As I child of the 80s, Sesame Street was a staple of my early education. That show and Mr. Rogers Neighborhood were the only TV programs I was permitted to watch. As a result, I associate much of my letter- and number-learning with singing puppets and animation. Surely there were many influences in my intellectual development—the magnetic alphabet affixed to our fridge got plenty of play—but it’s Sesame Street’s trademark letter of the day, their jazzy ‘Pinball #12’ song, and Big Bird singing the ABCs as one long unpronounceable word that I recall most vividly. (Mr. Rogers gets more credit for teaching me about honesty and cardigans.)
At 13 months old, Mira is too young for TV just yet, but I look forward to sharing the nostalgic programming of my youth. Until then, her exposure to letters and numbers comes from her own set of refrigerator magnets, books like Chicka Chicka Boom Boom and On Market Street, and a set of monster stickers in alphanumeric shapes affixed to the kitchen cabinets. Her activity table sings the ABCs and has a counting keyboard. Surely she is singing songs and playing games at day care that reinforce this learning as well.
The primary difference between her experience and mine, though, isn’t the 34 years separating our toddlerhoods, but the fact that she’s learning in multiple languages. Her father and I speak (and sing and read) in English. Her toys parrot their instruction in High German. Day care is conducted in the local dialect of Swiss German, Züritüütsch.
Though I have watched her grow from a helpless little fledgling of a human into a walking, self-feeding, curious and communicative person, it’s still hard for me to imagine her being able to distinguish these symbols stuck to our cabinets and refrigerator and assign a sound or sounds to each, much less be able to put them into groupings or recognize them as such when she eventually reads and writes. That she will be able to assign various pronunciations of each letter according to the language she is speaking seems, well, miraculous.
All parents surely feel such wonder, watching this evolution of a beloved little body and mind that, as parents, we are improbably entrusted with. Somehow (but how?!?) babies become toddlers become children become teenagers become adults, and language learning is just one of so many astounding abilities they learn along the way. For her, one of these abilities is learning multiple languages at once.
With a mother who teaches English, specifically pronunciation, to non-native English-language learners, I should know a lot more about second (and third or fourth) language acquisition. I grew up around her students from Japan, Argentina, everywhere, always hearing her anecdotes about their struggles with this tricky language that came so easily to me. I’ve often thought how lucky I am that English is my mother tongue because I’d never be able to learn it otherwise.
I tried myself to learn Spanish, taking classes throughout high school, and then studying abroad in college. I lived with a family who spoke no English and wouldn’t allow me to use my dictionary as a crutch. As soon as I returned to the States and its method of language instruction, I lost much of my facility with Spanish.
Now, I imagine that the conversational Spanish I once possessed and the rudimentary German I’ve picked up since moving to Switzerland got into a cage fight, and German emerged the victor. Anytime I try to summon a Spanish word or phrase, it is German I retrieve. I open my mouth to speak one language, and another comes out. My mom says this is normal. I say it’s aggravating.
Almost five years into our Swiss sojourn, I still struggle mightily with comprehension and communication. Anyone who has tried to learn German here in Switzerland knows the Swiss don’t speak it readily. They’d as soon speak English (which most people do so well!) than Hochdeutsch. This complicates even a motivated language-learner’s ability to practice, listen, and learn.
Research suggests that Mira’s experience of language acquisition won’t even closely resemble my own. She has been exposed early and often enough that she will not feel the kind of confusion I do when attempting to parse the sounds, meaning, and syntax of High and Swiss German.
As delighted as I am for her and the distinct advantage that she will have, speaking English-plus, I feel oddly competitive about which language she will choose to speak her first word. She has been saying “Mama” and “Dada” (or “Baba”) for many months now, but that’s the extent of her vocabulary. I’d hoped maybe her first utterance might be “kitty” (we have two). Increasingly, it’s sounding like it might be “nein” or the colloquial “nei”.
I sometimes assign myself a letter of the day—for fun, to stave off Alzheimers. If the letter F in my world stands for fatigue, fractious, frumpy, what might my daughter associate it with? Family? The number five? Or will she think Familie and fünf? Or even the Swiss German foif?
Her lack of confusion over linguistic multiplicities suggests that whereas I am hung up on the either/or, she will think in terms of both/and. In my mind, G could be for gray or grau, green or grün. T for table or Tisch. For her it will be all of the above. When it comes to translations like tired and müde, sad and traurig, lacking the tidy cross-language alliteration I crave, I suppose I am the only one with a hang-up. I am also starting to think my letter-of-the-day game holds more appeal for the monolingual.
I am supposed to be the custodian of my child’s development, yet linguistically, she will soon surpass me. With regards to understanding, fluency, and ability to assimilate, the student will become the teacher. There’s something about that feels a little unnatural, and a lot unfair (to her, at least). I worry that she will resent her father’s and my lingual shortcomings and feeling like she is carrying us, the immigrant parents. There are myriad other things she knows so much more about than I, though, that she shows me every day—things like trust and joy and curiosity and pure uncomplicated love. She’s already carrying me.
There is still much that I might teach her, too, even if Swiss (or High) German isn’t among them. Perhaps I should relax into the idea that ours will be a more egalitarian relationship: one of give and take, teaching and learning alike.
Thanks to her toys, now I know my ABCs in Deutsch. In fact, the version from her activity table has now supplanted Big Bird’s rendition as my automatic ABCs-association, much like German usurped Spanish as my default second language. When I think of the letter L, occasionally it’s lauchen, laufen, and Löwe that come to mind before language, learning, or lament.
Cookie Monster sings, “C is for Cookie/that’s good enough for me.” And for me, it has been. Good enough, that is. But maybe it doesn’t have to be. For Mira, the letter C—and the 25 others—will stand for so much more. A vast realm of other vocabulary, pronunciation, and usage. Perhaps her facility with German and Swiss German will continue to rub off on me, and her engagement will increase my exposure. From what I’ve read about multilingual children (and adults), and how the brain processes and retains information, I’m not out of the game yet. Desire and immersion are far more important factors than age (and, I pray, intelligence). Swiss German may ever remain elusive, but I hold out hope that Hoch Deutsch is still within my grasp. Maybe my multilingual child is also my second chance, and the letter F might one day stand for fluency.