Part of raising a bilingual child is fielding questions of curiosity (which is totally fine) like, “So is your daughter bilingual?” or “How’s her English?” or “What language does she understand?” Although I’m still working on my elevator speech-style answer of 10 seconds or less, and although this post is not meant to be a defense of our choice to parent only in the minority language, Spanish, I did want to write a more personal, or narrative, style post to give you a snapshot of her current language(s) use.
Ever since we returned in October from our month-long visit to Spain, I’ve been meaning to write about E.’s language development. Now, as her second birthday approaches and as more of her little amiguetes start to utter their one and two-word responses in English, I thought now’s a good time to document what E.’s speech sounds like.
If you remember from this post, E. uttered her first word at 15 months in Spanish: besos (kisses). Given that both her parents (including a mom who stays at home with her full time) speak Spanish to her, I wasn’t surprised that her first word came in Spanish.
Yet, since she and I are daily out and about at the park, on play dates, at church, visiting with neighbors – all in English – I thought for sure an English word or two would follow soon after.
Well, months 16, 17, 18, and 19 came and went, and E. added a few more words to her repertoire. All en español. I was more than fine with that; I was freaking ecstatic! It meant that all our hard work to consistently and only use Spanish (the minority language) with E. was paying off.
Then, we went to Spain this past September, where it was all Spanish, all the time, with everyone, for one month. Both direct and indirect input. I knew her immersion in the language would influence her language output, but I didn’t expect to see it so rapidly or so blatantly. As I had always been accustomed to doing, I would point to objects and name them as we would go about our day. Whereas before she’d look at me and then the object in silence, now she would immediately repeat the word back. Maias, abuelo, cole, comer, pan. The words just spilled out. It was truly amazing to watch!
For about the next month or so after our return to the States, I hilariously enjoyed watching E. address people on our walks or at the park in Spanish, “hola!” or “adios!” Occasionally, after two or three failed attempts at eliciting a response, she would revert to English, hi!.
As of now, at 23.5 months, E. uses four English words on a regular basis (this excludes the random words in English that she’s heard and imitated, but never repeated): hi, bye, okay, and yeah. The first two she picked up from other native English speakers; the last two, I realize, she learned from none other than me! Instead of using the Spanish “vale” to end my questions or to give E. an affirmative one-word “sí,” I often say “okay” and “yeah.” It’s been funny to hear her respond to our questions in Spanish with a very nasally American “yeah.”
Besides those four English words, everything else E. says is in Spanish. Mostly one, sometimes two-word answers. Ninety percent of those words are nouns, with a few verbs (not conjugated) sprinkled throughout like, comer, dormir, and correr. (She does say ven, the informal command form of “come“.)
Although I know that E. will eventually come to learn which people understand Spanish, English, or both, and with whom to use which language, for now she assumes that everyone speaks and understands Spanish. It’s so funny! I love to watch her boss her baby BFF and next door neighbor with ¡Ven, N., ven! Aqui, N., silla. (“Come, N.! Here, N., chair.”) My theory is that, since her closest toddler friends don’t yet speak their native English, E. thinks they understand her native tongue. I predict that once her buddies start chatting, she’ll start to pick up much more English.
So, in short, if I had to answer the question, “is your daughter bilingual?” I’d respond with, well, she currently understands all the Spanish she hears, most of her words are in Spanish, and she comprehends about 20% of the English she hears. So, for now, E. is a Spanish-dominant emerging English-Spanish bilingual.
Are you curious about how bilingual children develop their languages? Please check out the thoroughly-researched and easy-to-read blog by Professor François Grosjean, one of the leading researchers in the field of bilingualism. For more information on bilingualism and second language acquisition, you can read my interview with him here, as well as my interview with linguist Dr. Kendall King here.