After I guest-posted on est.1975, Sarah was kind enough to return the favor. Sarah is married to a Spanish man and they are raising a bilingual child, with both English and Spanish. Contrary to popular information, she and her husband didn’t made a grand decision to raise their child with both languages. It happened more in a rather natural way and I must admit that it was the same for me as well. As for Sarah, maybe you’re already reading her fabulous and hilarious blog, est.1975. If not, you’re missing out!
My husband and I made no grand decision to raise a bilingual child.
What I mean by that is that there was no actual conversation about it. No solemn tête-à-tête. No weighing of options. There was only the following logic, so straightforward and apparent that we didn’t really feel the need to give actual voice to it:
My husband: “I speak Spanish.”
Me: “And I speak English.”
My husband: “So I guess we’re just going to keep doing that?”
It was literally just that simple.
When our son arrived into the world with a mewling cry that was decidedly neither Spanish nor English, we gifted him with one Spanish name and one English, because that seemed fair. My husband and his Cantabrian family began speaking to him almost exclusively in Spanish. My side of the family spoke to him in English.
Like I said, we never made an actual decision about it. We never had a discussion. We didn’t read any articles, talk to any doctors, or do research on the Internet. We didn’t have a plan or develop a strategy. We just did what felt natural. We went ahead and spoke to our son in the languages we already knew.
And my son learned.
Of course he did! He had to. After all, he had one set of caretakers speaking one language, and he had a whole different set of caretakers speaking an entirely different language. There was a biological imperative for him to learn both languages, particularly if he wanted to get to the point where he could order all of us around with the gusto and determination of the mighty toddler.
Which he did want. Very badly.
My son’s bilingual development was interesting to chronicle. By the time he was fifteen months old, he was regularly using 25 English words and 11 Spanish words. The English words mainly referred to tangible objects, like “dog” and “bottle” and “ball” and “Cheerio.” The Spanish words were primarily family identifiers, like “mamá” and “papá,” “yaya” and “yayo” (grandma and grandpa), and “tío” and “tía” (aunt and uncle.) Even at such a young age, Spanish was his comfort language, and it remains so to this day.
During every month that passed, he would pick up an exponential number of new words in each language, but always more in English than in Spanish. We didn’t worry about this too much, chalking it up to the simple fact that I was the stay-at-home parent, and what he heard from me, in nursery school, and on children’s television was spoken largely in English. We made no drastic changes, figuring that the Spanish language deficit would work itself out over time, and surely enough, it did. In about six months it had all but disappeared.
At 18 months he could fully understand everything we said in both English and Spanish, and by 27 months he was basically fluent in both languages. He did have the occasional “Spanglish” moment, however:
My son: “I need to put on my sock-etines.” (The word calcetines means “socks” in Spanish.)
My son (looking for his tennis ball): “Where did my pelota de tennis go?”
My husband: “¿Quieres fruta?” (“Want some fruit?”)
My son: “Si.”
My husband: “¿Qué fruta quieres?” (“What fruit do you want?”)
My son: “Ice cream.”
“Spanglish” moments persist even to this day. One particularly funny phenomenon that I’ve noticed is that when my son slips into English in the middle of a Spanish sentence, he still pronounces the English words with a Spanish accent. This happens with particular frequency with regards to American brand names. Trust me when I say you haven’t lived until you’ve heard an American 6-year-old pronounce the words “Crown Victoria” or “Burger King” with rolled R’s and a thick Spanish accent.
Translation mishaps also happen, as of course is natural at this age. I swear that my son has a mental block when it comes to translating the English term “credit card” into Spanish. The correct translation is “tarjeta,” but for some reason he always defaults to the word “carta,” which is the Spanish word for a written letter, or a playing card. I swear I have heard my husband correct this mistake 100 times. But in my son’s mind, the linguistic similarity between the English word “card” and the Spanish word “carta” is just too strong to resist. I expect this, and other similar errors in translation, to resolve over time.
When he makes mistakes, we correct him gently (and sometimes repeatedly), but we don’t go out of our way to pressure him. We’ve found that with pressure comes resistance. For example, for the longest time, my son refused to speak Spanish to people who were not native Spanish speakers, and when I say native, I mean “native to Spain.” His American aunt who spoke fluent Spanish? NOPE. Any one of the sizeable Mexican-American population in our city? NOPE. Anybody else with an accent that didn’t originate in Spain itself? NOPE. Absolute refusal. It was *his* comfort language and by God he wasn’t going to use it with anyone he didn’t feel 100% comfortable with. And apparently he only felt comfortable with Spaniards.
It was a rude and inconsiderate habit, and we always felt bad for the non-Spaniard Spanish-speaking people who tried to engage him, but the more we pushed him to change his ways, the more he dug his feet in. We eventually backed off, and now the problem is a thing of the past. Our son speaks to anybody and everybody who can understand him. In either language. Because he can and he wants to. He even tried to speak to the Chinese hotel housekeeper in Spanish the other week. (She found it confusing and adorable.)
I guess the point of all this is that when people come up to me and my husband, and they heartily congratulate us on raising a bilingual son, my response is usually to say “…thanks?” and look a little bewildered. Because as far as I’m concerned, my husband and I did nothing different than we would have done if we’d had no children at all. We just kept speaking the same way we always had. As I see it, it is my son who has done all the work, with his amazing little brain soaking up both of our languages and cultures in order to feel completely at home with either side of the family. Ever practicing, trying out new words and phrases, and perhaps most importantly, watching the World Cup with both English and Spanish commentary.