learning a second language with a toddler in sweden

Learning a language with a toddler is nothing like any kind of school.  You learn different words at a different speed.  It has left me completely fluent on the playground level but still stuttering when I try to speak Swedish at work.

But in a sort of Zen-ish way, it highlights the fictions of form that our languages place on us.  I’ve found this especially in Swedish versus English, more so than French, Hungarian or Croatian.  Those languages made me think differently, but the concrete words always seemed to translate.

This morning, Baby B scratched his big sister in an expression of toddler independence/anger/out of control-ness.  I was out for a bit and when I came home, NK said that “He ‘reeved’ me!”

Riva is a Swedish word for scratch.  More like claw.  But they use it for scratch.  So I said, “Oh, he scratched you?” and she got all confused and said, “No!  He ‘reeved’ me!”

Because scratching an itch and scratching someone aggressively are two words in Swedish.  One in English.

It goes both ways.  Swedish has one word for both plant and flower.  Swedish has one word for pigeon and dove.

However, English has only the word duck.  You can have a mallard, but it is still a duck.  In Swedish, mallard and duck are as different as, well, pigeon and dove.

All of this is probably one reason expats are more creative, according to the Economist, at least.

But maybe it is also a good defense against what they call first-language attrition – when you slowly lose both words and context in your native tongue.  I once spent a week trying to remember the word “bulldozer,” for instance.

I do not think I will have the same trouble with scratch.

I hope.


opening day baseball in the icy rain of sundbyberg, sweden

Spring came to Sweden today. May 11. It was not here yesterday. It is here today. This happens in the far north, the spring comes later and then faster. There is suddenly ground cover, all the trees are at least a little green, flowers are blooming everywhere, and the sun is out.

The sun was not out on Saturday, when I took both kids to watch the home opener of the Sundbyberg Heat of the Swedish Elite League in baseball.

Yep, Swedish baseball.

It was freezing and overcast and then it started to rain. When I arrived with the kids – at the start of the game – the attendance was … 0.

Yep, 0.

Eventually, about 20 people braved the icy drizzle to watch Sundbyberg beat up on league newcomers the Eskilstuna Hammers. Both kids loved it, even though we spent most of the game under the hot dog tent where they could not see. (For another take on this 41 degree classic, go to the Hairy Swede).

We left in the middle of the first game of a doubleheader with Sundbyberg up 14-0. We got a little lost, and a little wet. We stopped to buy a subway ticket in a little store. The man inside was having a confusing conversation with a customer just standing there looking mad. Suddenly he said, “The man said “Open the cash register, open the cash register. He had a long knife.”

The store had just been robbed.

I left quickly and ran the kids home through the rain back to momma, where they snuggled under blankets and warmed up.

Yesterday NK told her teachers about the game. One asked, in Swedish, if I had played when I was younger.

NK answered, in English, “No, when he was younger.” The teacher asked again in English. “Did your daddy play baseball when he was younger?” NK nodded yes.

That is how associated I am with English now in her head. Questions about me cannot be asked in Swedish.

I love it.

As for the baseball, it was, ummm, OK. Maybe the level of a mid-level club in my California high school league (where I played varsity for two years but never got off the bench). This is a compliment, since this is baseball in Sweden we are talking about. How good do you think American handball or floorball is?

And I loved sitting there watching the pitches come in with just that extra count, just a little too slow.

Because I could play here. I can’t for logistical reasons, and I am not sure I would ever give up every Saturday for it.

But I could play – and be good – in the Swedish Elite League. How cool is that?

Maybe I should take some batting practice after all …

the swedish soul is a song – so the expat dad sings too

Sweden is singing, and life with small children in Sweden is a life of song.

There is a reason that so many Swedes make it internationally – from ABBA to the Cardigans to Robyn to the Hives to name just a few (and not even getting into producers like Max Martin).  This is a culture of singing – at the feast table on Midsummer Eve, at church (when people go to church), at school, at graduations, at Christmastime (both Lucia and Christmas), at home, with friends (but not in public, no, never in public).

