Language and Young Children

'Akta mummy akta', says my 28 month old (nearly 21/2 years). 'Swinglish' we call it, Swedish and English combined, "akta" is Swedish for watch out or be careful; mama is Swedish word for mummy!

When he turned two, I was a little concerned that my son was not talking (other than mummum or dadda). However at the time he had already learnt to understand two languages (having been in Sweden for almost 18 months) and was exceptionally good at miming thus communicating his needs! Suddenly, at about 28 months, he began to talk, with a mixture of words in both languages and within one month, began putting words together and concentrating on his home language, English. I no longer have any concerns, once the basics of English are mastered, the Swedish will reappear. I hadn't taken into account, that listening to two languages, meant my son needed a little more than the 'average' time to sort them out before reproducing them!

Language can be seen as a huge hurdle for an expat in a non-English speaking country but I believe the bonuses of learning the local language (when possible) are wide reaching. Not only can a person deal with locals on a day to day basis, doing the shopping, transport and directions etc but one begins to understand some facets of the culture that were previously incomprehensible. For example, how does one survive the extreme cold in Sweden, coming from warm and sunny Sydney,- the locals have a saying in Swedish which translates approximately as 'there is no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothing or dressing!' At minus 30 degrees Celsius on occasion, I'm not so certain!

Learning the local language means I can be invited home to dinner, (in a culture that has very limited and very expensive restaurant and nightlife this is important); I can hold a real conversation with friends (real conversation can never quite be replace by electronic mail or telephone to friends back home!), I understand the jokes now (well some) and their sense of humour, I can listen to and understand the news on the radio or TV without having to check the Net (for an English version) and when I want to, I can seek work! I am by no means bilingual, but I am continually practising my Swedish. Also Swedish is probably an easy language to learn in comparison to some other non-Germanic based languages, particularly some of the Asian languages.

It is possible to get by without learning Swedish where we are currently living, in a country town in central Sweden. All Swedes have a minimum of four years English in schools (since 1950 something). Most can understand the basics of our language but are very shy in speaking English themselves unless they have travelled, work or studied in English.

But what about children? I also have a four year old son who has developed wonderful descriptive language. If he can not make himself understood with a word in English or Swedish, he has learnt to describe in other words (in the same language) rather than just repeat the word.

For example: Son: 'It's a *erry mummy!'

Mummy: ' a what?' (his 'f' sound is not yet developed);

Son: ' a big boat that carries lots of people and cars and goes on the sea, a *erry mummy'! (He has forgotten Sydney ferries are a bit smaller than some of those here)

Mummy: 'oh, a ferry.'

This descriptive language has developed and extended in the year and half that we have been here and is used in both languages. It is something that we adults have developed, as well as the children.

I was amazed also how quickly my four year old learnt Swedish, within six months of day-care only two days a week, he could make himself understood to carers in their own language with a local accent!! Admittedly it has taken longer for his peers to understand him, but at four years of age, often language doesn't seem to matter!

What the benefits of learning another language are or will be when (if) we return 'home' are yet to be experienced by this Australian family, in the meantime we will all keep practising and learning Swedish.

By Faye Taylor
Ludvika, Sweden