bilingual

Speaking Swedish to My Toddler

israel

Swedish is not my native language, I do not live in Sweden, and my ancestry is not Swedish. And yet I speak Swedish to my toddler.

That may sound odd, but here’s my rationale. Language skills are, in my opinion, extremely beneficial to have. Besides being able to communicate when you go to a particular country/region or having an increased number of potential career options, knowing multiple languages and understanding how languages work makes it easier to learn additional tongues and is useful for your brain in other ways (I’ve read that people who are bilingual or multilingual are less likely to get dementia). Though she’s not even three yet, we already have conversations about how you would phrase things differently in Swedish versus in English, and we discuss grammar. Those bits of knowledge will stand her in good stead in the future.  

And personally, I feel like I experience the world differently depending on the language I’m speaking and even that I get to be a different self when I switch languages, and that has taught me so much over the years. Studying languages has helped me become a more broad-minded and open person, and given me increased empathy for others. For all these reasons and more, since I speak Swedish fluently – I lived there for many years and continue to translate from Swedish to English –it makes sense to pass on my capabilities to my daughter.

English is our main language at home. It is my native language and my wife’s native language. The great majority of our conversations are in English. But we make sure to use some Swedish every day. We read books and sing songs in both English and Swedish, and we have short conversations in Swedish. Often I repeat sentences in both languages (“What would you like for dinner? Vad vill du ha till middag?”). Our daughter can distinguish clearly between the two languages and she requests books in whichever tongue she prefers at that moment (bedtime usually requires a large number of books in both English and Swedish). She also regularly asks me what a particular thing is in Swedish and she repeats the word or phrase after me (amazingly, her pronunciation is often much better than mine).

We’ve been to Sweden twice since she was born, and she could understand people there to a certain extent. Being able to speak some Swedish also introduced the concept of respect towards other people’s cultures, languages, and beliefs; she knows that Swedish people speak and even think differently, and that that contributes to the diversity of the world. Hopefully when she’s older and travels on her own, she’ll choose to learn at least the basic expressions in whatever language(s) a particular nation speaks, so she can show her hosts respect and access their culture in a small way.

Of course it’s hard to keep language skills up when you don’t live in the country. So besides reading, speaking, and singing on a daily basis, we also have had Swedish friends visit us here, and we even have started up a Swedish-speaking playgroup with a few other families in our area. which hopefully will offer frequent injections of the language.

Obviously, our daughter would be better off hearing Swedish every day from a native speaker; I’m envious of children who are naturally bi- or multilingual due to their parentage. But we’re doing what we can to expose her to more than one language, and to the skills, knowledge, and opportunities that that provides.

And it seems to be working. As we drove home one recent evening, she looked out the window and said, “Titta på himlen!”

At first I didn’t realise she was speaking Swedish, since we had just been conversing in English, but she repeated herself and I looked and saw the lovely sky she was pointing at. “Yes, look at the sky!” I replied. “Den är så vacker. So beautiful!”

The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. Comments are moderated, so use your inside voices, keep your hands to yourself, and no, we're not interested in herbal supplements.

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