#123 the gift of another language

Today I read this blurb about a new research study that says babies who grow up in a bilingual environment better their brains because of it.  Which frankly, is a big fat Duh.  Because our brains, see, they like to be stretched.  And when you stretch them, they grow more.  And do better.  And you get smarter.  Makes sense to me.

But not to everyone.  When we first started doing the kid thing and specifically the bilingual thing, we had more people to fall into the camp of “Doesn’t that just mess with their little heads?  Doesn’t that screw them up?  Confuse them?”  To which I would usually say this – Does it confuse your child when you call a cup a ‘cup’ and a ‘glass’ and a ‘sippy’?  No.  She just eventually learns they all mean the same thing.  And that’s how it is for toddlers too.  They can learn that a monkey is a monkey.  Or a mono.  But that they are one in the same.  They don’t really get which words go with which language in the beginning.  And that is fine.  Because categorizing them will come later.  It’s enough to just learn them.

We adopted from Guatemala, in part, because of the language issue.  Husband is the Spanish-speaker in our house.  His Spanish is damn near native.  When he speaks to native speakers here and abroad they are constantly trying to figure out where he is from.  Because he sounds like a Honduran.  (That’s where his Spanish really got fluent.)  But he’s so strangely tall….

My Spanish is another story all together.  According to my high school transcript, I had two years of it.  And got straight As.  But between you and me, I really only had 6 weeks of it.  And the rest of the time I flirted with football players and played Poker.  Because when the Spanish teacher left our school in October of my first year, they couldn’t replace her.  So I had a string of random subs (none of whom spoke Spanish) whose only concern was to keep us physically in the classroom and physically from not touching each other.  (Raging teenage hormones!)  And then in my second year of  Spanish they finally replaced her.  With a French teacher.  (I guess they felt that was close enough.)  I don’t know really how I got the As…but it makes me wonder what other kids got.

So the summer before I went to college I had to take a placement exam to see which level of Spanish I should be in.  Only the placement exam was the last scheduled thing of Summer Orientation.  And if I skipped it, I would get home in time to go on a date with another cute football player.  So I said What the Hell and signed up for Latin instead.

And yes, I did take a year of Latin in college.  But my teacher was blind.  And I am evil.  So I took advantage of that a lot and skipped class.

So anyway, Spanish.  I didn’t really speak much except two sentences: Yo tengo una cita con Maria.  And El burro sabe mas que tu.  (And I never really had a date with Maria or knew any smart donkeys.  So neither of these were helpful.)

But we knew if we adopted a child from another land, we’d want to do all that we could to help him retain some of his birth culture.  And that includes language.  So we ended up deciding we were going to raise our kids to be bilingual.  And here’s what happened:

Kid #1 comes along.  A little baby.  Like all first time mothers, I do everything “right.”  Which means I read crazy books about parenting and overanalyze everything and never let him out of my sight.  I spend way too much time “talking” to him.  Narrating everything I am doing.  Naming everything I see.  Reading books out my ass.  Etc.  And yes, much of this was in Spanish.

Husband spoke only Spanish to him.  I spoke as much Spanish as I could.  Which was beginning to grow some.  Because we bought a bunch of toddler board books in Spanish that basically acted like little picture dictionaries for me.  I learned all the animal names, body parts, food names, etc.  I had a toddler’s vocabulary.

When that kid started talking (and yes, he was a “late” talker – something that can be common among bilingual kids), he started talking in Spanish.  His first word was agua.  Second was apple.  But 3rd -7th were Spanish too.  And so on and so on.  Probably because he was beginning to talk by “naming” stuff…and that is something that we did mostly in Spanish and not so much in English.

Then we adopt baby #2.  And a few months later (before this baby is verbal at all) we bring home kid #3.  Who happened to be 4.5 years old.  His language story is another story all together.  But when he came to our home, he spoke not a word of English of course.  And Daddy left the state for three weeks.  So Mommy was on her own.

Before Daddy left, I had him make me flashcards of key phrases I needed to say.  “Do you need to go to the bathroom?”  “Are you hungry?”  “Don’t drink poison.” etc.  And there was many a phone call from me to Daddy where I put him on the phone to translate.  But we got through it.  (Not without incident, I may add.  When Husband got home Kid told him I was pregnant.  Apparently I messed up that conversation about me feeling embarassed.)

