A reply to: A Letter from Mr. Watergate
Dear Mr. Watergate:
You are brilliant! A child-development genius!
Did anyone ever tell you that? It’s so true.
Let me tell you what happened, and you will see how helpful your insights were to me.
The other day, my uncle Jasper stopped by.
Jena and I were sitting in the living room, “talking.” As usual, we didn’t have a clue what the other was saying, but we were playing along, both of us trying not to get frustrated by the other’s lack of total comprehension.
Then, when my uncle sat down, Jena looks at him and says, “Assālam ‘alaykum.”
My uncle smiled and replied, “Wālaikum assalām. Ap kaisi hain?”
“Ap se milker khushi huwi!” she said to him.
Jasper turned to me and said, “Your baby speaks Urdu.”
“You mean it’s not baby-talk?” I asked.
She started babbling excitedly.
“Well, that’s baby-talk,” my uncle said. “But before, she was definitely speaking Urdu.”
He went on to say that it was surprising. Urdu is the official language of Pakistan, but it’s an uncommon first language. Punjabi is far more common as the language spoken at home.
“Maybe it has something to do with her being born in the refugee camp,” Jasper said.
But at any rate, we discovered that she does, indeed, speak another language! And my uncle, at least, can comprehend her!
So when you wrote to me, “Toddlers like to repeat things they hear. Jena could be speaking in another language,” you were so right!
Oh, thank you, Mr. Watergate! (Can I call you Chancelor? Do you go by Chance?)
(Ha! That sounds like a joke. “Do you go, by chance?” Never mind. I think I’m getting punchy from toddler-cabin-fever!)
So I’ve been using your other piece of advice, about how toddlers like to repeat things they hear, and I’m using flashcards to help Jena learn English. I keep it simple and fun, like a game (or I try to), so she doesn’t get bored or sad. She still gets sad a lot.
At first I thought that I should learn Urdu, so she and I could communicate in her language. But I did a little research on language development in bilingual children. The experts agree that kids do best if each adult speaks only one language with the child, rather than mixing and matching. It helps the brain keep everything in the right file drawer, I guess.
So I decided that I will speak English with Jena. Jasper, who’s a retired professor himself, says that he knows all about the research, and he doesn’t go along with formalized prescriptions, so he will be, as he puts it “the rebel granduncle” and speak whatever language he feels like with her, even French.
“That way,” he says, “her mind can file me in the category of Uncle Polyglot.” He’s kind of a nut.
I’m in the process of finding someone who will speak Urdu with her. I hope, too, to find an Urdu School in San Myshuno, if not closer, so that she can grow up biliterate, in addition to bilingual.
Jasper has friends and neighbors who speak Punjabi and Urdu, and he thinks they would be eager to talk with her.
The other day, I went out for a jog while Jasper was here looking after Jena, and I ran into (well, not literally 🙂 ) someone I’d seen a few times at the refugee center when we were making arrangements for me to adopt Jena.
Karim came from the same camp.
He seemed a little wary of me at first. But we got to talking. He’s living in Windenburg now, where he has a technology job as network-server-something. I told him that I’d adopted Jena, and I asked if he’d be willing to visit sometimes, to talk with her.
He said he would.
So, I’m really excited now! It seems like Jena will have someone to communicate with, while she learns English at the same time! Isn’t that exciting?
I also really enjoyed your insights about toddlers being very emotional. I’d never thought about toddler hormones!
But I guess it makes sense. I’ll have to do some research on toddler brain chemistry and development and the connection with emotional states.
That helps me relax so much to know that at least some of this is a natural process: it’s not all the result of a traumatic first few years or of lingering grief.
She does often seem very happy.
And she and I are enjoying our conversations more than ever!
Goodness! This whole letter has been all about me and Jena and Uncle Jasper! I haven’t even mentioned how much I enjoyed the photos you sent of you and your beautiful daughter. She has your smile!
I have to admit to feeling envy when I see how close the two of you are. There’s always a physical distance between Jena and me that mirrors the emotional distance that lingers between us. I hope at some point that we achieve the easy bond that you seem to have with your daughter. Are you that close with all your daughters?
It’s not for me that I want this attachment (I’m emotionally satisfied by my close ties with my uncle and my brother), but for Jena. I want her to experience growing up with healthy attachments so that she’ll be able to form close relationships throughout her life.
Maybe some day.
Please write me more about you and your daughters and your wife! I’d love to hear all about your life and your secrets for creating happy, healthy family!
Thank you again for your wisdom.
p.s. Your idea of a play date for our two littlies is so tempting! At present, I’m limiting my social life to the essential. I want to keep my life as simple as possible so that I’m able to give Jena the attention she needs. Maybe later, once she’s better adjusted, we can think about letting our children play together. I must admit, it would be so fun to talk with you in person! I’d love to hear your words of wisdom straight from your lips!