On bilingualism

Posted on Posted in Gelişim ve Sağlık

My 6-year-old daughter is fully bilingual. She speaks only Turkish to me, and I bask in the glory of having achieved a rare thing – a father teaching his mother tongue to a child surrounded by English only. I will tell you first why I think it is far from an achievement given the inherent tradeoffs that do not meet the eye of those hurling accolades at me. Then I will tell you how I did it. Finally I will confess to myself why I really did it. Hopefully the first two are actually useful for you.

English as her mother tongue, and as the language she is schooled with has a 10x advantage over Turkish. She communicates infinitely better with it. As she speaks about the meaning of life as understood by Sartre with her mother, we are stuck with pedestrian conversation about the color of an animal. I prioritized her speaking Turkish to me over her communicating with me. This is a huge tradeoff that is not understood clearly because of the rarity of my experience. But I see the sacrifice all too clearly as my daughter enjoys talking about a whole lot of stuff but not with the father “who does not understand English.”

After all, that was the method with which I achieved the rare prize. 90% of Turkish/Non-Turkish parents out there give up on talking Turkish to their children. 9% gives up expecting a Turkish response while still using Turkish (and then slowly drift into English). Then there is me (1%) who flat out refused to acknowledge English and to this day lie about the fact that I do understand it. In fact there is a funky dichotomy which she cannot yet reconcile: “I do hear him all the time with my mother and others but I believe him when he says he cannot.” Well sure then, she does speak Turkish. Mission accomplished. And it is really not that hard. Just speak it to the baby, to the toddler, and by the time they are able to speak they are already done for. When they try to test you, just ignore and lie.

It is so second hand to me now that I address all kids in Turkish first. I speak Turkish to my son who just turned two. He does not talk much but he picks everything up and as long as I keep to my story he will have no choice but to buy into my lies.

As someone who does not believe in languages as a useful skill (at some point the world will speak English or Google will make translation real time and useful thereby doing away with the need altogether), why the insistence on bilingualism?

Well, because I am selfish. I wanted her to speak Turkish not because I care about a second language but so that she can understand me. So that she gets to know her father who is, after all, a Turkish creature. But I am also a creature who wants to talk about the meaning of life with my daughter. Clash of the selfish reasons.

It is getting harder to fight the fight as her Turkish is no longer improving by leaps and bounds, and in fact regressing due to the sheer amount of English exposure especially now that she reads. My tradeoff is deeper especially now that she is actually fun to converse with but not about the colors of animals. To top it all, children who understand Turkish but refuse to as they were not lied into submission can spend a month in Turkey and get to great fluency.

It is a real tradeoff. But the experiment continues with ever changing dynamics and parameters about the task at hand (teaching a/your language to a/your kid) and the reasons for attempting and accomplishing it (chauvenism, accolades), along with the shades of human emotion (mostly selfishness). The jury is out so far on all fronts – no clear winner.

(In reviewing what I wrote, this writing’s illocutionary function was meant as an offer to teach, while its unintended perlocutionary effect might have been impress the reader – I did mention I was guilty of selfishness, no?)

(Another exploration for future: 1) I believe that language and thought are coextensive – that there is no way of explaining one without the other. How does bilingualism affect thought? Unless spoken and written language derive their intentionality and meaning from an internal language encoded in the mind, do missing words and meanings in one language lead to a more complete thought process when compensated by the other language?)

(And yet another one: we do indeed go from speech to visuals with elements in an image representing concepts in a spatial context, rather than the linear form used for words, and children are especially great at this, then what happens? Do they “write” their dissertations in 3D visual representation? How do schools handle this? )

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