Last week a reader asked me how I have gone about raising my kids as bilingual. I thought that others might also be interested in this, so I’m responding by way of this blog post.

Some background is in order, I guess. I was born and grew up in Estonia. In 1992, when I was 15, I moved to Sweden. Then in 2001 I moved to the UK with my partner Eric. We stayed there until 2008, at which time we returned to Sweden.

I am by now fluent (but not perfect) in all three languages – Estonian, English and Swedish. I think in all three languages, depending on the situation and the topic. But at a very deep level, Estonian is still my only native tongue. There are some things that can only be said in Estonian. While I could, technically, say to my kids that I love them in Swedish, it would remain bare words. It is only real if I say it in Estonian.

I want my kids to learn both Swedish and Estonian. (English is good, too, of course, but I believe that as long as they get two languages early on, picking up a third one and others thereafter will be much easier.)

My goal is quite practical and unambitious. I want them to have enough Estonian that when we are in Estonia, or in the company of my Estonian friends or relatives, the kids will understand what is going on around them, and be able to make themselves understood when needed. I don’t mind if they have a strong Swedish accent, or get the grammar all wrong. As a secondary goal, I want them to have a foundation in Estonian so that if they at some point decide to learn more, they won’t have to start from scratch.

Really the most important thing I do is the most basic one: I speak only Estonian to my kids. From the very first days I have only spoken Estonian to both Ingrid and Adrian. Anything else would feel artificial. I guess I could train myself to use some other language but I can’t see why I would want to.

I do this not only at home when we’re on our own, but also when there are others around, whether or not they speak Estonian. Almost all are understanding about this and don’t mind; for the very few who do mind and feel left out, I translate. I do use Swedish when I’m adressing everybody, e.g. when I’m talking to Ingrid and her friends.

I try to make sure that they have fun in Estonian: I read books, tell fairy tales, play games and sing songs. Every time we go to Estonia, we stock up on Estonian-language books and movies. When Ingrid asks me to read, I almost always pick an Estonian book.

When I don’t have enough material – when I can’t think of any more Estonian songs, or run out of fun Estonian books, I make up my own. I have my own translations of some of the most common children’s songs: Baa baa white sheep, Twinkle twinkle little star, Björnen sover etc.

When they want me to read a Swedish book for them, I read/retell it in Estonian instead – simultaneous interpretation. The first time with a new book might be a bit of a struggle, but by the third reading my Estonian retelling is as fluent as if I was reading. It just takes a bit of practice. (I usually don’t do this with Ingrid any more because she often reads along with me.)

I make sure that they hear a variety of Estonian. I expose them to other people speaking Estonian. We’ve been going to Estonian playgroup every other Sunday for several years. I encourage my mom to speak Estonian to Ingrid. (She doesn’t think it’s quite as important as I do and keeps switching into Swedish, but I keep reminding her.) We go to Estonia for about two weeks every summer for a thorough language immersion. I always notice a significant step up in Ingrid’s command of Estonian, and her willingness to speak Estonian, after each trip.

I also plan to find an Estonian babysitter at some point (= when Adrian is old enough to be left with a sitter). Ideally I’d like to find someone newly arrived from Estonia, who cannot even understand much Swedish, so that the kids would not be able to fall back to Swedish.

I used to prompt Ingrid to speak Estonian when she used Swedish when speaking to me. When she replied in Swedish or mixed in a Swedish word in an otherwise Estonian sentence, I’d ask her, “what’s that in Estonian?” and help her with the parts she couldn’t say in Estonian. But after a while that became too much of an uphill struggle, so I abandoned this. It is more important that Ingrid can speak freely to me, thinking about what she wants to say rather than how to say it.

Now I’m thinking of starting this up again but less ambitiously. Perhaps during dinner once a week, or fifteen minutes every evening, or something like that.

Things I don’t do. Send the kids to Estonian nursery or school – it would be too impractical for us, and I don’t value better Estonian skills highly enough to orient all our lives around this.

I also don’t force them to speak Estonian.

One afternoon last week Adrian’s group at nursery played with water: buckets and bowls and tubs of it. He must have loved it. Now whenever he has a container of water within reach, he turns whatever he was doing into water play.

He is thirsty. He takes his glass of water, drinks a few mouthfuls, and then with care and deliberation pours the rest on his chest.

