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Miranda

08/29/07 7:55AM By Philip Baruth

(HOST) Commentator Philip Baruth’s youngest daughter Miranda returned from an extended trip to Sweden about a week ago - and somewhere along the way, she had lost every word of English. And Philip isn’t entirely happy about it.

(BARUTH) When my daughter Gwendolyn was born, our friends would occasionally ask us whether we planned to raise her bilingually. It was a good question, but one we had no trouble answering: we had decided long before Annika got pregnant that we would try to teach the child as much Swedish and Swedish culture as possible, in order to make our house not just Swedish-friendly but fully half-Swedish.

Occasionally we’d get a warning from people trained in early childhood development. "You might find that Gwendolyn takes longer than normal to begin to speak," they’d say, "because when they learn two languages at once, their brains sometimes have to spend an extra year processing them, and separating them out."

But I’m a glass-half-full sort of person, as is my wife, and so we didn’t worry too much about this developmental delay. And within a year or two we felt completely justified in our non-chalance: Gwendolyn picked up Swedish and English simultaneously, and by the time she was three she could argue you out of your wallet in either or both, whichever seemed best suited to the moment.

And when Miranda came along five years later, I really didn’t give language a second thought. We did as we’d done before: Annika spoke to Miranda in Swedish, and the kids at daycare and I spoke to her in English. And by the time she was two and a half, Miranda knew her way around both.

Then, seven weeks ago, she went to Sweden with her sister and her Mother for an extended vacation. But air travel costs being what they are, this year was my turn to stay in Burlington and paint the empty kitchen.

About halfway through the visit this time, I noticed that Miranda was answering my English with Swedish. But again, not to worry: that happens every year, as the girls overbalance to the Nordic side, and then a few hours after they get home to America, or at most a day or two, the balance swings back to even.

Except for this year.

When she ran into my arms in the airport, Miranda immediately began chattering about her trip, and the problem was that at just under three years old, her Swedish is now significantly better than mine. So I could follow half of her sentence, but then I’d lose the verb or some clearly significant noun, and be left to ask her, in English, what she meant. And she would look confused, and repeat herself quietly in Swedish.

It’s now been a week since they returned home, and Miranda has yet to speak a single word of English. More to the point, she doesn’t seem to realize that she is speaking a language different from mine. She searches my face and gives me the same slightly troubled look I’m giving her, when I fail to take her meaning.

Deep down, I know that the English is still in her head somewhere, and that the circuits are slowly rewiring themselves to allow her access to it.

But the waiting takes faith.

I suppose I had it coming, for taking the whole mingling of cultures so blithely. But I’m an American man, finally, and something inside me feels the need to sue someone over this, anyone really: Scandinavian Airlines, maybe, or the makers of the Pippi Longstocking films from which both my girls learned much of their early Swedish.

Or maybe Sweden itself is to blame. Maybe some cultures are too ancient and powerful to share and share alike.

All I know is that when Miranda throws her arms around my neck these days, and she says in her tiny voice, "Jag alskar dig, Papa" - I love you in Swedish - I’m a weak enough person to feel that somehow that isn’t quite enough.

Philip Baruth is a novelist living in Burlington. He teaches at the University of Vermont.
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