Becoming bilingual(ish)

‘Daddy tissemand?’

‘Yes, Daddy has a tissemand’

‘My tissemand?’

‘Yes, you have a tissemand’

‘Mummy tissekone?’

Yes, Mummy has a tissekone’


Thankfully most people won’t have any idea what this conversation is about within a 30 mile radius of our house, which means having it in the local co-op is just fine. I’m not sure if all toddlers need to re-establish the nature of the genitals belonging to everyone on a daily basis, but ours does and for reasons of modesty I’m glad that this conversation is conducted partially in Danish. This is one of the benefits of bilingualism that I haven’t found in a textbook yet.

When deciding on a husband, the ability to speak another language was high of up on list of desirable characteristics. Like small children, they can make endearing mistakes which enhances the romance just a little longer. My own husband has lived in English speaking countries for 20 years but only last year learned that the phrase ‘when puss comes to show’ is not commonly used and he’d been mishearing ‘when push comes to shove’. See..? So cute!

2014-05-16 15.12.42
Made in Scotland – our Danish/English hybrid

Our first major obstacle in producing a bilingual child was my husband’s inate sense of good manners. Speaking in Danish to our son with me present seemed terrible rude to him, and so was reluctant to use Danish unless they were alone. I tried to resolve this by learning Danish; I managed 6 evening classes last year but was forced to give up when I realised that just learning how to tell the time was going to use the entire portion of my brain that was left over from work. How does a country function when they say it’s ‘half eight’ but really mean it’s 7.30?

We’ve got over this obstacle now and my husband happily chatters away in Danish whilst I (I think) repeat many of the same comments and directions to our son in English:

Can you sit on your bottom please? (Vaer soed at sidde paa din maas.)

You need to be gentle when you stroke the cat/dog/flower. (Du skal vaere naensom naar du tager paa katten/hunden/blomsten.)

Put that knife/chainsaw/box of matches down please. (Vaer soed at laegge den kniv/motorsav/aeske taendstikker ned.)

Would you like some herring? (that’s a lie, I’ve never knowingly offered herring to anyone..)

As a ‘reluctant’ Dane my husband wasn’t particularly bothered about passing his native language on to our offspring. He once told me that no one in Denmark speaks Danish anymore, just English with a Danish accent (this is untrue, many Danes barely have an accent at all). Conveniently for me all our friends had read the same articles in the Guardian I had seen about the intellectual benefits of bilingualism and a campaign commenced to ensure that my husband got down to ‘Operation Dansk’ immediately. I sent off the membership forms to the Scottish-Danish Society and soon we were surrounded by Danes complaining about the state of the Scottish _ (insert almost anything here) and the poor quality stuff we pass off here as marzipan. On a more positive note it’s given us the opportunity to meet other families becoming bilingual and our son the chance to participate in the rituals and festivals that his father did as a child (this mainly involves burning or beating things to death; the Viking genes are clearly alive and well in modern Danes no matter how sophisticated they appear to be).

Animal noises have proved to be an entertaining diversion. I had naively thought that animals around the world spoke English, but it turns out that they don’t. Next time you have dinner with someone who has another language do try to go through the meat selection in animal sounds – I promise it it will be a cross-cultural learning experience..

Mummy says 'horse' and Daddy says 'hest'
Mummy says ‘horse’ and Daddy says ‘hest’

Our son delights us every day with his ‘Danglish’, bringing both languages together with toddler babble. From what I understand about the development of language in children this will be a short phase, as he’ll soon work out which words belong to which language and who understands them. For now we’re enjoying this stage as he tries out new words, some more successfully than others. My husband is reluctant to re-introduce the word ‘navle’ (belly button) as our son started using the more endearing ‘nanoo’ when the more traditional pronounceation defeated him early on, as did ‘yoghurt’ which ended up as ‘gu’. Objects of desire stand a much better chance of correct pronounceation, the complex ‘Paaskeaeg’ (easter egg) was learnt with no difficulty as was ‘Appelsin’ (that’s orange in Danish, not a poor job of ‘apple’ in English, as I point out to various shopkeepers in case they think my child can’t tell one fruit from another). When you are two, everything is ‘stor!’ (big) particularly tractor and buses which are conveniently the same in Danish and English.

So, my son and I are both learning some Danish, just not the polite, conversational kind..

One thought on “Becoming bilingual(ish)

  1. this made me laugh. MY DH had a Polish father who spoke a number of languages but his English mother would not the father to speak in Polish or German. This was just after WW2 so I understand. When we first went to Poland in about 1990, he couldn’t speak any of it but now he can understand quite a bit. However, cannot string 2 words together so he’s a bit like your toddler son. So we use Polish /German words around home. Sometimes if I cant get the English word out, the German one will pop into my head. BTW Germans and Poles also say its half to eight meaning its 7.30. maybe we English at the exception

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