At the beginning of this fairy tale, which in regular tales usually comes as an ending blissfully proclaiming that “they lived happily ever after”, my husband and I had no idea what our bilingual family life would be like. We simply knew… that we would live happily ever after!
The only thing we did do to make ourselves feel a bit more comfortable that our “happily ever after” would follow some sort of a course, was to agree that all our potential future offsprings would have names sounding the same in both Polish and English, and that I would try to speak to them only in Polish. America greeted us with (almost) welcoming arms and we settled here carefree, confident that “practical bilingualism” would not bother us until we bring to this world the “potential future offsprings”.
Needless to say it was a highly naive attitude. An immigrant, even without children, can never escape his or her bilingualism: the dilemma of his “true” inner language, and especially the conundrum of identity mutations, inevitable after one immerses oneself in a new country and new culture. It won’t happen even if one deliberately chooses to forgo speaking his native tongue. If one does, I daresay, a flood of hard, uncomfortable questions about one’s self and one’s aims in life will arrive sooner than one may expect. Bilingual family begins long before the sight of children in its realm, and I was to find it out for myself.
After moving to the Bay Area (near San Francisco) I quickly made Polish friends and soon we found ourselves quite active in Polish-American circles. A quick disclosure: up to that point, during our university years in Great Britain, our friends were exclusively English-speaking, while my husband had made two trips to Poland during which I was his exclusive guide and translator.
My first discovery in the field of „real bilingual life” was hardly inspiring. I had not met a single Polish or Polish-American family with school-age children speaking Polish to their parents. To made such child express themselves in Polish one had to plead with them relentlessly, wait patiently or even use bribes. Their parents were not particularly upset about the situation. They preferred switching topics to their children’s excellent performance in American schools. Perhaps it was just bad luck. Perhaps. But such was that experience and there would be no point denying it now.
Secondly – to my own discomfort – I began feeling that “bilingual life” was …quite burdensome! To some extent I always felt uneasy, even not fair toward my husband, to plunge into Polish-only conversations while he stood near and understood nothing of them. At a party or even at a restaurant with a group of Polish speakers, I therefore always assumed, unasked and uncalled for, the role of his “mood guardian”. Is there anybody he can speak to in English? Does he understand what we are debating? Should I already go “save’ him or still wait a little? And is he really not the slightest bit annoyed sitting here for almost two hours, pretending to look content, even though he is surrounded with the language and culture he still barely comprehends? Love can do miracles, it’s true, but isn’t there a limit on how many we can have on daily basis? I will surely find it out once we get home! – I concluded and even though such “reality checks” never came I continued my language vigilance. I took it upon myself to translate on the spot the most confusing rhetoric on the Solidarity’s Round Table positions or Mieszko the First’s territorial strategies. I didn’t realize it at the time, but it is quite clear now, that my idea of a bilingual life molded me into some sort of a voluntary sergeant, who sprang to her feet at the first sound of Polish, ever-ready to work and do her duty, just because it was me in our family who communicated in both languages.
The stupidity of this situation – I am not afraid to use this term – was augmented by the fact, that my Husband, though highly appreciative of my efforts and mindfulness, undertook sincere efforts to curb my interpretative services. He emphasized that in case he missed a meaning or two, or a Polish party switched entirely to Polish drowned in the fervor of a discussion, it was really just fine. It was, actually, more than fine because he too could try harder, he explained. He could work on his Polish more. He could read more books on Poland and by Polish authors. If you share your life with a person speaking a different language, you accept the fact, that the world around you will to some extend become filled with that language and what it brings along.
“You honestly are going to just sit here while I’m having a chat with my friends just next to you?” I kept asking him nevertheless. My resources of disbelief seemed to be unquenchable.
„Seriously,” he kept replying. „I’ll be fine. I’ve brought along a Polish dictionary, see?” he pulled out a yellow mini book from his pocket. “I’m going to study irregular verbs!”
Perhaps it was just a lucky coincidence, but perhaps it was one of those clever tricks life plays on us sometimes to unbend what has become unnecessarily warped. Awaiting the arrival of our first child plagued me with some health problems. We still received visits from our Polish speaking friends, even ourselves ventured to a party or two, my condition permitting, but I abandoned my translating efforts because … I didn’t feel up to the task and also I didn’t want to! Pregnant women are known for being selfish, egoistical beings and that’s just part of their, let’s say — charm.
What was my husband’s reaction to this change? He says it was no deal. I wish I could remember it myself but the truth is, both the pregnancy and the first few months after our elder daughter was born are fused in my memory into a simple cell with few primal feelings defining it: fear, joy, impatience, exhaustion.
I remember phenomenally well, however, what happened after. With each passing day, week, month and year, we witnessed how a true bilingual family hatched in our house. It happened when …
… my Husband kept reassuring me that I don’t need to involve him in my conversations with the baby, and when I finally believed that he didn’t say this to be nice, but out of sincere conviction. Because life in a bilingual family does not need to be language-symmetrical. The languages in a bilingual family do not need to always be in perfect balance.
… my Husband treated his English friends and family, who were at times “beyond belief with wonder” how can a parent not understand his child, with a constant: That’s what a bilingual child-rearing involves. And added: If I demanded that they translate every situation and every sentence they speak around me, it will not only be unnatural, but will interfere with my child’s development in Polish.
… my Husband felt sad, overlooked, painfully not helpful because he couldn’t, for the lack of understanding what I or our Polish-speaking-to-each-other daughters were saying, intervene in conflict situation right away.
… my Husband suffered whispers delivered only to his ears by countless “sympathetic souls” that “it surely isn’t really right what we were doing in our house”. The Joneses and the Browns also were a “bilingual” family, yet they spoke English with their children! His great-grandmother was bilingual but used only English with her family. Aren’t the children soon going to be in school? Aren’t they going to suffer because their English is not as perfect as the Joneses’ and the Browns’ kids? My Husband boldly ignored such counsel, instead read voraciously on all matter bilingual that crossed his way and bravely, lovingly trusted my judgment.
… my Husband one day heard from our elder daughter (she was around 3 then) that he „had no right to speak Polish”. That right belonged to me and me only. It was an elucidating moment in our bilingual life. Our child realized she spoke two different languages and showed us where they rested within her bilingual brain. For us it was a real, tangible, totally incredible live proof of the theory that children do associate language with a parent, and that we’d better not mess with that natural structure.
… my Husband year after year saw us off to the airport, secretly wiping his eyes in a sleeve, because he understood how important traveling to Poland was to me and our bilingual children. When he accepted, not without difficulty, that summers in a bilingual family are about hard compromises.
… when after many years, without formal classes or textbooks, my Husband has become so tuned in to Polish, that I don’t have to translate much for him anymore while our family functions seamlessly in whichever languages we speak.
It took a concentrated effort between the two of us to raise a bilingual family. I was and remain our daughters’ primary Polish teacher, but their bilingual success would not have happened without their incredible, non-Polish father, without his help, patience, understanding, and commitment to the task. It wouldn’t have happened without his trust in me and in the country he knew so little about at the beginning of our “happily ever after”.
For all these reasons, on Father’s Day this year I would like to thank My Husband and every Foreign Father of Polish Children around the world for making it possible for our children to know their heritage language, culture and country. These fathers are the Honorary Polish Citizens even without Polish passports.
Did you know, Poland, that you have such sons?
The article was first published on Dobra Polska Szkoła