I think it’s safe to say that parents generally expect their kids to speak the same language that they do from the start. Am I right? When O was small we spoke more English in our home, and Yonese was only coming in a couple days per week. Also, with my work schedule I was less reliant on Yonese for help with her, so she wasn’t exposed to a lot of Creole in the first couple of years. It wasn’t until she started school in 2011 that she started to really pick it up, and because she’s been around it, it came pretty fast.
Alex… Alex has been an entirely different case! His first words were English – Mama and up! – which really means whatever direction he wants to go from where he is. We know boys tend to be slower with speech development, so we weren’t too concerned about the fact that he didn’t seem to be talking much. We could see he was taking everything in and knew what we were talking about. We could give him instructions and he’d follow them to the letter, so he understands.
About two weeks before we left for Christmas vacation I was with both kids and Alex was babbling away and I said, “Are you saying bubble?” Olivia looked at me and said, “Mooom, he’s saying pa bon (not good).” Very matter of factly, like I needed to catch up or something. Truth was, I did. We did. Yonese had been saying, “Non, pa bon!” whenever he did something he shouldn’t.
It hadn’t even occurred to Chris and I that, even though it was our hope for both our kids, Alex would be speaking as much or more Creole right from the start as he was English. We have Yonese coming in Monday to Friday now to help with housekeeping, going to the market and a lot of time with Alex. She loves our kids like a grandma does. We’re so grateful for the relationship we’ve developed in the last couple of years. It’s so sweet. And, the natural benefit of all that time is that aside from the love our kids get, they’re constantly in conversation with her. We love listening to her talking to Alex (both kids really) as she goes about her work through the day. Alex has also started wandering out in the work yard with the guys, so he’s hearing the constant chatter between the guys.
In the past couple of weeks we’ve been paying more attention to what he’s actually saying. Oww is a new word, which is great because it replaces the freak out crying and he can point to what hurts for a kiss (because we all know Mommy kisses heal everything!). We realized when he’s upset and crying he usually throws out an amwe! which in Creole means help me! and gets thrown around in a lot of ways, from being a serious request for help to an expression that simply means things are hard or not right. Sometimes it’s even used as a joke.
Alex won’t say Daddy. Instead, when you ask him, in English, if he can say Daddy he either says Mama and starts laughing, or says Papa, which is what they say in Creole. The fact that he can understand what we’re asking and either choose to make a joke, or translate and use the Creole word instead of the English just baffles me.
A couple days ago I started asking him about other things and he was able to say a few things in English, like ball and book. The hard sounds aren’t there yet, but he’s trying.
This morning he was sitting on me while I was looking at facebook, which apparently was really fun because he kept laughing and getting excited with all the pictures, and I realized he was pointing and saying gade which means look. I started asking him if he could say some of the other words he knows and he just shook his head no and said pa vle – don’t want to. And then he would giggle. He totally knew what he was doing – choosing not to say them just because he could. Stinker!
As parents I’m realizing we’re going to have to work a lot harder at trying to understand what Alex is trying to tell us because he’s doing it in two languages. The advantage is that we can speak to him in both and he understands what we’re saying. I’ve just realized that we can’t underestimate what he’s able to communicate just because it sounds like babble initially. The times where I really listen I find out he’s actually using words, they just weren’t what I was expecting to hear! And, while there are some hard things about raising kids cross-culturally, these are the fun things that we feel so blessed by.