24 August, 2012

Relatives, bilingual schools and some “pearls”

It´s summertime so we are having many get-togethers with our relatives, in particular with our sisters and cousins with same aged kids. Swimming pool, bbq, lunch, dinner, etc… yeah, I´ve put on 5 kg/11 pounds and I don´t want any comments about it… I´ll try to fix that later… Apart from gobbling and slurping, we have shared lots of time with Dani´s cousins (1 boy and 5 girls) 6 in total aged between 1 month and 4.5 years old, and we are having lots of fun. We´ve been able to compare also Dani´s speech development with the others and we´ve observed that he is on the average or even above the rest of his same aged cousins in Spanish, apart from speaking English at about 60%-70% of the level of Spanish.
These get-togethers have been a good field test for the speech pattern in our family, as typical doubts in bilingual environments arose as expected: “Should I continue speaking English to my kid, even when other kids are around and don´t understand anything?”, “What about other adults?”, “Should I speak first in English to my kid and then repeat things in Spanish for the rest of the people?”.
I have opted for a flexible approach given the fact that our relatives support the idea of speaking both languages to our kid, and sometimes they even confess that they wish they could do the same with their kids. I speak only English with him and I usually go on like this when other adults or 2 of his cousins (girls) aged almost 4 and 4.5 years old are around, as they attend bilingual schools. I positively know that they understand me although they answer questions in Spanish even when prompted in English. I think this is mostly because they feel insecure about the language, maybe as a result of not producing any English words out of school. It seems like this turns summer into an English time-off, as they don´t identify the family environment as a place where they can/should speak English. In my opinion, this is one of the reasons why kids attending bilingual schools don´t seem to be actually bilingual in Spain, as they don´t have family support or anyone encouraging them to use the language out of the class, or just anyone who actually knows the language. They are getting a passive bilingualism, which hopefully will become active if they use the language as they grow older (summer camps, trips, extra activities with natives). It´s soon yet to know how this country is going to improve in languages at a generational level, as all these bilingual state funded programs have been working only 3-4 years in some of our schools.

Although late (they should´ve done this 30 years ago like Norway or Finland) I think It´s a very positive thing, but I know that in many of the schools teachers are far from native-like, exposure is limited, and plans are poorly implemented. I´d hate seeing this done under the Spanish topic of poor performance. It´s sad but it´s true. I´m Spanish and I feel really ashamed when things like this are on TV.

Not even one of the presidents that we had since democracy started in 1975 has been able to attend an international meeting in English or other language than Spanish during their term of office, while others like Greece, Italy or France do it.
Going back to the family, the other kids that don´t know any English just look at me frowning at times, so I know they are not catching it but they just go with the flow. When I see it´s imperative to switch into Spanish I do it, but then I feel like I have to keep a low profile so my kid´s radar doesn´t detect me, or he´ll start repeating out loud everything I said in Spanish.
We have also observed some translations from Dani to his cousins, as he identifies them as Spanish speakers: “Dani go and show your cousin the wound on your foot”, and there he goes: “Mira N, tengo una pupa en el pie!”, and here is another “pearl” dropped during our way home:
-       Papi: “So Dani, I heard that you took the bus this morning?”
-       Dani: “yes”
-       Papi: “and who were you with when you took the bus?”
-       Dani: “With abu”
-       Papi: “That´s great, and which color was the bus you took?”
-       Dani: “blue” (the public buses in our area are all green)
-       Papi: “Are you sure? All the busses that we usually see around are green”
-       Dani: “It was blue, Papi don´t try to fool me”

Which strategy do you follow when relatives are around and don´t know the language?
Are there any public, semi-public/afordable bilingual programs in the schools where you live? Are these programs truly bilingual?
Any “pearls” from your kids that you want to share?

21 August, 2012

…and when are you going to stop?

"…to stop speaking English to your son", is what my friend Alberto asked me when he knew about our project. This is a question that I had never been asked before all along this bilingual adventure, and it truly made me think a lot. When people hear you speaking in other language to your child or when someone brings up the subject, it´s normal to go through a 3rd grade, but I certainly didn´t see this one coming, and my answer was “I haven´t thought about this yet”.
Like Sarah Jessica Parker said (this doesn´t make me gay, ok? Period), I couldn´t help but wonder… How is this going to be in the future? Once I have established that our communication must be held in English, will there be a time when I´ll have to openly admit to him that I´m not a native speaker of the language and that our purpose is that he gets more opportunities in the future?

Will he come to this conclusion by himself when he is old enough? How getting in contact with native speakers will affect him and how he perceives my non-native discourse? How will the bilingual school fit in the whole picture? He´ll be sharing classes with kids that start from scratch at the age of 3. I bet 99% of them have never heard a word in English and their parents don´t go further than “hello good morning”, so I suppose he´ll feel odd for some time. Will it be “safe” in terms of consistency if (someday) I step into the dark side and speak Spanish to him? Am I worrying/speculating about things that will happen in at least 10 years and therefore breaking all the records in the history of worrywarts? Probably yes, amen to that (who´s with me?)… But I´m afraid this is included in the bilingual parenting kit that they give you when you make this choice, so I guess I won´t be getting a refund…
I have read Mr. George Saunders´ book which I consider one of the bibles of the multilingual literature and he describes his relationship with his sons, always in German at least until they were teenagers. