July 16th, 2009

Boychen’s words are coming gradually now. Up and down and out. Mouth and nose and eyes. Hi. Bye-bye. Cheese, which he said just today, deez, and is his new cutest. word. ever. The baby books would tell me he is slow at this, as his brother was, according to the books. Late to start. Slow to get going. Perhaps. He’ll be twenty months old next week and if I push it and stretch the understanding of “words” he might squeak by the twenty-words-by-twenty-months rule of thumb. Maybe. Probably not. But they are coming now, his first little words. Late, according to the books that I cast aside when it comes to all things language in this polyglot life.

The books would have called Small Boy a late speaker as well. Perhaps he was. Even for a bilingual child, he was probably slow to get going. He had his Bumblebee Moment – the moment when he got it, the moment when I saw understanding pass across his face: there is a word for everything and every word is different – came well after his second birthday. Now Small Boy is a Plappermou – a chatterbox – in two languages, open and friendly and starting up conversations with people on the bus. He knows, instinctively now, when to switch from Swiss to English or vice-versa. His default language with children on the playground, at the zoo or in the museums, is Swiss, but if he hears a girl on the playground speaking English with her Dad, he’ll walk up and start talking to them in English. His default language with me and my friends and their children is English even though most of them are bilingual as well; he takes his cues from the Mamas. He moves smoothly between his two worlds, from this International Herald Tribune reading, NPR listening, Dr. Suess reading house to his grandparents’ Swiss farm with Die Berner Zeittung and DRS and the Schellen-Ursli stories. He passes back and forth from his Swiss playgroup to our English Moms’ group changing his languages like shoes.

Maybe they are slow to get going, these bilingual boys of mine, the books would tell me so. Late. But they’ve got two languages, two lives, two cultures. Two worlds they pass between without even realizing they have crossed a boundary. Boychen’s first little words are leading him here, to join us in this polyglot life.