A Figure of Speech
By Aleksandra Andrejevic-Bullock
I never dreamt that Ana and I wouldn’t speak the same language.
We are on the living room floor, surrounded by the debris of the afternoon’s play. The carpet is a mine field of Lego blocks and toys. My husband Wayne is wisely sitting on the sofa and listening in casually, until suddenly he interrupts me.
“A cockerel says what?!”
“Kukureekoo,” I say, seriously. A book about animals is on the floor next to me. Ana’s little hands are busy pressing the buttons to hear the noises.
Wayne falls off the sofa laughing.
“That’s what it says!” I protest. “If you listen carefully.”
“I could listen extremely carefully, with a hearing aid, and still it wouldn’t say that,” he says.
“Well it does,” I insist. “It really says kukureekoo, in my language.”
“A cockerel says cock-a-doodle-doo, in any language.” My husband is howling with laughter now.
Ana is looking at us with big blue eyes, which seem to say she finds both equally unlikely. But this moment spells trouble. We don’t just disagree on how a cockerel, a dog or a horse sound in which language (although cats and cows turn out to be strangely non-controversial). This becomes a symptom of an unexpected division within our home.
We had, of course, discussed what it would be like, raising a bilingual family. It will be very exotic, said our friends. Well, neither of the languages we speak are that interesting. I mean, English and Serbian? I’d much rather it was Spanish and Chinese, or some other combo suitable for world domination. As it was, we could bask in the glow of bilingual-ness, but it would have to be a mediocre glow at best.
People would bring up other random benefits this early exposure to two languages would apparently give to our children.
“It just wires their brains up completely differently,” someone had said to me. In what way, I wondered? Would they be able to bend spoons just by looking at them? (That should make weaning more interesting).
“It really helps with mathematics, later on,” someone else had told me. I didn’t even know how to respond to this one.
My mum summed it up well when she said to me: “Please teach the children Serbian, because at my age I really don’t fancy learning English.”
Like many children from bilingual families, Ana developed a little later than her peers. At nineteen months, she could say perhaps ten words in total, but then everything seemed to explode. At two and a half she now speaks in a way I could only describe as fluent, with a vocabulary to shock. A strictly English vocabulary.
“Do you speak to her in Serbian, like I asked you to?” my mum interrogated.
“Of course I do! All the time.”
“Even when Wayne is in the room?”
“Especially when Wayne is in the room. I like it when he doesn’t know what we’re saying.”
In reality, I am mixing the two languages a bit. I know it’s strictly against the rules of how-to-bring-up-amazing-bilingual-children. But a friend has been telling me about a woman we both know, whose children speak the most incredible Serbian but who is now divorcing her (English) husband. It is, of course, crazy to assume that they are divorcing just because she spoke too much Serbian to the kids and he felt excluded. But the story scared me.
And so in our family Wayne and Ana speak English, Sacha speaks unintelligible words yet to be identified as belonging to any language (but he is only 9 months old), and I speak both English and Serbian, frequently swapping between the two, often getting confused in the process.
Wayne has told me that the time I’m most likely to speak to him in Serbian (and not even know it) is immediately upon waking up.
“Molim te skuvaj mi kafu,” I apparently said once. (Well, I am making this up, because he couldn’t actually repeat what I’d said, but I’d definitely said something. He was at liberty to ignore it because he didn’t understand. And I was asleep again within seconds).
I also get confused on Ana’s play dates, where sooner or later I start to talk to other people’s children in Serbian. Toddlers don’t particularly listen even when you talk to them in the correct language.
I dream and write in English but still, swapping between languages for different members of my family for twelve or more hours a day can be exhausting. For example:
Ana (in English): Mummy, look, I’m making a tower!
Me (in Serbian): Wow, that’s a big tower!
It may not seem like much (we’re still on page 1 of The Life Manual, and it’s mostly about Lego towers), but two pregnancies in quick succession didn’t leave me with enough brain cells for doing this all day.
Other aspects bother me too. When I talk to Ana in Serbian, my voice is soft, I have a whole dictionary of loving words to choose from. Even strangers sometimes comment on how soothing it sounds. Like a song, with a lilt, like a lullaby. A language made for nurturing.
When I talk to her in English, my voice strains. The high pitch of ‘motherese’ doesn’t come naturally to me. My throat rebels. I struggle to find the right words. “Poppet” and “sweet pea” will do, but it’s just not the same. Perhaps I can scold her more efficiently—Ana come here at once!—but to love her, I feel I need Serbian. And then, what I hear in return, is a foreign language. From my baby.
Or, she says something to me, but I just go blank. I stare. I’m trying to translate, paraphrase it in Serbian, and I just can’t. My mind has gone AWOL. I’m tired and exasperated. Why can’t she just speak like me? I gave birth to her, surely it’s not too much to ask? Then she puts her hands around my neck and says I loves you mummy. It’s the bridge I run across.
Sometimes, very rarely, when she says a Serbian word, everything changes in a single breath. It’s like she comes from a great distance and rushes straight at me, closer and closer, until we become one. Like it is supposed to be. When she calls me mama instead of ‘mummy’ I seem a different person even to myself.
I know that none of this is really about the language. It’s about shared identity, it’s about the long line of Serbian life and thought I hope my children will continue amidst all the challenges that living in England will present to that. It’s the two worlds fighting in me, and I haven’t yet learnt how to make peace between them.
It’s good to remember that words we speak are just one way we communicate.
In the evenings, when we are reading the bedtime story and she snuggles into my arms all soft and fragrant from her bath, her small body relaxing with all the trust of someone who feels loved and safe in this universe—that’s a language anyone can understand. Everything else is just a figure of speech.
Aleksandra Andrejevic-Bullock writes short stories, theatre plays and poems, and her work has appeared in The Dawntreader, Literary Mama and other magazines. She lives in leafy Cheltenham (England) with her husband, two small children and a whole lot of books. She blogs at living-loving-writing.blogspot.com.
Want to read more thought-provoking essays? Subscribe to Brain, Child: The Magazine for Thinking Mothers and see why we’ve been receiving awards for literary excellence since 2000.