Of all the children’s books we have, my personal favorite is “Die Grosse Wörter Fabrik.” The book is about a land in which all words are produced and printed by a large factory and if you want to say a word you have to buy it and swallow it. Some words are very cheap, to the point of being free while others are very expensive. The character Paul wants to tell Marie how he feels about her, but unfortunately he doesn’t have enough money to do that. But what he does have iare three words he caught in his butterfly net: “Kirsche, Staub, Stuhl”(cherry, dust, chair). His enemy, Oskar, has the ability to tell Marie how he feels because he has plenty of money and when Paul hears him declare his love to Marie he despairs. There is no way he can live up to that, no way he can communicate his feelings with those three words. But he tries anyway and puts all the feeling he can into his words and, “they fly through the air like precious pebbles.” In the end, Marie looks at him, still smiling and gives him a soft kiss because she has no words at all and Paul uses his last word, “again!”
In so many ways, this book reminds me of our multilingual journey. Having three languages effectively means that Alpha’s vocabulary is a third what it would be if he were raised monolingually. A lot of the times he doesn’t have the words he needs to make his request and therefore, has to rely on body language or the words he does have. Once, DH was building a screen for a window and Alpha was watching. Finally, he went “Papa! Papa! Papa!” over and over again and DH glanced at me and said, “I wish he would tell me something else instead of repeating the same work over and over again.”
“But, honey, he can’t ask you something else. He doesn’t know how. He’s saying ‘Papa! Papa! Papa!’ because he sees what you’re doing but he doesn’t have words to describe what you’re doing and he wants you to tell him!”
DH thought about this and then proceeded to tell Alpha what he was doing in Finnish, giving him all the words that he would need. I then told him in German what DH was doing and then Alpha happily talked about how “Papa baut ein Schirm. Keine Mücken!” (Papa is building a screen. No Mosquitos! We needed the screens to put in front of our windows so we could open them without mosquitos invading our house).
Sometimes he code switches. One day after quiet time he came downstairs and told me, “Ich habe Ruhezeit gemacht Betan kanssa.” (I had quiet time with Beta) I don’t know why, but for some reason, his little brain decided Betan kanssa (with Beta, Finnish genative case) was an easier way to express what he did than mit Beta.
Aside from that, there’s the simple fact that as a non-native speaker of German, I end up making up a lot of words or using the ones I do know to refer to other things. For the longest time, I called the gears we had “Gänge” because I knew that meant gear. Then finally I looked up the proper word for it and discovered the accurate term for them was “Zahnrad.” Whoops. Like the Word Factory in the book, I sometimes spew out words that don’t make sense and Alpha ends up buying them. I guess they get the idea across most of the time and I know he’ll be able to unlearn many of them in the future. As the book says Was macht man eigentlich wit einem Bauchredner? Well, you figure out that Bauchredner was a word Mom made up because she didn’t know of the accurate one.
He’ll thank me later, I’m sure.