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the words that matter

Long before he began to vocalize — in fact, long before he was born — we decided to consign Munchkin to linguistic confusion in his early years. 

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The research on this topic is unequivocal. Babies the world over are born with a full palette of sounds they can identify, differentiate, and learn. A Japanese newborn has the ability to distinguish between R and L sounds, for example, even though Japanese adults typically struggle with these English consonants. And although English and Spanish both have limited vowel sounds, babies born into English- and Spanish-speaking households would have no problem hearing correctly the extra vowel sounds of more complex languages, such as Russian and Polish, if they were to be exposed to the more diverse languages at a very early age.

As they try to make sense of the world around them, babies begin to sort the speech they hear into auditory patterns, eventually learning to mimic the sounds and form words. The rub is that their brains suppress the sounds to which they are not exposed, so babies as young as 7-8 months already have a significantly more limited capacity to internalize new languages. Those English L’s and R’s, which sound so distinct to a newborn, would sound pretty similar to a Japanese one-year-old if he were hearing English speech for the first time at that age.

For most parents, this is all academic, but in households with more than one native tongue, as in ours, parents face a choice: speak the same language and raise a monolingual child, perhaps with the subsequent hope of teaching him the second language later in life, or commit to speaking in different languages so that the child will grow up multilingual from the outset. To be clear, although we think the advantages of the latter far outweigh the challenges, there is no right or wrong path. Both come with pros and cons.

The first is not merely the path of least resistance. Babies learning just one language will grasp it a lot quicker and will be able to communicate easily with both parents, which is no small thing. We have some friends in Chisinau whose youngsters feel more comfortable when addressed in Russian, which neither parent speaks, because they spend the bulk of their waking hours with their Russian-speaking nannies. Imagine not being able to communicate with your own child!

By contrast, children who are exposed simultaneously to two languages will spend their early years in locutionary confusion, mixing the two haphazardly, unable to distinguish which words belong to which tongue. The payoff, if parents manage to remain disciplined, is that eventually the child will learn to disentangle the two and will have native facility with both languages. Moreover, learning two languages at once engenders all sorts of corollary brain activity and intellectual development that catalyzes learning in non-linguistic fields.

Staying disciplined is also no small feat. By default, one of the two languages will be more dominant than the other, especially if both parents do not speak both tongues and are forced to communicate with each other in their shared language. Children are crafty, and once they figure out that they do not really have to speak both languages, they tend to drop the one that they hear less frequently. We know no shortage of multilingual couples whose kids understand a second language but will stubbornly reply in English even when addressed in the other tongue.

In Munchkin’s case, D has committed to speaking to him only in Russian, both because it is the language he uses with his own parents and because he hopes that if he and Munchkin develop a secret idiom S will also find the motivation to master Russian. We hope that spending the first year and a half of his life in Eastern Europe and having a Russian nanny will also pay dividends and give Munchkin a deep enough foundation to continue learning Russian after we transition to a different region of the world.

Now nearing the end of his fifth month, the Munch has become increasingly vocal, though for the time being the sounds he makes is all baby babble with no discernible words. As much as D tries to expose Munchkin to a wide variety of Russian words when he reads and talks to him, there is really only one word he wants the little guy to master first — “papa.” At times D even engages in extensive soliloquies, all composed of the same word, for now to no avail.

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