Sunday, July 29, 2012

Toddler Spanglish

So, for the past 23 months, I have been speaking to Desmond primarily in Spanish and Billy primarily in English.  We have had only Spanish-speaking nannies and caretakers for Desmond and read him a nice mix of Spanish and English board books.  I was lucky enough to have a foundation of Spanish (having spoken it first) before I moved to the United States, but after moving here and learning English (mostly via Sesame Street), English became my primary spoken language and I unfortunately have lost a considerable amount of Spanish throughout my 28 years here. 

When we took Des to his 18 month well-child checkup, the doctor kept asking us milestone questions, like does he eat a variety of solid foods and can he play by himself for five minutes (not sure if those were the questions exactly...refer to the ages and stages questionnaire for more info).  I had answered "yes" to most questions he said, puffing my chest out like a proud bird mama, until he asked me the following question: "Is he communicating with you using words?"  Ummm... "How many words does he know?"  I racked my brain for the words he did use...hurry, hurry, Scarlett...the doctor is looking at you! 

"Um, he knows how to say Mama and he says his dad's name, Bill...but he says it like Bewwww."  "Anything else?"
"Um, his favorite word is 'bah' for ball."
"Is that all?"

Shit.  That was all.  I felt like Des and I failed the test.  I nodded my head yes as I tried to see what the doctor was writing in his chart. 

"Is that bad?  Should he be speaking more at this age?"
"Well, every child is different, but 90-95% of all children have at least 5-10 words that they are saying by now, so the lack of words worries me slightly.  We'll have to have a hearing test just to make sure."
"Wait!  Did I mention that I speak to him in Spanish full-time?"
A-ha!  I knew that would explain it all.  The pediatrician thought for a second and said, "well, yes, there could be a minor delay but not by much.  Let's order a hearing test just to make sure."

As we sat there waiting patiently for the hearing test, I looked down at Desmond and took in his beautiful blonde hair, his double chin (inherited from my mother's side of the family), and the fat roll above his knee and tears started welling up in my eyes.  Now I understood why my mother would exhort me to dress and act nicely around strangers I could care less about...Des is, just as I was at that moment, an extension of myself and anything that any stranger thinks about Des is a reflection on me.  Was I a bad mother for talking to Des in Spanish in an English-speaking environment?  Was I confusing the heck out of his little mind?  Of course I hoped that the hearing test would show that his hearing was fine (I was confident it was), but the tiniest little smidge of my pride wanted there to be something else wrong so that my choice of parenting methods wasn't proven wrong.  Silly, right?

Fast forward six months later and Des is communicating very well.  I've seen toddlers his age who are able to communicate fluently and others that are not able to do it so well.  We haven't met any toddlers that are being raised bilingual, so we can't really compare (not that we should...comparing kid to kid is a no-no, as many a parent would tell you).  What is fascinating as I watch Des develop his language skills is that he hears two versions of a word for the same thing and then chooses the easier word to name that thing.  For example, he chooses to say ball instead of pelota and bird instead of pajarro, but will say "ass" for gracias instead of thank you and espuma (spuma) for bubbles.  He also says pan for bread, gato for cat, "boooos" (bus) for bus, etc.  And then for some English words, he'll say with a Spanish accent, like "mahn" for man, and "Dahn" for his uncle dan.  He doesn't even blink an eye when I inadvertently switch from Spanish to English (like when I'm translating an English book into Spanish). 

In a Colombian supermarket, teaching him what a papaya looks like.

It'll be exciting to see how his language will develop.  Hopefully, we'll be able to spend more of our lives living in countries where Spanish is the primary language so that Desmond (and Billy and I) can incorporate it more into our daily lives and Des could come out of that experience having a firm foundation of the language that someday he could pass on to his children as part of his Hispanic heritage.

Desmond, running through the streets (sidewalks) of Bogota.