He pours it on the kitchen counter, on himself, in a bowl of nuts, on the floor, in the utensil jar, on the windowsill… pretty much everywhere but the sink.

It does sort of complicate our meal preparations, but the kitchen counter and the floor in front of it get very clean.

This month’s big new thing is nursery, of course. Adrian is at nursery 5 days a week. Eric drops him of about a quarter past 8, and I pick him up shortly before 3. He has acclimatized well by now – I wouldn’t say he loves it but he is not unhappy. He has his favourite teacher but now accepts the others as well if she isn’t available. Often he “attaches” for the day to whoever receives him in the morning. And while he goes off and plays on his own, he likes to return frequently to the teacher during the day to confirm that she, his trusted, safe person, is still there.

He takes nice long naps at nursery, often an hour and a half, which is about the same as he does at home. And he now actually eats as well. Most of the time he keeps the same limited diet that he has done for the past two months or so, both at home and at nursery: bread, plus breadlike substances such as pasta or rice or pancakes; bananas, and occasionally other fruit; meatballs.

Oh, and breast milk of course. Most afternoons he starts pulling at my coat buttons as soon as I meet him at nursery, and we nurse a bit before we even go home. Then more nursing throughout the afternoon and evening, once or twice during the night, and then more in the early morning hours when he starts to become really hungry again.

I think of it as his B diet: Bread and Butter, Bananas, meatBalls and Breast milk. I think he’d be perfectly happy as long as he just got those four. Bananas in particular he’s almost obsessed with. We can’t even walk past the bananas at our local supermarket without him shouting to get one – sometimes even when he isn’t hungry. (The supermarket is kind enough to offer a free fruit to each kid, and he knows that drill very well.)

In the last few day’s he’s let himself be inspired by the other kids at nursery and actually tried some of the cooked food they serve. It remains to be seen whether this actually leads to him eating other food. When I put food in front of him or offer him something on a spoon, he either ignores it, or looks at it askance as if he suspected us of trying to poison him. The only time he is interested in tasting new food is when he grabs some ingredient while we’re cooking. And unfortunately neither raw potatoes nor raw garlic is particularly tasty.

Somewhere Adrian has also picked up the idea of dipping. (This may well come from Ingrid, who likes to do the same.) He dips or drops a piece of food in his glass of water and then tries to fish it out again. When the food is a piece of biscuit the result is pretty soggy.

His main area of development right now is language. It is not going fast; I think he is pretty baffled by the whole bilingual issue. He has a handful of sound combinations that are recognizable words, but just in general he is more and more able to vocalize when he wants to communicate something, and better able to understand us when we talk to him.

The range of sounds he uses is rather limited. Of consonants the only really productive ones are B and P. He makes other sounds as well, of course, but he uses those in most words. He also has a funny screechy sound that combines K and L – try saying “clock” but skipping the O in the middle, and then make it really explosive and forceful. He likes the sound it makes, but he’s also used it to actually say kl’a, meaning clock.

Vocabulary (as far as I can remember):
babaa for banana, böö for bread (“bröd” in Swedish), appa/bappa for daddy, aba for navel (“naba”), appe for paper (“papper”) for when he wants something wiped clean, bäpää for dummy/pacifier, bää bää for “Baa baa white sheep” (his favourite book).
mämmä for mommy, ampa for lamp, u’a (“uggla”) for owl, yy’pa (“flygplan”) for airplane, i’-u’ (“tittut”) for peekaboo, ack-ack for thank you (“tack-tack”).
hejaa for good-bye (“hej då”); this also doubles for good night, which he says when he wants to go to bed.
Something like idde for Ingrid if I recall correctly.

As you may have noticed his current vocabulary is clearly veering towards Swedish rather than Estonian.

Favourite activities: like last month, he is still very fon of helping us cook, and the microwave is a particular favourite. If anyone tries to do either of these without him, he will run there and cry and stretch his arms up and generally use all of his being to tell us that he really, really wants to watch and help.

When I cook he inspects all the ingredients of course, and likes to “help” me pour the water or add the flour or salt. (I don’t let him salt the food, of course, since he does it by the handful, but he can salt the pasta water.) Usually most of it ends up beside the pot he aims for.

