Teaching a child a new language is a central strand of my blog but it’s also one of a handful of subjects I wasn’t sure I could start.
The reason for this is that there’s so much to say. I want to explain why I’m teaching Bengali to my six-year old son A, how I go about it, the ups and downs of this and maybe even to solidify my thoughts on how to proceed in the future (particular as my wife and I have another child very much on the way).
So to start I present a fragmented, impressionistic view of how things have been so far. The catalyst for this? Last Sunday morning A and I were both brushing our teeth. A turned to me and said ‘Baba, majhō!‘ He very rarely speaks Bengali unprompted, though understands much, and it’s always ‘Daddy’ not Baba, so once my surprise passed I couldn’t stop smiling. It has been sinking in, he just wasn’t letting on!
I’m rubbish at praising myself, but blooming hell, that was down to me that was. Down to my decision to teach him the language of his maternal grandparents, down to the lessons – if you can call them that – and finally down to my many, many ‘Amake Bangla te bolō‘s.
Certainly his Dadu and Didima do speak to him a bit in Bengali, moreover A has expert hearing – when he wants to, and Dadu used to sing him a Bengali nursery rhyme when he was a baby (something about potatoes if I remember correctly), but they’ve always been wary of taking the initiative with the language in case it wasn’t what we wanted.
On top of that A was a very strong-minded toddler, is now a fairly strong-minded child, and as with most grandchildren can wrap his grandparents around his little finger. As a three-year old he would say even to me, ‘Stop talking to me in Bengali’, aware of both the difference in language he was being spoken to and perhaps also the extra effort required to understand it. Overcoming this was clearly a parental, not a grandparental, task.
• Walking on the common near our home, stopping at a bench for a rest and A made a joke … in Bengali. He was about four I think, so it lacked a punchline and any humour really, but he was definitely trying to make up a joke (something about the sky being down) and he was doing it using Bengali.
• Watching bits of Goopy Gyne And Bagha Byne with him. We’ve not managed to quite watch it all the way through yet, though black and white subtitled films are getting to be less a chore for him if I read the subtitles for him. Qualifying that somewhat, this is the only black and white subtitled film I’ve ever tried watching with him.
• Sitting on his bedroom floor one half term, talking with him about how he can speak Bengali, his friends can’t and how when he knows it all he’s going to teach Mummy (who having not been taught it as a child refuses, on principle I think, to learn it as an adult, though she’s not above correcting my pronouciation).
• Him asking me a few months ago to teach him how to write in Bengali. He’s forgotten this ambition for now and we only got as far as the four letters of his name, but still it felt like another milestone.
This isn’t the multi-part treatise I’ve been working up in my head on my thoughts about how to teach children a language. But it’s a start.