Mommy & Far

Aug. 25 - Yesterday was the anniversary of the installation of Copenhagen's best-known monument, the Little Mermaid (Den lille havfrue). It didn't seem to generate much fanfare locally, but at least one American media outlet covered it. Just browse the slideshow and you can get a sense why it may not have generated a lot of publicity this year.

I've already written too much about Copenhagen's most disappointing landmark on these pages, however, so I'm going to leave it at that for now.

* * *

We're raising Molli to be bilingual. The conventional wisdom on how to go about this is pretty simple: I should speak with her only in English, and Trine should speak to her only in Danish. (Although I'm not sure that's what the scientific community would recommend.) So that's what we're trying to do.

The problem is, Molli is just beginning to master her first few words, and it's hard not to parrot them back to her in whatever language she's using.

Her two most frequently used words are both Danish. The first is mad, meaning food or meal, which has obvious significance and usage.

The other is ging-gang (sort of rhymes with "King Kong"), which is the Danish equivalent, I suppose, of "wheee!" It's the little mantra kids utter when they're playing on a swing, although no Dane has yet told me authoritatively which syllable is pronounced on the upswing, and which on the down.

Molli loves to swing. It's gotten to the point where every morning we get her out of her crib, give her breakfast, change her diaper, dress her, and rush her promptly out to the courtyard for some time on the playground swing. She's usually muttering "ging-gang" by the time she's finishing her breakfast, and by the time we're changing her clothes it's become almost frantic: "Ging-gang! Ging-gang!"

She can see the swings from our kitchen window, and often pulls herself up on her tiptoes to peer out and admire them, dreamily murmuring, "ging-gang... ging-gang."

She'll swing happily as long as we let her, but as MTV used to say, "too much is never enough." Take her off the swing and set her down somewhere else in the playground and she'll amuse herself for a few minutes shoving mouthfuls of sand into her mouth, or stealing plastic buckets from other children, but eventually she'll be running back over to "ging-gang! ging-gang!" She'll stand in front of the swing (most of which are usually at about the height of her little blonde head) and start pushing it herself, until she pushes it with enough force to have it swing away from her and smack back into her head.

(She doesn't mind that. She seems to enjoy whacking her head against things, especially when she's tired. This worried me at first, but talking to other parents and surfing the web on the topic persuaded me that Molli's particular form of head-whacking is entirely normal.)

Strolling past a playground, Molli will spot any swings at any playgrounds and exclaim "ging-gang!"

Anyway, you get the point. This is something she loves, and she's got a word to describe it. Now, quick, back to bilingualism—am I supposed to just ignore her? Correct her?

"No, Molli. Save that ging-gang nonsense for mommy. It's a swing, dammit, and until you say swing I'm going to pretend I don't understand you."

Of course not. I share her enthusiasms. If she's excited about ging-gang, so am I. So I come right back at her with ging-gang—albeit in my preferred Danish dialect (an obscure variant of Sjślland Danish spoken primarily by blond American writers aged forty). And we run the risk of her learning ging-gang not the way her mother says it, but the way her father says it.

Now, if the worst thing we do in raising our little girl is muddle her pronunciation of a childhood exclamation, I think we'll have done a pretty good job of raising her. But the bilingual thing poses other problems.

I'm Molli's American father, and want to be "Daddy." As Molli's Danish mother, Trine want's to be "Mor." But Molli's beginning to experiment with words for us, and she's completely reversed the process. She seems to be zeroing in on "Mommy" for Trine and "Far" for me.

Why? Because Molli's parents (unlike certain other relations!) have not been trying to drill their own identities into her little head. We don't baby-talk to Molli in the third-person. I don't say, for example, "Daddy wants you to eat this." I say, "I want you to eat this." It's only when Trine and I speak about one another with Molli that we use each other's preferred parental names.

"Show mommy!" I might say. Whereas Trine might say, "Vis far!"

We've only just identified this glitch in the "native-language-only" theory—and it may not actually be a glitch. Presumably we can begin correcting things later. Presumably there'll come a time when Molli can grasp the complicated idea that Mommy is Mommy when being discussed with Daddy, but that she's Mor when being addressed to her face. And that Mor og Molli kan snakke hinanden om far, men han kaldes faktisk Daddy til ansigtet. (I probably botched the Danish, since I'm not sure whether "til ansigtet" can actually be used as "to the face" in the English sense.)

But this idea of correcting behaviors on the fly strikes me as a dangerous proposition. You could justify just about anything that way, but sooner or later your whole life would be spent correcting errors you made months or years ago—forcing you to take shortcuts on new behaviors, which will then need to be corrected themselves.

Which is, now that I think about it, probably just a shorthand description of parenthood: the continual process of correcting mistakes made while correcting other mistakes.

* * *

Today is the birthday of Claudia Schiffer (1970), Billy Ray Cyrus (1961), Elvis Costello (1954), Gene Simmons (1949), Rollie Fingers (1946), Regis Philbin (1933), Sean Connery (1930), Monty Hall (1923), Leonard Bernstein (1918), Ruby Keeler (1909), and Clara Bow (1905).

It's Constitution Day in Paraguay and Independence Day in Uruguay, which is almost a couplet if you arrange it just right.

Happy Thursday!

© 2005, The Moron's Almanac™

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