He now also wants to see what is going on in the pots and pans, and asks me to lift the lid (and lift him closer when needed) so he can see inside. And he likes to watch me stir and whisk and flip pancakes and such, and hands me utensils when he thinks I’m doing too little of that kind of stuff.

He likes drumming and banging on things. Hands on toilet lid, cooking utensils on lamp shade or window, wooden puzzle pieces against each other.

He likes peekaboo: he hides his face in his hands, I ask “where is Adrian?” and then he looks out happily. This can also be played with my woolly hat. He likes woolly hats, and mine is slightly felted and thus a bit stiff, so it is easier for him to put on than his own one.

He likes songs and rhymes, especially those that come with movement. Eensy weensy spider, Põdra maja/I ett hus vid skogens slut… His absolute favourite is Kuts läks karja, a traditional Estonian rhyme, where he lies on his back and I make walking and running movements etc with his legs. He often asks for it (äta-äta) when I’m changing his nappy.

For a while he really liked playing with a book about birds and their sounds. It has a little media player attached, and he pushed the buttons again and again to hear the birds. In the same vein he likes his and Ingrid’s toy phones. And the real thing as well, especially when someone is at the other end, but he doesn’t understand what is going on, he just likes the fact that it makes sound and light.

Favourite things to spot: dogs and airplanes. He points out every airplane (“yy’pa!”) that flies past, and those are numerous here since Bromma airport is about 3 km away from here. And every time we see a dog he points and stares.

He usually likes going out. He now has no objections to putting on clothes, and tries to put on his woolly hat on his own, and to put his feet in the boots. When he fights clothes, it is not because of the clothes themselves but because he doesn’t want to go out just then.

He has a whole lot of teeth: all 8 front teeth, at least 4 molars, and all 4 canines are out as well.

This has been steady month with few news or blog-worthy events. But under the surface things seem to be happening, something is changing. Ingrid has been more tired than usual and often complains of headache or tummyache. Her reports of aches and pains are unreliable and I think what she is experiencing is more likely to be tension of some sort, rather than an actual ache. What the reason is, I do not know.

Most afternoons after preschool she doesn’t suggest bringing a friend home with us. When we get home, she might snack or she might go straight to watch a movie.

More and more she is also choosing to read. This is her go-to activity when she’s tired of or cannot watch a movie. She reads and re-reads her old Bamse issues. It isn’t effortless but she is a fast enough reader to read an entire story at least. Now she’s learning to make sense of punctuation, for pauses and tone. When is a sentence a question and when is it an exclamation?

The only other thing worth mentioning is her paintings. She regularly brings home paintings from preschool. Mostly she used to paint princesses or girls, or possibly us (her family). And she previously used the paint brush as a pencil, painting line drawings. Now she is painting more broadly and boldly, often filling the entire paper. For example, previously when she painted her girls & princesses she would first outline the dress and then colour it in with a different colour. Now she paints the dress as one whole.

She’s also been making abstract paintings. The dominant one is a starburst pattern, which she’s made in all sorts of colour schemes. She’s also made some that are simply broad bands of colour, all straight and of equal width but in different colours. I’m really curious about the starburst because it has been so persistent but haven’t had an opportunity to ask her about it.

I’d written off today before it even began, when I woke at 6.30 and realized that Adrian the Master Boob Sucker hadn’t nursed since midnight, had a totally dry nappy, and was even then uninterested in drinking more than a few sips of water. I roused him again at 7 for a few more sips. When he was no more willing to drink at 7.30 I started worrying for real and seriously thinking about hospitalization. I forced him awake and gave him an hour to make up his mind. Luckily he was now willing to drink and gradually perked up, and even ate some breakfast.

I can’t remember having been so relieved to see an ordinary wet nappy as I was today at 10.30.

And by the afternoon he was… well, not his usual self, but normally unwell rather worryingly so. Ingrid and I even went out skating. So the day wasn’t a total loss after all.

Adrian has contracted a rotavirus infection and has been sick since Wednesday afternoon. Very little sleep for either of us, and lots of cleaning up (of Adrian, us, his clothes, our clothes, the floor, the furniture, the bedclothes etc.) He’s improving but still unwell. Hence, no blogging.


