By Alice Lapuerta
I am suffering from postpartum dementia. I forget half the things on my shopping list. I forgot my ATM pin number the other day. You know that feeling when you go into a room to get something only to stand there, wondering what was it that you wanted here, again? Happens to me all the time. I look at my baby and forget his name, for God’s sake. This is sad.
“Dominik – no. Benny – Isabella – Arrgh! Nicolas! It’s Nicolas!!!”
Sometime I forget in what language I am supposed to speak to him. Is it English? German? Or Spanish? Sometimes I actually find myself pausing mid-sentence, frowning at my poor baby, thinking about which language to choose. It’s English most of the time, and this really shouldn’t be so hard! How odd, when I should be used to this by now. This is our third child, after all.
Yet I spoke German to both Isabella and Dominik when they were babies, prior to our family’s Great Language Shift (a different story). Is that why I feel awkward speaking English with the baby? Should I speak the majority language German with him since I feel like that? What language DO I feel more comfortable speaking anyway? 8 years of successful multilingualism in my family, and I still haven’t figured this out. Fact is, though, I still need to establish some sort of consistent language relationship with my youngest child.
But returning to the topic of postpartum dementia: What happens to me most of the time is that I forget words. So I do what any other multilingual does: I just plug in the words of the Other language. That’s just fine when I talk with my husband or brothers. Not so fine when I talk to my kids (‘cause you are supposed to be “consistent”). Even my monolingual friends by now are tolerant enough of my eccentric habit of mixing and matching. They know I am not trying to be a snob, showing off my language skills. But when this happens with my kids, it’s just plain embarrassing.
Take Isabella’s science homework. Do you think I am capable of thinking of the name of that little creature in the photo?
“It’s uh, ah, er, ah – a squiggly creature with a tail, a baby frog, a – a-” I give up. “It’s a Kaulquappe!“ (darn it!)
“Mami.” My daughter gives me a weird look. “It’s called TADPOLE.”
Oh. And this has happened not once, or twice but quite a few times already. In fact, it happens all the time!
“Mami.” She says in this didactic tone. “It is called DOUGH/SAND PIT/FIRE ENGINE! Didn’t you know?”
I marvel at my daughter’s cleverness. Wow! But look at her vocabulary! I didn’t teach her that word, she must’ve learned it on her own! I sing. I jubilate. Gone are the days when I worried about her speech development. Her speech flourishes like never before.
With Dominik, of course, it’s an entirely different story altogether. He never had these particular problems that my daughter had. Instead, he repeats phrases. Not just any phrases, but Dr. Seuss! He mutters it to himself when we go to kindergarten.
“He likes to drink, and drink, and drink. The thing he likes to drink is ink. The ink he likes to drink is pink. He likes to wink and drink pink ink!” he chants, growing progressively louder, shouting out the “ink” at the end. This startles the elderly lady who walks towards us. I nod and smile at her. Maybe I should explain? Yeah, this is English. Or Dominik’s version thereof. Instead I say “Grüss Gott.” She nods cautiously. Zuagroasta! And crosses to the other side of the street.
Sometimes Dominik puts it in question form.
“Mami, why does he like to drink ink?” he asks.
“Who are you talking about, Niki?”
“Because,” he says, ignoring my question, “because, Mami!” dramatic pause. “Because it is pink I think!” He breaks into a devilish laughter.
“Oh, you mean that creature in the Dr. Seuss book. Whatever his name is.” Of course I would forget his name.
“The Yink!” – Pause. Then, “Mami, why is this the Yink?”
Why is the Yink called the Yink? I can’t think. No idea.
“The Yink, Mami!!” insists my son, now getting impatient.
“Well, because that’s his name.” Very original answer, I know.
“No Mami. He is the Yink because he likes to drink ink!” trumpets my son.
We walk on in silence for a while, and I can hear his little brain working furiously.
“Mami, I want to drink,” he finally says.
“You want to drink pink ink you think?” I am pleased at my cleverness. I should probably also tell him that drinking ink of any kind of color is not a good idea.
“No Mami.” He gives me this reproachful look. “I want to drink JUICE! I am thirsty!”
Please! This Dr Seuss sure knows how to addle a parent’s brain. But I kiss these books because they are helping us in our English language acquisition. I sing. I jubilate! But wait. My son is speaking Dr. Seuss English! Is this normal??? Better this than nothing, right?
The other day he asked me, “But Mami, why is this bread?”
I haven’t quite found an answer to this one yet.
Citation from One Fish, two fish, red fish, blue fish by Dr. Seuss. Dominik would also recommend Green Eggs and Ham, also by Dr. Seuss, which he has memorized from cover to cover. Currently he is working at memorizing Curious George and the Birthday Surprise by Margret & H.A. Rey, which he also thinks is mandatory reading material for any child, bilingual or otherwise!