Bilingual kids: a few words from the finish line

“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.

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One in a Crowd: Group Culture vs. Individualism

            I remember the first time my kids had a big group of school friends over to our house in Buenos Aires – they were in 4th grade. There were about 10 kids sitting in a circle on our rooftop terrace mulling over what to play. I stood and spied at the door, amazed at how civil they were about their negotiations, how seriously they took it! And from what I knew so far about their new school, I thought ‘How wonderful that they should foster such a spirit of cooperation.’ I sensed I was seeing the effects of their new school culture playing out directly in their social lives.  I left them alone to play and came back to check on them about 20 minutes later. To my surprise, they were still seated in the same circle, but there was some arguing going on by then about what they were going to play: jump rope, la mancha, twister, etc. So I stepped in to mediate and pointed out that there were enough of them to break into smaller groups so everyone could play what they liked. They all looked up at me with perplexed faces until one spoke up: “What’s the point of getting together if we’re not going to all play the same thing?” Hard to know what to say to that.

Then again, I guess I shouldn’t have been so surprised if I think about how groups of Argentine adults socialize. Have you ever been at a party where Argentines predominate and somehow you find yourself in a circle in which all present participate in the same conversation, whether there are 5 or 25 of them? You really have to be assertive – not always easy to maneuver linguistically, regardless of how well you might speak Spanish. In terms of discourse, English-speakers tend to have two-way or very small groups conversations, which ensures that all present can make their individual points – stand out and make themselves heard, so to speak. But in the multi-player Argentine version, the numbers have a dimming effect on most of the speakers who don’t happen to be “big” personality types, so it’s kind of hard for all 25 to shine. I often find myself really wishing people would mingle more at social gatherings here instead of “the big circle”…

And just one more example of what I’m getting at, for any of you on school parent e-mail lists here, you know how annoying all those endless email responses like ‘sí; ok; de acuerdo; listo; también; etc.’ in your inbox can be? Recently, when one parent suggested we make a Yahoo group so as to only have to receive the one daily summary, with very few exceptions, the rest overwhelmingly e-voted the motion down, saying that they preferred to ‘see the ongoing exchange because it gave them a better sense of the group dynamic.’ Down with efficiency in the name of togetherness.

Anyway, back to the kids, unlike my school years, where class groups were shuffled with every passing year so we had to annually adapt to a new group, here in Argentina classes are kept together sometimes from as early on as preschool throughout elementary school, and even on through high school. In fact, at the first parent meeting at our kids’ new high school, several parents lamented how their children were struggling with having to leave their childhood class behind. The sentiment in our house is very different – we’re all celebrating the expanding social horizons high school has opened up to the kids. Mainly, we hope the new environment will allow them to more deeply explore their unique abilities and interests and excel as individuals, because elementary school seemed to be a lot more about fostering group interests, both socially and academically.

Like other foreign parents I have talked to, I found the lack of individual assessment from my children’s teachers disconcerting throughout elementary school; grade reports were mostly in the context of the child’s performance as part of the group. The two annual individual reports were formulaic and showed little knowledge of my kids’ academic strengths or weaknesses. Even though it is just as important to me as the next parent that my kids feel socially accepted and respect the group dynamic, it was strange to see how this played out  academically, as if individual achievement and group role were somehow at cross purposes. Just like the kids refusing to play until everyone agreed on the game up on the rooftop, I sensed a real premium placed on the group advancing “as one” with their coursework – let no child be left behind. The fact is faster learners were indeed left behind:  to boredom, or its constant companion – mischief, as they continued working on the same concepts until everyone caught up; not until then could everyone move on.

This idea of the whole class as part of a common project in unity is particularly at odds with the notion of differentiated work for individual students, whether they happen to be gifted in math or speak English as their native language. When it comes to proposals to allow native-English speakers to opt out of mandatory EFL classes, the central argument from school authorities is the disruption of group unity; they see this as potentially damaging to the child’s social acceptance and the overall group dynamic. This also applies to suggestions of differentiated, level-appropriate work for English natives, the argument again being that setting them apart may somehow break down the fabric of the class. It just seems to me that this pretty much disregards the academic needs of individual students in favor of the group.

Argentines are actually very self-critical about their own individualistic tendencies. You will often hear people lament how individualism has taken hold of the country, everyone only out for themselves, no concern for the common good, this of course being at the root of all the crime and corruption. Perhaps. But at least in terms of social education, what I see my kids absorbing is much more about going along with the group and putting their individual differences on a lower plain, both socially and academically. This surely promotes tolerance, solidarity and cooperation, but I have also witnessed how it teaches them to be careful not to shine too brightly.

All this has made me reflect on what I really believe in. If asked whether I favor a school environment that fosters group harmony and tolerance, of course the answer is yes; but it never would have occurred to me that such an environment might also downplay the importance of individual achievement in the same classroom because I don’t see the two as mutually exclusive. So this has led me to wonder about the notion of individualism in Argentina, which I sense is equated with selfishness, whereas I see it as  more related to each individual attaining his or her unique potential. In fact, the different angles the two languages take are illustrated in standard dictionary definitions of individualism. The English is from the American Heritage Dictionary, the Spanish from the Real Academia:

English

1. n. Belief in the primary importance of the individual and in the virtues of self-reliance and personal independence.

Spanish

1. m. Tendencia a pensar y obrar con independencia de los demás, o sin sujetarse a normas generales. (Tendency to think or operate independently of others or without abiding by general rules.)

Just in these definitions alone, you can see the contrasting values associated with the term. I suppose this would explain why, by the end of elementary school, I was feeling like my personal value system was slightly under assault. If nothing else, it has given me a lot to reflect on in terms of why these things bother me, and how much the cultural ethos we grow up in shapes our beliefs.

Then again, the slate has been wiped clean now that my kids have moved up to high school. And I am hopeful that we may see a different atmosphere of encouragement when it comes to their unique qualities, given that they certainly had to stand out in the crowd to get in in the first place. Ideally, this will provide some sense of balance in which they feel more confident to express themselves as individuals but remain sensitive to the larger group around them.