13 January, 2012

How does Papi say it?

Now our little one is 20 months old, he´s started to utter more and more words increasingly. How bilingualism is fitting into the big picture is in my opinion one of the most interesting human processes that one could observe.
He now picks up one animal figure, for example an elephant, and comes to me saying “MPHANT!” (ELEPHANT!). I hold it and talk about how big it is and what a beautiful (and useful) trunk it has and then I say: “Give it to granny and tell her what this is”. Then he goes and says “YAYA!” (Granny) “ANT-E” (ELEFANTE, which is the Spanish word). He clearly distinguishes the E at the end, when he uses this form with all the Spanish speakers, so everyone except ME (I´m trying hard to change this and find more English speakers to talk to. We are considering the “au pair” option). He has started to do this with many words: Kitty, numbers like 4 and 5, hand… In other cases he only utters the Spanish word but shows signs of understanding the English equivalent. E.g. when playing “giving and receiving things”, we say “THANK YOU”, but he uses “ASHIAS”, which is his word to say “GRACIAS”. The typical conversation would be: “could you please give me that doggy over there?-Oh, you are so kind! What do we say when someone gives us something?” and then he goes “ACIAAAAS”. He knows for sure that I always use “thank you”, but has never said anything closer to that, and I think this is because he finds it more difficult to pronounce.
There is another phenomenon that has to do with repetition. He has partially entered this phase and repeats the last word or the last syllables of the last word he hears. Or when someone gives him 2 options to choose, he always says the last option, even though he prefers the first one, and goes rather for it when given the second one. In all this cases I have noticed that it´s more frequent that he repeats Spanish syllables than English ones.
I think the structure of the language has a lot to do here, apart from the obvious fact that the environment surrounding him 85% of the time he is awake is Spanish.  What I mean is that in Spanish we have the “consonant+vowel” structure in most of our syllables, for example CA-SA (HOUSE), VI-NO (WINE). So if I were a baby, I´d probably find easier to repeat those last syllables than other crunchy ones full of consonants one after another. Even though there are monosyllables (CHURCH, PROUD, WRIST…) that look more or less easy for an adult, my kid utters some kind of tong-teeth vibration, which I´m sure is not what he has in his little mind. I´m not sure if this makes any scientific sense, it´s just the results of me observing what I see at home.
What I try to do to compensate this and try to balance things up is to reinforce the English part of everything, even though this means that I end up following my kid everywhere like a parrot. Here are my reinforcement strategies:
-          Every time someone (only with family members) tells something to the kid, I either repeat it in English or talk to the kid about the subject.
-          When we are playing and he uses a Spanish word I normally do 3 things:
o   I try not to say “that´s WRONG, you have to say this other one”, but say “yes you are right, but Papi says…”
o   I continue talking about that like I didn´t hear the Spanish word.
o   If he is asking me for something, like when he wants me to put body lotion in his hand and says “NANO” which means “MANO” (HAND in Spanish), then I´m a little more strict and say “WHAT?” then he switches and says “HAAA” (HAND), or if after the 2nd or 3rd “WHAT?” he doesn’t switch and continues with “NANO”, I stop him for a little moment and say “and how does Papi say that??” then he normally switches.

Please readers if there´s someone out there, share what works for you.


  1. Hi, I find this very analytic and interesting. I'll be one of those bilingual parents and I'm very curious to see how it is. I believe that perseverance and constancy are key for success..uh? Never give up...

  2. I know exactly what you mean about being a parrot along with being a parent! I have always done lots of repeating (and recasting, when the child makes a linguistic mistake). We have to barrage the kids with the target language--regardless of which one or how many they're learning!