22 May, 2012

Complex structures

Time flies! Our baby´s 2nd birthday has just passed and we´ve been noticing lately that our little big man has started to produce more structures and more complex ones every day. His utterances in Spanish go as far as 7 or 8 words sentences with several elements (subject, verb, adjectives and objects; e.g. “Mamá se come las natillas de Papa”= “Mum eats Papa´s custard”).  It´s also remarkable that he went from repeating to elaborating his own combinations in 1 or 2 weeks, and he is using the verbs in the right tense and most of the times in the right order depending on the language he is speaking. The tense of the verb is probably not a big deal in English, but Spanish is a different story as we have different forms per tense and person. Also irregular verbs are really out of any logic, but impressively (at least for me) he is doing pretty well so far! I´m not sure whether he is just repeating forms that he learnt from different situations, or he is actually aware at a metalinguistic level. Some sentences during our playtime tell me it´s more of the second. As an example, he was playing the other day with 3 cars (red, purple and green), he took 2 of them into a toy house at the playground, then looked at me and said “Papi, the green one is missing”. In fact the green car was by the slide, and I hadn´t mentioned anything about it, so it was clearly no repetition. We have been taking about “missing things”, like a piece of a toy or a piece of the puzzle recently, so I assume he has figured out what it means and what it is used for.
Following with the complexity subject, I´ve noticed that he responds to complicated (again, in my opinion) sentences in a blink of an eye, almost instantly, even when producing the sentence caused a little brain collapse to this non-native Papi. We Spaniards struggle with structures when the sentence requires changing the “natural Spanish order” of the words. Here are some examples:
-       “Who do you want me to talk to?” The “to” at the end goes at the beginning of the sentence in Spanish, and placing the auxiliary verb and objects is sometimes tricky.
-       “Which toy have you been playing with?” Again the “with” at the end.
-       “In which closet do you want Papi to hide?” The order of the verb and the subject.
When I´m about to say something like this I have to make a short pause (1 or 2 seconds) to make sure that I´m saying it right, yet the little man answers quickly and effortlessly. I must say that whenever I say something that I find complicated, I expect him to find at least a little trouble answering, but for him it´s like if I were asking “which color is this car?” I think this is what makes the difference between acquiring a second language at an early age, and learning it during adulthood.
Despite the above mentioned, not everything goes 100% dreamy, although it´s absolutely normal. Consistent and balanced bilingualism is nothing to expect, according to our exposure pattern. Differences with English start to be significant, as he doesn´t use as many English verbs as in Spanish and his first choice when mum and I are both in the conversation is Spanish. I always repeat everything in English or ask him to say it again because “I didn´t understand…”, and then he switches but again omitting the English verbs or names that he doesn’t have down pat yet. I´ve noticed that he struggles specially with auxiliary verbs, and I think it´s because there is no direct translation from Spanish and structures are simply too different. Example: “Head no fits” is what he says when he is trying to get his head through the bars of the kitchen chairs. I then repeat, “Oh I see, your head seems to be…” – “Too big!!” – “yes! too big, so it DOESN´T fit through these bars” stressing the doesn´t this time, but still the next times he says NO FITS.     
The good news is that he separates his two languages very well from the very beginning, like for example when I tuck him in bed and tell him stories, he starts speaking like a little parrot, all the time in English if it´s me, or in Spanish if it´s mum. AND switching is still on fashion. Sometimes he is just talking to his mum in Spanish and if I come around and look at him, not even with any sign of demanding an English equivalent, he switches and tries an English equivalent, sometimes resulting in funny outcomes like: “The car ES too big, no fits NEL garage”. Following this example, I´ve been observing the following things:
-       I think he drives his attention to the main items of the sentence (car-too big-fit-garage) and provides a sentence keeping all those things clear and in order.
-       The nexus between the important items of the sentence are the ones that he is less focused on, and therefore cause him some hesitation. That´s why he mixes “EN EL” with “IN THE”, and doesn’t use the auxiliary verb, which, as I said before, doesn´t exist in Spanish.
I can also perceive that phrasal verbs confuse him (no wonders! Many times the same effect can be easily observed in Papi!!), and the damn movement verbs (swing away, tip over, topple down, walk along…) are just not natural for a Spanish speaker and many times tricky, so I assume that these things together with my lack of “nativeness” and the limited exposure make things more complicated to start producing quality speech at the same level as he is doing it in Spanish.
Before this phase, no big differences were perceived between dominant and minority language, but according to all the experiences that I have read about, I believe this alternative improvements were meant to happen. Our idea is to keep encouraging English as much as we can, and wait until he starts the bilingual school next September to complement the input with some external resources. Then he´ll have 3 hours a week of daily routines in class in English, and the following year (3,5 years old) he´ll have 50% of the day in English and 50% in Spanish. Even though all his friends at school will be Spanish and therefore the playground language will be Spanish, I think this is much better than nothing, to complete what we do at home, and by far the most affordable vs quality option to promote and encourage bilingualism out of our home.

07 May, 2012

Concerns about issues to come

I took the kid to the swimming pool the other day and apart from all the fun going on, there was one of those moments when you observe something that makes you stop and think about this whole bilingual project.
There was this little boy in the changing room, about 6 years old, describing to his father how he had a scab in his arm, how he got the wound the other day going down the slide, and he was giving lots of details (gross… I know but we are only analyzing the syntax part now…) in a way only a native user of the language could do it. This made me think about (admit actually) the fact that I´m not able to produce such a speech in English with that detail or describing movements in such a precise/native way.
For the last 7 years (I spent some months living abroad, about 7 years ago) I´ve got used to something that most people find weird, but it works for me and I also consider it entertaining: I go mentally through the Spanish sentences that I hear around me or I just invent some conversations in my mind and then I try to translate them into English and sometimes into German (this last part doesn’t always apply cause it´s way too difficult for me, but still challenging!), so when I get stuck somewhere I take a mental note and then check it up as soon as I have the chance (I´ll never get tired of saying “god bless smartphones”). Although this procedure makes me gain some confidence when it comes to describing things for my little Jr., there´s always a frustrating point, mostly when I realize that I´ve been telling something wrong to my boy for quite a long time. Here are some examples:
1. “Dani, Mss. Giraffe is too tall to fit through the door; I think she should bend OVER a little bit.” After checking, this time with a native speaker, I was told that in this case they´d use bend DOWN.
2. The other day I found out that I had been giving SMASHED potatoes to my kid for quite a long time instead of MASHED potatoes…
3. His animals were showing up IN the window instead of showing up AT the window to play peekaboo.
It´s not like he´s going to be killed in the future for making this short of mistakes, and the objective is not for him to pass for a perfect native speaker, so there´s no need to make a scene, but I can´t help but wondering if I´ll be able to keep up with his progress in the future. I keep having this feeling that one day or another I´ll fall short trying to maintain a fluent conversation, and somehow talking to Papi will be more difficult than talking to other people. Now back to the real world, and disconnecting the worrywart mode, it´s time to check whether “help me strengthen the sheets” is a correct way to say “ayúdame a estirar las sábanas” or maybe not…

Simultaneous translation through the phone

In the last 2 weeks Jr. has started to figure out what phones are for. He even asks his grandpas to call mum and dad when they pick him up at daycare. When we can sneak out from work and pick up the phone he tells us about his day or what he is eating or doing using his 2-3 words sentences. Up to this point everything looks just normal, but the other day he surprised me as his grandma was dictating him what he should tell me and the plans that they had for the afternoon. I could hear my in law whispering in his ear, obviously in Spanish, but as he knew that he was talking to Papi, his 2-3 words sentences were in English, and the time between he heard the words in Spanish and he spoke in English was incredibly short. I think it´d take me longer to translate simultaneously the way he was doing it. The conversation was like “Dile a Papi que vamos a comprar globos rojos!” (=”tell Papi that we are going to buy red balloons!”), and he went like “Yaya! (Granny!)-red-balloons!”. Another remarkable milestone is that he is performing quite well at changing the order in adjective+noun combinations, as the order in Spanish and English is the opposite. The 1.BIG 2.ELEPHANT= El 2.ELEFANTE 1.GRANDE. He barely uses this in the wrong order. I can´t help but admitting that I´m absolutely proud and even surprised that he is sticking so well to OPOL. It´s true that he has lots of automatic reactions in Spanish and that you can perceive this every time more, but he also responds quite well when prompted and driven back to English. I think that so far it´s not a matter of preference but an environmental consequence and given the percentage of exposure (I´d say 30% English on a weekly basis as much), I think it´s a very good output.

Tactical thinking

It´s amazing how kids develop their tactical thinking to get what they pursue. It´s said that baby girls are especially good at this. My niece (3,5 years old) is certainly a good example as her teachers have reported a special ability at mediating in conflicts and not getting involved in any kind of violence. She has proven her skills in situations like establishing turns in the playground, who gets the new toy in class, or even finding diplomatic solutions between someone else´s fights.
In our case, our little punk has also started to develop certain “cutest-ever” tactics to get away with things. Sometimes when he´s been naughty and mum or I send him to the “thinking corner” to think about what he´s done, he just looks at mum in the eyes, tips his head over slightly and says “mama guapaaaa…” (Mummy pretty…). Anyone capable of grounding/yelling at this little angel would be practically considered a monster!!
The strategies that he uses with me are more focused on saying things in English like “I´m sorry” or “I love you” or saying things like “papa, thank you!” when I give him something. I think he detects quite well when he does one of these things that make us look at him like he is the most adorable angel (frequent among parents). As we are too busy doting on our cutie, his little mind classifies this moments as “another way to get away with my plans…”
We´ll see how all this progresses, but what I take out from it is that I´m now more sensitive to this kind of strategies and I have found myself to be more indulgent if he uses English, as if responding well to bilingual stimuli was some short of free pass, or at least a way to diminish the impact of bad behavior. I can´t help but thinking that if we want to picture bilingualism as a natural thing for him, we should stick to our rules whatever the language he is using… but he is just soooo cute when he says “Papi, I love you!!!”.