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.


  1. Can't wait to compare notes with you, since Griffin will be starting his ENglish/Spanish immersion school this fall as well!

  2. I´m so glad to read you around! Of course post or mail me anytime. And thanks for your comments!!