I always thought English would be their first language. I thought their accents would sound like mine. I thought it would be effortless. I was wrong.
I feel an incredible amount of pressure to get them all speaking English natively while they’re still young enough, and their brains are still able to work that incredible magic.
I know that English is there, bubbling in their brains. They follow every story I read to them, they follow multiple-step verbal directions, they can spout out the English equivalent to just about any Croatian word.
They understand everything I ask them in English. But their replies? Always in Croatian. ALWAYS.
But, “What language do your kids speak?” is still a question I get asked quite often. The answer is: they don’t speak English (yet), and I feel a lot of pressure and guilt because it. Let me explain...
We’re using the “one parent, one language” approach, meaning each parent only speaks their own native language to the kids.
This way, our children hear each language as it’s meant to be spoken, and they will associate each language with the corresponding parent, and then will speak to that parent in their native language.
Easy, right? Wrong. IT’S HARD. It’s not working for our family. And I’m about to throw this approach out the window. Here’s why...
Ivan speaks Croatian to kids, the kids speak Croatian back to him, and they also speak Croatian to each other when they play, since it’s their dominant language.
Then I switch to Croatian because when that’s all I hear, my language transitions without even noticing, and before I know it, we’re all speaking Croatian. And then I feel guilty because I’ve just robbed them of a few more minutes of hearing English at home.
I’m their only consistent source of English at this point in their lives.
And that leaves me feeling the pressure. It’s up to me for them to become native English speakers. It’s up to me to make sure they’re going to have a “natural” accent. It’s up to me to make sure I read them enough stories, talk to them about a thousand different subjects and expose them to as much English vocabulary as possible at this young age.
Since the rest of the world around them is in Croatian, it’s not abnormal that it’s become their dominant (and currently only spoken) language. But I think we might be on the brink of making our home an “English Zone” and abandoning the one parent, one language system (at least for now).
This way, we can be consistent in conversations, really give them more exposure to the language at home, and encourage them to reply in English since we’ll all be speaking it.
Also, Ivan and I tend to speak a weird mix of Croatian and English to each other at home, and our conversations float between the languages in an oddly natural way. It’s probably not helping the situation when our kids are around and listening in.
Any other bilingual homes do the same?
I feel guilty that my kids can’t (yet) have conversations with my family in Canada and the States. My background is not Croatian, so no one else on my side of the family can speak or even understand what my precious babies are telling them.
Our video calls consist of me translating what they say, and then they add a few words or an occasional sentence in English here and there. It works, but it’s not ideal.
Language learning is always a work in progress, no matter how old you are, and no matter what language you’re learning. I know my babies will get there, but it definitely doesn’t happen by osmosis (which I naively thought would be the case).
Their Croatian is skyrocketing on the daily and I’m seriously SO PROUD of them for how much they’ve developed their skills so far (in both languages). They’re amazing, and I’m fascinated by them.
They’re doing superbly well in every aspect of Croatian, and they fully understand English. It’s incredible what their young brains are capable of.
It’s still a bit strange, though, that their first language isn’t my first language. I know this ultimately doesn’t matter, but it’s just something I didn’t expect.
I also don’t want to get so wrapped up in them learning English, that I don’t enjoy the most precious moments of their bilingual beginnings. Some examples:
- When I ask them to repeat something I simply didn’t hear, they think I didn’t understand their Croatian, so they try to find the English word for it to “help” me understand
- My 4 year old rolls her r sound when pronouncing random English words
- Did you know animal sounds are different in every language? My 4 year old’s first word was “vau-vau” which is equivalent to a dog’s bark, “woof woof!” They do every animal sound in both languages
- They mix a word or two of English into their otherwise perfect Croatian sentences
- When they really want something, they’ll try to string together an English sentence to ask for it, in order to charm me into giving it to them - I absolutely take advantage of these situations to encourage them to speak English
I’m trying to soak up this sweetness because when they do master English, they’ll naturally stop doing much of the above.
Our kids have a huge advantage by growing up in a bilingual home. They’ll eventually master both languages and have two mother-tongues, but having the English-learning load all on my back, feels a bit heavy.
There isn’t anything easy or instant about it. Language learning takes time, dedication and patience (and it’s a never ending process). For now, they’re native English listeners, and native Croatian speakers. But we’ll get there.
Anyone else currently raising (or have already raised) bilinguals and feel the same? Would love to hear your experiences!
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