During that three weeks, my Spanish increased exponentially.  It had to.  I was parenting a new kid who was talking to me.  He couldn’t understand what I was saying in English.  So  I had to learn.  At that time, First Kid was now 2.5.  And very verbal.  He did, in fact, translate things for me.  I should note that his own Spanish at that time was way better than mine.  He sometimes would listen to someone talk to him in English (like a family member of ours who didn’t speak Spanish at all) and answer them in Spanish.  He frequently mixed up Spanish and English words in the same sentence.  He was genuninely fluent in both languages.

I read a bit about raising kids in a bilingual environment.  And it was neat to watch Kid #1 go through the stages that he was “supposed” to go through.  He eventually (around age 3) got to the level where he would talk to Daddy in Spanish and Mommy in English.  Or answer the person in the language they had spoken to him originally.  It was really neat to see.

But back to Kid #3.  He came to us and immediately developed a horrible, painful stutter.  It was really awful.  We sought out speech therapy…but couldn’t find anyone who could work with him in Spanish.  Everyone said, “Call me when he can talk in English.”

Now at that  point we were both speaking only Spanish in the home.  He did hear English out and about and from other family members, etc.  But not very much.  Because he was newly home and we were still hunkering down and keeping his world pretty small.  We had a bunch of reasons for wanting to leave things that way.  1 being that he clearly had some language delays even in Spanish.  (We suspect he may have heard only an indigenous language the first three years of his life, adding to his language confusion.)  From my reading, it would be better for his brain to first master Spanish before learning English.

But we eventually had to weigh that against the speech issues that were getting worse, and the social ramifications those would have.  And so, we switched to the one parent/one language model.  Meaning I started talking in English only.  And Husband kept up the Spanish.

Only right at that time, Husband got a different job where he was gone LOTS and I was not.  And so the kids started hearing 80% English/20% Spanish.

There were other things we did at this point too, to try to counter it.  They only watched movies/TV if it was in Spanish.  We listened to Spanish songs.  Had playdates with other native speaking families, etc.  But we relented to the fact that likely our kids would soon switch over to English as their dominate language.

And they did.  To make matters “worse,” Husband started coaching Kid’s sports teams and thus needed to speak English to him in those settings, etc.  So the amount of Spanish they were all hearing started to dwindle.

Today, two years later, it’s virtually non-existent.  Because we’ve simply gotten out of the habit of it.  Husband reads to them a picture book in Spanish each night.  And they totally get what is going on.  Baby #1 (the now 5 year old) still has the best Spanish vocabulary.  Still better than mine.  Kid (now 7 year old) has almost completely lost his Spanish entirely.  It pains my heart to watch old home movies and hear those words dance so freely from his tongue.  The same words that he struggles to remember now.  And the four year old has the smallest amount of Spanish of the three.  Maybe because we switched over to mostly English during his “critical” period…or maybe because by the time he came along I had mastered the art of neglect.  But either way, he’s heard less Spanish and speaks less too.  He still understands some.  But not as much as his brothers.  And he rarely ever chooses to say any words at all in Spanish.

I don’t regret the language decisions we made.  Because we did what we had to do.  But I do feel sad about it.

However, all is not lost.  From my readings, I decided early on that as long as we lived in community that spoke English, we could never really truly hope for genuinely bilingual kids.  But it was still a worthy goal to shoot for kids who spoke a decent amount of Spanish.  And who always retained that language ability in the corners of their brains, so that they could one day pick it up again if they chose to return to their first homes to live.  And I believe we are accomplishing that.

It’s obvious that I’m excited about Mexico this summer.  And it’s in our plans to spend a good amount of time in Guatemala next year.  One of the largest reasons for both of these trips is the language thing.  We want these words to keep jumping around in their brain so they don’t lose them all together.

So…to round this all off…(If anyone is still reading.  I realize this has gotten long and boring…)

I am thankful for the Spanish thing in our family.  Because:

1.  I have learned another language.  I still like to say I don’t speak Spanish.  But the truth is I do speak a little.  Very badly.  And all in present tense.  But I do know enough to carry on a conversation with friends who don’t speak English.  So that’s something.  And it’s really amazing and beautiful to me that this is because of my kids.  That they have essentially taught me this.  And I’m sure I will have them to thank if it wards off Alzheimer’s or something one day.

2.  If you examined our family from an objective “academic” sense, you would see that one child (5 year old) really got a true bilingual household in his language formative years.  And I don’t think it’s a total coincidence that he’s the verbal brainy one now.  He’s the one who loves language.  Reads and writes all the time.  Is ahead of his peers in all things language related.  (Actually…come to think of it…the other kid in his class who is right there with him is also bilingual…)  Yes, I realize this is a combination of nature and nurture.  That he is who he is.  But I do believe the other language thing played into this as well.  A way to expose and stretch natural talents he had.

