an equal plenty that dispute it. Anecdotally from our standpoint, Little Guy is right on track in terms of number of words by the age 2.3. In his case, however, they’re smeared across three languages, but the total number is on track. We know this because we’re counting the words he says (not repeated, rather said without us drawing them out). We may have even made an Excel sheet. With language columns. And formulas. And conditional formatting.

So while it may be frustrating at times, or dangerous depending on your ability to dodge projectile toys, it is unbelievably fun. I have to give Little Guy credit; he does in one day linguistically more than I’ve done in the past year. I am so humbled by what I am seeing in him and in his mongrel expat offspring friends. To think that my two-year-old already understands German and Swiss German better than I ever will does well to keep me in my place. My own progeny is teaching me stuff; when will the kids ever stop? I hope never.

*Aita is “dad” in Basque. Little Guy calls me aita.

**Trifecta+ because Spanish and English, but German can also be split into Swiss German and High German, and mama bear also speaks Basque to him so he can understand his cousins when we visit family in the Basque Country.

***Technically, German (Swiss German) is not the language of Switzerland. There are four official languages: German, French, Italian and Romansh.

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  1. Fascinating, and encouraging! It’s great that you’re being open-minded and brave. So many parents let backwards ideas and fears about their children’s linguistic development get in the way of letting language learning take its course.

    • Hey Mark–
      Thanks for the comment and for stopping by! We’ll keep you posted on how things go but at the moment we’re just having a great time watching Little Guy grow up and say new things every day!

  2. Pingback: Too Damn Fast. | roughly translated

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