And, just like that, with one simple observation, my new-mom fears of “What if she doesn’t understand the minority language?” and “What if my errors get in the way of her learning Spanish?” were allayed. (For more of my “what ifs?” check out this previous blog post.)
My husband, D., and I were recently enjoying a picnic dinner with friends at a local city park.
I was engrossed in conversation with a friend, while E. wandered off to play with the other children. Five minutes later, I turned around, drawn to the banjo and singing of my friend, T., only to find E. climbing on her lap, hoping to get a closer look at the banjo’s strings. Seeing that T. – herself a mother – didn’t seem to mind the extra company, I turned back to resume my conversation. But, my conversation partner, also a parent, had been dragged off in a different direction by his daughter. So, I made my way to the music, where T. was explaining to E. how the banjo worked.
Only E. wasn’t really paying attention.
Laughing, T. looked at me and said, almost embarrassed, “I don’t think she understands any English!”
Knowing she meant no harm, I laughed and responded, “You’re probably right. Or, maybe just a little.”
At 16 months, E. is quite the charlatana, or talker. Most of what she babbles resembles “beer, beer, beer” and “bee-bee-bee.” She will occasionally pronounce “adios” and “besos”, and most recently we heard what we think is an hola and maybe gracias.
But, no. No English. (Yet.)
That’s to be expected: almost all of the direct language input E. receives on a daily basis is Spanish. From me, from papá, and from the numerous Spanish-language play dates I organize each week with friends from Colombia, Spain, and El Salvador.
Since T.’s comment that evening in the park, several other friends have asked, “Is she talking yet?” “What can she say?” “No English?”
Some are comments of concern (“When will she learn English?”). But, I’ve been pleasantly surprised that most friends and neighbors have responded with encouragement and enthusiasm.
“Her first language will probably be Spanish,” I’ll say. To which, some have exclaimed, “Cool! I wish I could speak Spanish.”
“Our neighbors, friends, and extended family speak English to her,” I’ll add. “That’s a good point,” they’ll concur, nodding their heads.
“E. will learn English really quickly once she starts formal schooling,” I’ll note. “Absolutely!” They agree.
Yes, D. and I are fortunate to live in a city and neighborhood where, although most of our friends and acquaintances are monolingual, the reception to our raising E. bilingual has been overall positive. Unfortunately, I know that’s not the case for some parents. To you I say, persevere and know that you’re doing a great thing for your children.
Funny enough, the person who has needed the most reassuring has been me. But, not that E. will learn English, but rather that she’ll learn Spanish (see the questions in the opening to today’s post). You’re probably raising an eyebrow at this point: why? Well, I suppose because knowing that, in our case, Spanish is the minority language, I’ve been so concerned with protecting and nurturing it,worried that it wouldn’t stick. “Why wouldn’t it?” D. asked me. “She hears it all the time.”
Is Spanish officially E.’s first language? Yes, probably. Will she experience language delays in her production of English words? Maybe, maybe not. (Delay is a relative notion anyway.) Do children need to be hearing and using both languages simultaneously to be considered bilingual? No.
I’m reminded of bilingual researcher Grosjean’s point that bilinguals constantly find themselves on a language continuum, their skills in both languages waxing and waning over their lifetime. In E.’s case, her understanding of Spanish is currently much stronger than that of English. Based on what I know from the experience of more seasoned parents, as well as from research, this will probably change in the coming years (if/when she has a sibling, when she starts schooling, etc.).
But, for now, instead of worrying that E. “doesn’t understand any English,” I’m going to enjoy this phase of emerging language and remember to take it all…¡sobre la marcha!
If you’re a parent raising your children in more than one language, what part of the language continuum are they on? I’d love to hear from you!