I think Emma is being a little bit passive aggressive. Yes, I realize she is just a baby. And, yes, I am aware that she only knows four words. Well, four words in English anyway. (I am not qualified to comment on how many words she knows in Urdu or Mandarin Chinese.) That doesn’t mean she can’t communicate. Case in point: last week I had my first ever conversation with her; the transcript is below.
Me: Emma, say ‘Dada’.
Emma (face lights up): Dada!
Me: Emma, say ‘Jayjay’*. (*Emma’s name for Jacob, her brother)
Emma (big grin): Jayjay!
Me: Emma, say ‘Mama’.
Me: No, Emma, say ‘Mama‘.
Translation: “Look, we’ve already talked about Daddy (squee!) and Jacob (woohoo!), so . . . are we done here? Because I have some random objects I’d like to stick in my mouth.”
Remind me again why we are all so desperate to hear our children’s first words?
And then there is Emma’s brother, Jacob, a more experienced English speaker at the ripe old age of four. Jacob is far beyond learning simple vocabulary. He is beginning to use language for negotiation and problem-solving. (In theory.) A few weeks ago, Dan and I were having a perfectly calm, innocuous conversation about what to feed Emma for dinner. Sweet potato? Yogurt? Goat cheese? We were brainstorming, as Dan set the table and I poked through the fridge. Jacob rushed into the kitchen with an accusatory look on his face.
“If you can’t get along, THEN SEPARATE!”
Dan and I look at each other stunned. Nothing says AWKWARD PAUSE quite like hearing marital advice from your four-year old. (And, might I say, thank goodness I am not a Freudian.) Anyway, satisfied with a job well done, Jacob bounced his way into the living room and began happily ricocheting from one couch to another.
I suspect that my husband, Dan, enjoys these sorts of antics a bit too much. Why? Because, Dan has decided that just learning English isn’t enough for our children. Nope. He is desperate for Jacob and Emma to start learning a second language as well. Like Chinese. Or Spanish. Or Arabic. Or German. Maybe a smattering of Hindi just to get by. And he wants them to learn it RIGHT NOW. I try to gently suggest that our children are still trying to master the fundamentals of English. He sniffs and says that if they don’t hear the phonemes in another language TODAY, they will never speak it like a native speaker. (Never mind the fact that Dan is fluent in Japanese, which he began studying in college.) Anyway, shortly after we became parents four years ago, the odyssey began . . .
When Jacob was about six months old, Dan started arranging Japanese lessons for him. Yes, that’s right. Jacob was six months old and “learning” Japanese. Did I think this was absurd? Absolutely. Did I protest? Hells no. Each Japanese lesson meant that I had a good hour all to myself. An hour, people. Guilt free. Every. Damn. Week. (Woohoo!) A sweet Japanese woman would arrive at our house with a bag full of Japanese pop-up books. Sensei would sit in our living room with Dan and they would converse in Japanese. Jacob would sit in between them. Drooling. And trying to eat the pop-up books. (So, essentially, everyone’s needs were being met.) Unfortunately, after a few months, the lessons trailed off. (And my feet haven’t been nearly so well pedicured since.)
And then there was Chinese playgroup. Dan came home from a walk in our neighborhood one afternoon, when Jacob was about two, and told me (breathlessly) that a neighbor down the street was organizing a Chinese playgroup. For toddlers. How could we NOT bring Jacob? (CHINESE, for G-d sake!) Never mind that neither of us speak Chinese. Or that our neighbor had absolutely NO experience teaching two-year-olds. So, every Wednesday afternoon, Jacob and I tromped across the street to “learn Chinese”. Dan was thrilled. And why shouldn’t he be? He wasn’t the one who had to commit the following song to memory IN CHINESE:
Two tigers, two tigers
Run so fast, run so fast
One has no ears
One has no tail
So strange! So strange!
As if singing this little ditty IN CHINESE wasn’t bad enough, we– parents and toddlers– were also expected to act it out. (A side point though, before you disparage the Chinese for the questionable lyrics in this popular children’s song: “Three Blind Mice,” anyone? Yeah. Exactly.)
Anyway, my problem wasn’t really singing the song. Or even pretending to be an earless/tailless tiger on the run. It was having to pantomime the song while trying remember the words IN CHINESE. (Have I mentioned that I SUCK at learning foreign languages?) Why did Jacob’s language education require me to use a part of my brain that I had quite happily retired back in the early 1990s?
Anyway, I stuck it out because Jacob was (inexplicably) quite enthusiastic about Chinese playgroup, at least at first. And I was fascinated by this. What was his angle on the whole thing? He wanted to be there. Yet, once there, he became a selective mute. He never humored the teacher by repeating the Chinese words for colors or fruits or numbers or animals. In fact, Jacob only ever uttered one word in Chinese. At the end of each class, the teacher would hand out little wrapped packages of crackers. Knowing what he had to do to get one, Jacob would see the teacher approaching and immediately belt out “BINGAN!” (Hey, everybody has their price.) Anyway, after too many months, Chinese playgroup finally disbanded.
And then, about six months later, there were the French lessons. Still reeling from the loss of Chinese playgroup (Must. Refrain. From. Commentary.), Dan and the father of one of Jacob’s playmates cooked up a new plan. They would hire a local college kid to teach the children French. Two candidates were interviewed. The person who “won” the job was a tall, extremely affable 19-year-old Belgium guy. Once through the door, he would spend an hour chasing Jacob and his playmate around the living room, cajoling them into counting in French and playing a French version of red light-green light. Occasionally, the kids threw him a bone and actually said something in French. The rest of the time, someone was having a meltdown, someone was needing an urgent trip to the potty, someone was begging Monsieur to fly them around like an airplane, someone was throwing toys all over the floor. At the time, I was very pregnant with Emma. Which is shorthand for saying that I watched this drama unfold while sitting across the room on the couch, glassy-eyed, and mindlessly snacking on something. I should have felt guilty about this. I didn’t. Funny thing, though. After two or three lessons Monsieur suddenly became too busy to return. Ever. (I suspect he’s hiding somewhere in Belgium. Twitching.)
But don’t worry. Dan hasn’t given up. More language schemes are already in the works. Next stop: Spanish. Or (who knows?) maybe some ancient Urdu.