Remember our bird feeder? It was up and running last winter, although all the building work around here meant that neither we nor the birds had optimal peace of mind to really enjoy it. This winter we’re all enjoying it more than ever.

The seed mix – sunflower and peanut – that we optimized in our experiments two years ago remains a great hit with the local birds. This year we improved it further: Eric found hulled and chopped sunflower seeds, which means that we don’t get that mushy pile of sunflower hulls underneath the feeder.

The mix of birds that it brings has changed, though. The Great Tits and Blue Tits are there as usual. The Jays and Nuthatches still come, but they are fewer than they used to be, and same with the Sparrows. The Magpies mostly came in autumn and now haven’t been around much.

Instead we have some new guests.

  • Siskins (Carduelis spinus, siisike, grönsiska) have absolutely dominated during the current cold snap. They move around in flocks of several dozens birds. When they come to feed, they come a few at a time, until there are around 15 of them on the ground beneath the feeder, another few at the feeder itself, and more in the trees and bushes nearby. They’re also easily spooked by bigger birds: when a blackbird or fieldfare flies by, even at some distance, the entire flock of Siskins takes flight in near-panic and flies into the trees. Since they are so many trying to take off at the same time, it isn’t rare for a few of them to hit our kitchen window. Luckily they haven’t gathered much speed yet when they reach the window and usually don’t even knock themselves out but fly straight on. While they sit around in the trees, they chirp and twitter constantly. You really can’t miss them when you walk past our yard. It does not surprise me at all that people like breeding them as songbirds.
  • Blackbirds (Turdus merula, koltrast, musträstas). They were more frequent arlier during the season when it wasn’t that cold yet but they come now, too. Just like the previous years, there’s either a single couple, or they just travel in pairs: I’ve seen single females and single males, but rarely more. They have trouble hanging on to the feeder: neither small and nimble like the tits and sparrows, nor strong like the jays, they struggle and wobble. They’re much happier on the ground. To accommodate them, we now spread food on the ground underneath the feeder, too. (The Siskins like that as well.)
  • Fieldfare (Turdus pilaris, björktrast, hallrästas). A big and bossy bird who likes to have the whole field for itself and chases away any others. It doesn’t hesitate to bully even the jays, who are their size if not larger. It likes to feed on the ground just like the Blackbird. It also likes to just sit there after feeding and look sullen, just because it can.

Among the rarer visitors, there is still the occasional Green Finch or Great Spotted Woodpecker. I also noted a pretty Redpoll (Carduelis flammea, urvalind, gråsiska) the other day.

More Siskins

This was Adrian’s first full week at nursery. It is going better and better: he has found a carer that he trusts and has bonded with, takes proper naps, is pretty happy during the day, and usually eats at least a sandwich or two. But his mood starts veering towards unhappy after their mid-afternoon snack, which takes place at about 2 o’clock, so I’ve been picking him up before 3.

Ingrid on the other hand is not interested in going home at 3 o’clock: all her friends are still there and she’s always in the middle of something important. So I can either: (a) take Adrian home, nurse and cuddle for a short while, and then get us bundled up again to return to nursery, (b) argue with Ingrid to make her go home with me, or (c) let Ingrid take her time and just hang around for an hour or so. None of the alternatives is much fun.

And since I leave work so early, and have totally unproductive afternoons that revolve around nursery pickups, I’m struggling to get things done both at work and at home. I’ve been getting in to the office extra early on some days, and occasionally catching up in the evenings, too, but stuff is still piling up.

Yay for weekends, when I can catch up on sleep (because of those early mornings) and make a dent in the piles waiting for my attention on my desk at home.

Often when I go out with Adrian – to the supermarket, on other small errands, to our Estonian playgroup, home from nursery in the afternoon – I take him on my back in a baby carrier, instead of a stroller.

Quite frequently someone comments on “how strong of you” or “I could never do that” (in Swedish it’s often “att du orkar”). They seem to think it requires a sacrifice from me, that I do this out of some feeling of duty.

But to me this is the easy way out. Pushing a 10 kg stroller up hilly streets filled with sand/snow mush? Getting up and down staircases, queueing for elevators? Squeezing into crowded buses and trains, navigating narrow aisles in shops? Not if I can avoid it.

The fact that it’s cosy having him on my back, resting his head against my back, pointing at the things we pass, is just an extra plus.