A bilingual baby a few months on…

Baby is walking and talking now, well talking… she says some words. After all these months of hectic work, I have finally conjured some strength and time! to sit down and write you all some lines.
The first few months aren’t easy, I am not talking of the string of nappies, sleepless nights and all the work that goes into the life of a little one, but about the self-consciousness that goes with speaking a foreign language by yourself to a tiny person that doesn’t really seem to respond much. It may sound strange and even banal, but I still haven’t met a foreign dad or mum who doesn’t feel a bit of a “fool” at the beginning talking this language that in some cases, for years, you have only used on the phone, over Skype or on holidays to visit family. Once I even met a French/Portuguese mum who confessed to have given up totally talking to her kids in Portuguese for that very reason, and this was a person who had grown up bilingual in a foreign country. So, maybe this is not such a trivial issue!

Spanish Toddler

Toddling through a multilingual environment.

The idea of choosing this topic as the first one for the comeback, after months of keyboard silence is to encourage other parents in the same situation, and convey the message, that yes, it’s hard, but it’s okay, everybody feels like this. After all, there were times when people believed that learning and things that were worthwhile were supposed to be “hard”. But that’s another story.
The first months for me were hard in the sense that I felt very self-conscious talking in this language, Spanish, that I only rarely spoke in England and mostly I spoke to my family and friends back home on the phone. The Spanish community in England is very different from that of the USA. In the USA I have the impression that there are whole clusters of Speaking communities, where extended families keep in touch and celebrate the traditional festivals of their country of origin. In the UK the situation is quite the opposite, Spanish speakers tend to immigrate individually, usually to study for a few years and then they may stay out of choice or because they’ve met somebody or they found a job that would be impossible back home. Although there are some exceptions, as a general rule most Spanish speakers live in mixed couples, with the partner being an English speaker or sometimes from a different country, so English will always indefectively be the language of power. It is not rare to see children from mixed couples understand perfectly well what is said to them in Spanish but answer back in English and refuse to speak Spanish.
This should be used to illustrate the point that no matter how stupid you feel talking in your language in front of other English speakers, even if you are in a group and nobody speaks Spanish, you should really persevere. After all, when I am walking down the street and I hear a Polish parent speaking to her little one in Polish I feel that situation as totally normal. My Russian friend speaks to her daughter in Russian in front of anybody and it feels right. People will think it’s great and wonderful that your little kid can speak this other language. So, why do we feel stupid?
Anyway, it’s all a matter of training, keep at it and it will become second nature. Just concentrate in your family, your target, and ignore what anybody else may think.
Just to finish off today, I will give you some updates on how Little One is doing. She almost 18 months old and of course she has started saying some single words. At this point, I’d like to add that apparently bilingual kids tend to reach linguistic milestones at the same time as their monolingual peers, and there is not any scientific study that proofs that they don’t or that they develop speech later. Anyway, she is saying single words as any little boy or girl her age would. The interesting thing is that although she understands both English and Spanish, she chooses to say the shorter and easier word, which in our case tends to be English, compare: zapato-shoe, pelota-ball… however, she would say nene/nena instead of child/kid, or “pipi” Spanish baby talk for “pájaro – bird”.
We have also been working with French, but not as much. She seems to understand and love her favourite cartoon “Didou” a small rabbit that teaches kids to draw, and even one day out of the blue, without prompt or ever having been pushed to say French words she said “bonjour, mami”.
I will try to post regularly and keep you updated!

Comments

  1. Lidia thank you so much for posting this! I am in exactly the same situation as you wanting to raise my little boy bilingually Spanish/English. He is 16 months old and has started saying single words only in Spanish at the moment. When people talk to him in English he looks at them blankly! So even though I was raised bilingually and I know everything will work out, I have days when I get nervous about what people think and hope that when he starts school he won´t feel alienated if Spanish is still his stronger language.

    At the moment, although he hears English when we go out and from most other family members and visitors, Spanish is his main language of interaction. I am with him everyday speaking to him in Spanish, my husband speaks to him probably 70% of the time in Spanish, and my Mum speaks to him in Spanish also. So I wouldn´t say he is being raised bilingually yet because he hasn´t got the same exposure to English as Spanish, and therefore only knows Spanish so far! This makes me nervous sometimes as I wonder when he´ll start to understand English.

    It´s great to hear of another person doing the same as me so thanks for the encouragement!

  2. In my case although my kids tend you use Spanish mixing some words here and there in Welsh and English when they can not remember the translation, from a very early age they know the rule “one person, one language”. So instinctively would translate between Welsh and Spanish depending if they spoke with Mum or Dad.
    What I find quite interesting now is my older one tends to do construction of phrases in Spanish with the grammatical order of Welsh. He didn’t start with English until being 4 years old. However my youngest who started with an English childminder uses more the grammatical construction of English… “que es esto para?” or “a mi me gusta tu” he says :)
    Another thing is how instinctively they adapt words from one language to other… like calling a tap in Spanish “tapa” instead of grifo, or taking a English verb, making it Welsh by adding “io” and then congugating it into Spanish “el avión se crushió”.

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