You know that show The Singing Bee?  Sweden has about five of those, Friday nights especially, seemingly one singing show after another – with random guests like politicians and comedians and actors belting out tunes in Swedish and English in beautiful voices.

The most popular summer TV institution?  A sing-a-long show.

At open preschool, there is always a singing time.  There is singing at daycare, singing at the library, singing all over town.  Every Astrid Lindgren story comes with songs – Pippi, Emil, Bullerbyn, the lot.  I know that life with small children in the U.S. also involves much singing – on TV, at preschool, on CDs.  I know.  But Sweden is different, a scale of musicality that Americans cannot match.

Quick.  How many songs do you know by heart, not including Christmas carols?

Swedes know hundreds.  I swear.

Now, I was not a singer.  Yes, there was that 7th grade lunchtime chorus, but, really, my voice cracked from 13 to 28, and I can stay on key but only in my half-octave range.

But there I was belting out Swedish nursery rhymes yesterday at a new open preschool.  I am particularly good at all the versions of Ba Ba Vita Lamm and itsy bitsy spider and the crocodile song and wheels on the bus and a few others.

But I have English speaking children.  What about that?  I am the primary source for all English and American things in their life.  Can they grow up thinking you only sing in Swedish?


So on top of all this Swedish singing, I am perpetually singing in English.  We have multiple nursery rhyme books, we have the Dr. Seuss singing book, we got all sorts of kids CDs and I try to learn all the words.  This morning we actually put Dora the Explorer on Spotify – just to hear her sing.

I do not want to think about how many times I sang the 12 Days of Christmas in December.  My daughter still uses “partridge in a pear tree” as a catchphrase.

But then the other day, I heard her singing under her breath as she played with some toy farm animals in her room.  I leaned in.  What was the song?

Mary Had a Little Lamb.  In English.  In tune.


a dora the explorer revelation

Before last week, I had watched a Dora the Explorer episode once.  It was in a rooming house room in Port Jervis on our return trip last fall.  We loved being in town for the afternoon, and had dinner with the old neighbors, and saw that the new owners of our star-crossed house had killed the Japanese maple we planted when our daughter was born (they replaced it with a giant blue lighthouse).  Then we realized we had made a horrible mistake in staying the night.  Everything closed in on us, we turned on the TV for a moment, and there was Dora, chirpy and somehow stationary and jumping over a big rock.

So I did not like Dora the Explorer.  Seemed cheap and repetitive and annoying.

I now apologize to Dora.  In English, Spanish and Swedish.

In despair over the crap cartoons on the state kids channel, I went searching online for English stuff, including, out of some desperation, Dora.

We did not find the English version, but we did find the Swedish version.  And then it hit me.  Dora is a bilingual little girl on adventures.  I have a little girl who is often on adventures.

I even liked the Swedish version a lot, because the other language is English (This leads to a slightly strange world view in which everyone with a Hispanic-sounding name speaks accentless English).  And my toddler also speaks English and Swedish.

Sadly, there are only two episodes online, and we are not about to sign up for Swedish Nickelodeon just for Dora.

But we can ask for Dora DVDs for Christmas …

reading American books to my American daughter

In my sudden almost nationalistic quest to ensure that my daughter is culturally American, I am making her pretend she is in a town hall session and then scream things like, “This is not the America I grew up in!” and “The public option means death panels!”

Or not.

But I have had second thoughts on my approach to something far more serious than health care reform – bedtime stories. I have been groovily multicultural so far. We read some Dr. Seuss, we read some book in three languages about a Somali village, I translate a Swedish book. The books about Somali villages and Islamic art get old, to be honest, though I keep plugging away because the libraries are full of them.

But the Swedish books are good, for Sweden has this rich tradition of really cool children’s literature. And we have barely approached the limitless Astrid Lindgren catalog in any real way yet.

Here in Sweden you got Benny the pig, Boo and Baa, Knock Knock, and the immortal Alfons Åberg, five, six and then seven years old, just to name a few favorites.

Just as a funny note, Alfons Åberg becomes Alfie Atkins in English and Willi Wiberg in German and Ifan Bifan in, of all things, Welsh. Benny, on the other hand, seems to remain forever Benny, though it is hard to beat a name like Ifan Bifan.

