14 July, 2012

The island of the crystal waters and the frowned faces

Summertime has come and with it our long expected holidays!! We took a week off and flew to one of our lovely Mediterranean islands. This destination happened to have a double objective. The first and obvious one is of course relaxing, lying back on the sand and enjoying the beach with our little baywatch (armbands and all the imaginable equipment on…). The second one has to do with the fact that these islands are absolutely taken over by foreigners. Let´s say the nationalities in a regular vacation resort are distributed as 60% British, 20% German, 10% Nordic countries and Holland, and finally 10% or less Spanish. This means that the language most frequently used in the swimming pool and other common areas is… yes, you guessed, ENGLISH. And not any kind of English, but “parenting English”, swimming pool English, dinner time English… etc.!! I´m used to business terms (I can say “sales went down” in 6 or 7 different ways depending on intensity and length of the fall) but parenting vocabulary is something that I find myself very short of.
In many occasions I´ve checked how to say little details that are natural for me in Spanish but obviously unknown in English. I normally manage to find my way and get an approximated term, but then I always feel that someday he´ll turn and say “Papi, this is another SMASHED potatoes case” (see previous post).
So here I was, with my radar on and ready checking all the words and expressions to keep that naughty British boy from breaking his head against the swimming pool border, ground the girl who deliberately dipped her ice cream in the pool, and so many other examples. I was so glad and relieved to discover that my imperfect English was not that different to what native parents use with their kids, PLUS our little man could interact a few times with other English speaking kids and he seemed to fully understand them!! –British 4 year old to my kid: “would you like to play with me?” (Imagine the “me” part with a thick southern British accent”) and my kid goes: “YES!!”. 
This sounds very nice but after a few days, once the check list had “tan, relax and fun activities” marked up, I couldn’t help but notice some reactions towards our language approach.
I´m used to Spanish people´s reactions when they hear me speaking English to the kid, and more reactions when the half-meter-man answers me back, but I had never had the chance of observing English speakers´ reactions in a social context. I have to say first that I founded British people much less social than my national fellows when it comes to kids and interactions, not only with us but among themselves as well. I mean whenever 2 kids start playing together, we Spanish tend to start chatting friendly about their character, potty training, how well or bad they eat, bla bla bla… We even encourage them to share toys and play with the more number of kids the better.
Please don´t judge me, cause I don´t mean to pigeonhole the entire British population, but what I perceived is that many British parents don´t feel as comfortable when other kids start to interact with theirs. I felt like they were more individualist, not in a bad sense, It´s only that the cultural difference was clearly perceivable.
That being said, I also saw some moms frowning their faces at us when they heard me speaking what they considered (by the look in their eyes) “strange English” to my kid. My accent is not easy to classify since I´m not native, I try not to use the typical dry Spanish accent when speaking English (cutting the end of the words), but yes I tend to use more some short of American pronunciation, so I have to admit that I might sound strange for an English native speaker. I don´t know why but I had the feeling that English speakers would generally understand our bilingual project more than Spanish. I guess I didn´t take into account what I call the “monolingual virus”. British society is as monolingual and self-centered as Spanish, so I think this has something to do with a widespread idea-opinion, either thought or said out loud, which is “why (the hell) are you doing that to your own kid??”.
The thing is that far from discouraging I have worked on an automatic reaction over the last 2 years, consisting in an even stronger conviction that we do what we do because it´s extremely positive for our kid and the discovery that most of the strange or negative reactions come eventually from a lack of culture, or a concealed envy. When it comes to close relatives/friends, 95% of them have accepted our language model and in fact are supportive (some even defenders!). The other 5% of people that either respect but don´t understand or talk constantly about problems that this could cause in the future or the difficulties/barriers that they see, are just jealous. I think they´d either love to do the same with their kids or they wish their parents had done this with them so they´d know another language now.
What I sure can say today is that my son is the living proof that encouraging early bilingualism is by no means detrimental but very positive and stimulating for a baby/toddler AND that it´s possible to carry out such a project being a NON-NATIVE speaker of the targeted language.
The term-end reports from his nursery state that far from being delayed, his speech production is way above the average, and in fact he teaches English words to other same aged kids. He is also doing things that evidence metalinguistic awareness that might be considered advanced for his age, like playing the game of singing a song or speaking with only one vowel, either in English or Spanish. I´ve been told that this is not common for a 2 year old boy, plus it´s really fun hear him singing “tha whaals an tha bas ga raand and raand…” and then with the letter “o” on and on… We are also observing a progressive integration of English on his daily speech, e.g. “Papi don´t pull up the blinds! It´s so bright!”. “Hide under the covers! Mum finds us!”, “Who is crying?” and many other examples. I´d say the level of his English utterances is about 60% -70% of his Spanish, which is way beyond I expected him to be at this age (2years and 2 months old).
Soooo, parents of the world, I firmly recommend you to promote multilingualism among your offspring. Whatever the barriers you think you are going to find, there is always a way and you just have to find the model that works for you. The economic-brain-effort investment is not that high if you live it with passion, and the outcome pays off from the first year and a half, and I think I would dare to say that it´ll be even more rewarding in the years to come.

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