3.  We’ve given them SOMEthing.  Might not be all that I’ve wanted it to be.  But Spanish is not a strange language to them.  And I’m 100% confident that their Spanish is better than those of the kids their age who attend our local Spanish immerson school.  So I feel like that’s something.

All in all, I’m glad we tried to work so hard in the beginning.  And I’m hopeful that this summer we’ll switch over and get back in the habit of using more Spanish at home.  Because it’s just good.  Anyway you slice it.


2 responses to “#123 the gift of another language

  1. I struggled so much with this. I speak Spanish pretty well. Acceptably. Not native, but pretty good. If I was immersed, it would blossom. I really wanted to try to speak Spanish with Lina but its tiresome to translate for the other adult all the time. So I got lazy. I got CDs for my husband, he listened for about a month and that was it. He says “I’ve got you, why do I need to learn?” Now that Lina is in Kindergarten and we’ve found out that she has a visual processing disorder and is struggling with reading/writing/math, I’m not sure whether to be grateful or sorry that I didn’t stretch her brain with Spanish early on.

    Now her mother tongue is another story all together. I have really tried to learn some Mandarin (she was born hearing Cantonese, however….specifically probably Taishanese) so I was also concerned about getting her switched quickly to English. Now this worked! Our girl has complete mastery of English….she is very eloquent for a six year old. I tried to officially study Mandarin last fall, but it totally kicked my butt! I’ve studied Spanish, French, Italian and German and have done well in all. I don’t know if its because I’m now 41 and lazy or if it truly is that hard, but I gave up! Now I have all these Mandarin text books and workbooks laying around and all I want to do is take Intermediate Italian. Humph.

    Lina has some Spanish now in school and will have the opportunity to continue learning more as she gets into higher grade levels. I’m pretty sure she’ll stick with that because half of our family speaks passable Spanish.

    What do I do about the Mandarin though? I feel like I’m doing her a disservice by not making sure she can hold her own in her native country! Yikes.

  2. You know. Here’s my two cents about this. First off, since neither of you speak Mandarin, you can’t realistically expect her to ever really “master” it. Exposing it to her (language classes, TV shows, exchange students, baby-sitters, whatever) is probably the best you can hope for. Period. And you can’t beat yourself up about that because it is what it is.

    In our case, I figured out early on that since neither of us had Spanish as a first language, and since we weren’t living in a Spanish-speaking place, there was only so much we could hope to achieve.

    Honestly, from my own observations, the only truly fluently bilingual kids I’ve encountered are either ones where parents don’t speak English (e.g. they speak Spanish at home and kid learns English when he goes to school) or ones where parents do the one-language/one-parent method like we used to do. Only the non-community language has to be spoken by the parent who is the primary caregiver.

    For example, 4’s two best friends are both Japanese-American. In both of their households, Mom is from Japan and speaks only Japanese to the kids. Dads are both from the States, although both dads do speak Japanese too. But in those houses, it works for the kids because they are with Mom all day and they speak mostly Japanese…until they are playing with friends, at school, etc. and then they switch to English.

    We have friends whose kids hear German from Dad about as often as our kids hear Spanish. So like our family, their kids understand another language pretty well. But rarely speak it.

    Another set of friends where the mom speaks Spanish and the dad English. And they are mostly with mom. Kid is fluent in both. And kid can switch with ease back and forth when she travels to her family in Mexico, etc.

    Anyway, you know of course that Mandarin falls into a whole different language family than Spanish/Italian/English, etc. And so naturally it’s much harder for you to learn.

    Experts seem to think that you can never gain fluency in a language if you aren’t exposed to it before puberty. (This has to do with the way your brain wigs out at puberty or something. I’d have to go look it up.) I don’t know that I agree with that, though. Because my husband is really fluent. And he didn’t start to learn Spanish until High School.

    BUT…(and this is another subject all together), he’s one of those people whose brain likes to soak up new languages. He’s fluent in Spanish. Speaks a fair amount of French. Had to pass German exams for his last degree. Has studied Latin, Greek, and Hebrew. And last summer started teaching himself Arabic. And each time he drops 4 off at his buddy’s house, he attempts to talk with his mom in Japanese. (He only knows a few phrases, but still.)

    My brain is the flat out opposite of that. I believe I will never really “think” in Spanish. That I will always have to translate and conjugate in my head as I am talking. Our brains are just wired differently.

    Enough rambling. Interesting topic. I’m sure I will have more thoughts on this when we head south this summer…

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