Anyway, now I do not want to read about Benny, though Benny and his adventures with Little Oink are hilarious.  No, I want my daughter to be reading American books for American kids.

So I did a search on Amazon (the American one) and found both the current bestsellers and the classic bestsellers.

Dr. Seuss. Check.   Got him.

Sandra Boyton. Check. Got plenty of her.

Eric Carle.  Check.

Richard Scarry.  Check.

Goodnight Moon, The Mitten, Pat the Bunny, Olivia.  Check, check, check, check.

Nursery rhymes.  Oh, please, three times over.  And they are all English, as in from England, anyway (when did you last see a muffin man coming down your lane?)  Same with Beatrix Potter.

I even found Peek-a Who? on the used book table at my job.  Turns out it is a best seller of the past decade.

And then I realized the problem.  We read too much, 5, 10, 15 books at night.  We read on the train.  We read new books immediately, over and over and over.  She reads to herself out loud in her own language, though she then says she can not read English out loud, only Swedish.

So I got no worries it seems.  I did order some more Dr. Seuss from the library, as well as Where the Wild Things Are, since she can probably handle that now.

But the pressure is off.  Now I can save this blog entry, check on my sleeping daughter, and go curl up with “Oink, Oink Benny” and “Benny’s Had Enough!” and laugh a little.

Good stuff.

picking english out of the toddler swirl

We do not speak English in our house. Or Swedish. No, we live in an everchanging blend, mixed in with toddler speak, baby sounds (bwa ba ba bwa) and some really funny (to me and the toddler) nonsense word games.

There are rules and patterns. I speak in English all the time. E speaks in Swedish to the kids all the time and in English to me, almost all the time. And NK’s language moves back and forth, more English when I was on parental leave, more Swedish now that she is in daycare. Now she seems to use a lot of English nouns, fit in a Swedish frame. When NK does speak to me in Swedish, I usually repeat what she said back to her in English, and she nods, like, right, that is exactly what I just said.

I did not even notice any of this, really, until grandma and grandpa came for a visit from America. And it became clear that NK could not switch into English like she could when she was little and knew only words and a few verbs. Of course, by the end of the visit, she spoke much much more English, well, because she is fluent in English.

But it broke me out of my comfort zone, at least for now. I know that she is three. I know that she will speak English. I know that English is the dominant language in the world. I know that someday we will live in the US again. I know that this is all about me, probably some long-delayed culture shock. I know. I know.

But I want English. Now. Suddenly I really don’t like it when she says, “Mamma says X. Daddy says Y. NK says X.” I am trying to be nice about it, trying real hard not to punish her for speaking Swedish to me. And that is a fine line. How do you be firm, encouraging but still guide her? I have no idea.

The good thing is that she humors me. She nods earnestly when I explain that she knows two words for everything, that she speaks just like Mommy and Daddy (I am even saying Mommy now, suddenly, not Mamma).

And it is working. This morning, a dove cooed in a bush. NK stopped and looked around and said, “I hear something.”


taking Swedish lessons from a toddler

My Swedish is OK.  It would be better if I did not speak English at home and at work and with my children.  But, for all that, I can still translate children’s books to read to NK in English.  I can still get by in most situations, even if I have to write realtors and coop boards in English.  And I can understand everything my almost three-year-old daughter said – in English or Swedish.

It is not always easy, of course.  E and I listen to a phrase, first trying to figure out what language NK is speaking, then trying to figure out which word in that language she is using.  It is usually a beautiful blend, a word in English, two words in Swedish, then an English verb conjugated as a Swedish one.

But I always understand most of it, and when I don’t, I just shrug it off to toddler-speak, or we move past the sentence, and I realize later that I misunderstood.

Then yesterday, NK said the Swedish word snurra.  And I said I did not know that word.

And she swirled her fingers in a circle.

“Oh, spin!,” I said, and she looked thrilled and nodded and laughed.

I know her Swedish is going to be better than mine.  I was a little worried, thinking that I would really have to study, that I wanted to always understand her.

Maybe I will.  With her help.  What a better teacher?