An Ambivert’s Guide to Learning to Love Languages

My 6.5-year-old daughter Kavya loves languages. When she was still at daycare, she taught everyone there that dudh is the word for “milk” in Punjabi by urgently pronouncing it when she was in dire need of this liquid gold (about every five minutes). My daughter is growing up in Jersey City, where she assumes everyone is multilingual. All of her friends either speak at least two languages or come from multilingual backgrounds with at least one parent speaking a language other than English. At 4 years old, Kavya often peppered sentences with Spanish she picked up at daycare as well as bits and pieces of Punjabi from me. Every few weeks, Kavya and I will go to the City and do karaoke, where she belts out some of her favorite Mandarin Chinese songs alongside more popular English and sometimes Hindi songs when available.

She is now in a dual language Spanish program at her school, which surprises some parents we know, who are spending a lot of their energy trying to figure out a way of getting their hyphenated American kids fluent in whatever native language they speak. When Kavya casually tells them she reads, writes, and speaks Hindi, Punjabi, Urdu, Arabic, Mandarin Chinese, and is learning Japanese Hiragana for the sole purpose of being able to read the original manga for her favorite anime, “Sailor Moon,” they immediately assume I have some magic pill that enables me to raise a genius multilingual girl. My daughter overstates a little though; as totally awesome as she is, she’s certainly not fluent in any of these languages other than English. And I am totally fine with that.  

Fluency has never really been a high priority for my language goals with Kavya, partly because I don’t know what people mean when they use this word. Same with bilingual or trilingual. A lot of North Indian parents I meet will tell me their kids are fluent in Punjabi or Hindi. When we chat, I typically find they’re pretty good with small talk, but then I find out they can’t read or write in Hindi or Punjabi script (Gurmukhi and Shahmukhi). I can’t see this as fluency: I am devastated on their behalf because life without reading Hindi comics and Punjabi short stories, poems, or novels seems like a terrible existence.

My father is a Punjabi poet and a thorough introvert, but more to the point, he is an avid reader in Punjabi, Urdu, English, and occasionally Hindi. Every family vacation results in more photos of my dad curled up in bed or in a hammock reading a book than being with the rest of the family. No matter how small our house was, how tight we were on money, or how likely a military coup was about to go down, books were always everywhere: in boxes, on the floor, in actual shelves. It was simply a given that my Punjabi fluency and that of my daughter would involve reading. But the way Punjabi was taught to me was not especially fun because it involved lots of rote memorization and outdated books, with emphasis placed on grammar, conjugation, and pronunciation.    

We were visiting my parents in California this summer, and my Dad is pretty old school when it comes to teaching Punjabi. Somewhere, someone decided a boring Learn to Read Punjabi pamphlet was the best way to learn, and my dad agrees. He enthusiastically busted it out as soon as we arrived and attempted to get Kavya to learn the alphabet in order, with all the grammar. This, of course, lasted about two days before its inevitable failure, despite my Dad insisting it was a proven technique for hundreds of years. He just as enthusiastically dismissed my strategy of having her write whatever words or phrases she feels like.

I overheard one of their sessions during which my dad was getting Kavya to recite the letters through singing. When they got to one that’s pronounced nga, instead of the letter, she—totally unfazed by her own gall—started singing the word nunga, which means naked person in Hindi. When my dad realized what she was saying, he looked at her and said, “Stop making jokes; this is serious learning.” To which she burst out laughing. My father was not impressed. Kavya, on the other hand, was highly entertained (me too!).

Whereas I used to hate (and still do) talking to relatives who would rate my pronunciation (usually badly) or reciting poems in front of the class, my daughter is so into talking to people. On our walks to her school, she enjoys chatting in Spanish with the Puerto Rican crossing guard or discussing which bakery item to buy with the Dominican bakery owner, whose shop is across the street from our house. She is armed with a confidence I really wish I had, even now. She will constantly mispronounce words and conjugate them with her own style, but I love hearing her talk in her broken Punjabi to her partially deaf, non-English-speaking great-grandmother.

My dad’s methodical teaching style has certainly led to me being able to express thoughts well and with correct grammar in a second language. Kavya’s own style of learning languages, where the extroverted side of her ambivert personality really shines through, is totally the opposite of what worked for me. She doesn’t care if she doesn’t pronounce words perfectly or her syntax is off—she has fun with it.

I don’t think there is one foolproof method for teaching kids language skills, or any skills, really. All I know is I have to adapt to my kid, who currently likes the blend of fun and structure. I’m still signing the petition to get rid of the letter Nga though.