My son speaks English, German - and dog
Everyone has a comment on the subject of raising a multilingual child. "You're going to get that kid good and confused," someone said to us.
"I knew some children who had to learn three languages, and they all stuttered," another told us.
Yes, we get a variety of responses when we tell people that our son is learning to speak three languages through daily life. We even get some positive responses, but most of those have to do with reminiscences of opportunities missed.
"This is the time to do it," they tend to say. "The younger, the better."
These are the comments we take seriously.
These people wince when they recount their struggles with having to conjugate foreign verbs for work assignments or extended vacations overseas.
These are the people who shake their heads when they think of the French classes they blew off in school or the Spanish classes they lost interest in.
"I wish I had taken languages more seriously," one woman told me. "Sometimes I feel so dumb when I'm traveling that I only eat at McDonald's so I don't have to ask what's on the menu."
For our family, knowing three languages - and occasionally more - is a matter of necessity.
Even though I can say "thank you" in two Chinese languages, I am a confirmed Anglophone with a French teacher for a mother. My husband is an ethnic Bulgarian whose family still lives in that country.
We were linguistically confused before we showed our Canadian passports to the border guard and took up residence in Germany.
My tongue stumbles through daily life in Europe. All the words from my badly acquired foreign languages get mixed together into a new alphabet soup that contains Cyrillic symbols, cedillas, and umlauts.
I open my mouth with growing uncertainty as to what language will come out. Often it's a kind of potage with unexpected ingredients or odd spices.
I used to wonder whether my son would grow up to have the same problem. He learned to say "no" in three languages by the time he was 9 months old.
Now that he's well past the age of 2, he often doesn't seem to know what the word means when he hears it, regardless of whether he hears "no," "nein," or "nay."
Experts have since assured me that while all 2-year-olds can say the word no, most of them can pretend not to hear others say it. It seems to be a universal condition, which gives me hope.
My son's other polyglot capacities quickly surpassed my own.
His second word was "dog." When we passed one in the streets, he would point to it and proudly pronounce the noun.
"Yes, there's a dog," I would say.
We were confidently embarking on the journey of language acquisition.
Complications soon arose. "Dog," he would say to my husband. "Da, coochey," my husband would say.
"Coochey," he would repeat. The little one was a quick study.
"Coochey," he would say to our German-speaking babysitter.
"Ja, das ist ein Hund," she would reply.
Shortly after adding "Hund" to his vocabulary, my boy started addressing dogs directly.
He still greets them with a happy bark, untroubled by the fact that, at least in children's literature, dogs in English books say "woof, woof," while their European cousins say "boa, boa."
I am certain that this fourth language will come in handy.
In fact, I often find myself wishing that, when I was younger, I had taken the time to learn to speak dog, too.