“Look, la muna!” Three little words that encompass two worlds. This is the first complete sentence I remember, the first spoken record of our escapades as a bilingual family. It was a spring evening, so he would have been about 18 months old. He was on his father’s shoulders, walking home from the playground at dusk when he looked up at the night sky, pointed and made this colorful observation. We were still living in Virginia then, so it was natural that the imperative (“Look”) would have been more accessible to him in English, since commands are what kids learn first based on mere frequency (toddlers being particularly bombarded by the likes of ‘Look, a car! Look, an elephant! Look, the moon!) But then he instinctively switched to Spanish because he knew he was talking to his dad, getting the gender of the article right, and finally did that magical thing that shows he knew the next word in both languages by splicing ‘moon’ with ‘luna’ – a perfectly bilingual sentence that encompasses grammar, syntax and sociolinguistic acumen. And this is the way language nerds talk about their kids’ developing language skills.
I have often started to write about bilingual kids, but always abandoned the attempt because I feel like what I have to say is mostly pretty darn obvious. And there’s so much out there on the subject already, who could possibly need convincing that bilingualism is a good thing, even more so when it happens naturally? However, after recently hearing two stories from other parents in which their kids’ language skills were questioned, I’ve decided that it’s at least worth speaking up for the bilingual community here in Buenos Aires, since these two cases would indicate that there’s still just a whole mess of nonsense on the loose out there.
Case 1: Mother (US) of 4-yr-old twins is told by Argentine preschool teacher that their language skills are lacking and that she should stop speaking English to them, because clearly they are confused.
Seriously? The whole language confusion argument still? Rather than questioning their family dynamics, the teacher should be applauding the parents of those kids for giving them the gift of bilingualism; then she could have taken five minutes to google language acquisition in bilinguals, in twins, and twin language, to learn that all three of these factors may add up to some differentiation in terms of the language these two boys are producing at age 4 in comparison to their monolingual classmates. I say differentiation (not delay) because, after four years in a bilingual home, these kids’ amazing little brains have fully incorporated the complexities of English and Spanish by now. Therefore, while what they say may come out as a creative mix for a while still (particularly in the case of identical twins who also happen to be producing their own unique twin-language), this should be cause for fascination, not concern. And in the knowledge that within the next year or so, they will produce both languages appropriately based on context. Right now they are still immersed in a rich duality that is anything but confusing—it is a world twice as large. What young bilinguals do with language is double the fun. Period. Teachers who can’t appreciate this get a bad grade in my book.
Case 2: Parents (mother UK, father US) of a 12-year-old bilingual daughter, born and raised in Buenos Aires, are told by a tutoring institute that their daughter will likely not be fit to take the tough entrance exams for secondary school, since she comes from a home where neither parent is a native-Spanish speaker.
So the assessment here is that, even though this girl has spent her entire childhood in the Buenos Aires public school system, doing all classwork in Spanish, socializing with Argentine peers and immersed in entirely Spanish monolingual surroundings outside her home, and clearly speaks native Argentine Spanish, the fact that she speaks English with her parents and siblings is seen as somehow detrimental to her chances to pass the entrance exams. Interesting.
Similar to the case of the twins, the theory here is that the “other” language must surely get in the way of academic success. Ironically, schools prioritize English as a foreign language in a major way here, with most proudly waving the bilingual education flag. Personally, I think what happens is that second language skills are often seen wholly as an academic pursuit, at least for kids—something to work towards mastering when they get older. And to their credit, many schools do an excellent job of teaching English. The idea of acquiring both languages simultaneously at home, however, is apparently viewed by some educators with skepticism. I hate to lecture, but Linguistics 101, people: language learning (happens in school); language acquisition (happens at home or in natural language setting). The latter is available to us all in mono- or multilingual version, with window of opportunity lowering at around age 12. Those lucky enough to have access to the multilingual version are just, well, luckier!
Enough about the limitations of certain educators. When I was pregnant with my own twins (mine now competent bilinguals and therefore doubly exasperating teenagers), I spent a lot of time reading articles about raising bilingual children, much of it prescriptive. Honestly, of everything I read, only one story from a Greek-American family resonated and has stayed with me over the years. The approach was simple: “Language is always a topic of conversation in our family. We discuss it over meals, ponder why people say what they say, talk about books and how they’re written, make up words, splice grammar across languages, play word games, etc. In general, we just give the subject of language a ridiculous amount of air time, and otherwise try to keep a balance between both languages.”
As for all the other approaches—one language, one parent; half-day one language, half-day the other; meal times always in minority language; exclusive use of minority language in home—I just knew we wouldn’t be able to follow the rules. What I did know was the basic math of language: you get out what you put in. Children acquire language at the rate they are exposed to it, as long as it is has a meaningful place in their life. So in the early years in the US, we aimed for roughly equal use of both languages from the beginning in all possible contexts: we formed playgroups with other native-Spanish speakers, socialized ourselves among both language groups, made regular trips to Argentina and forged relationships between our kids and their Argentine cousins. We happily adhered to and upheld the ‘language as a topic of conversation’ principle, repeating stories of the silly things we’ve all said (my gender gaffes in Spanish: I once went on at length about my wedding veil, referring to it with the wrong gender (la vela). Meaning I was telling people I’d worn an antique candle on my head. Or how their dad once asked if it was ok to use the ‘wheelberry’ to cart the leaves…) And the ‘meaningful place’ was easy: it has always been in books, stories and music, these shifting languages (in the opposite direction) as we’ve shifted countries.
In our case anyway, I think this last point has been just as relevant as frequency of exposure to both languages. Even more so. It’s the meaningfulness that is key. This is what differentiates language in a natural setting from language-learning in a classroom. When our kids were toddlers, their father told them stories he’d make up (ongoing sagas) every night in Spanish. They’d lay there in the dark, completely immersed in the adventures of Max, el perro de rescate, in which they were always protagonists. Or Selena y Tiniebla, the warring queens of either side of the moon. Later, once we’d moved to Spain and then to Argentina, every time we were in the car for any length of time, we’d dissolve hours listening to audiobooks in English of stories by Maurice Sendak and Roald Dahl (the H. Potter years I’ve already said more than enough about). And just loads of music in both languages. They knew all the María Elena Walsh songs; went around our house banging buckets and pretending to be orphans as they blasted the soundtrack from Annie; and at age 4 did a strange backyard performance of Don McLean’s American Pie while dressed in sequins and white gloves. Meaningful stuff.
Even though this sounds slightly like a circus house, it was actually a strategic plan. And not always easy. And not always balanced. When they started kindergarten in the US, they stopped speaking Spanish after the first week. Their dad was desperate. A few years after moving to Argentina, Spanish replaced English as the language they spoke to each other. In pre-adolescence, they’d get annoyed if I addressed them in English in public, insisting I only speak Spanish. When they started high school, they stopped speaking English to me at all for a brief period. It made me angry. Now they get exasperated if I speak to them in Spanish in public. If I do, they answer me in English. Go figure. They gossip, text, study and party all in Spanish. One writes songs lyrics only in English; one prefers reading in English. We have come full circle. It has been a worthwhile 18-year commitment.
My point here is that, for any of you out there with little bilingual people in the making, if you run into so-called educators who question what you’re doing with language in your house, please feel free to ignore them entirely. You are doing important work.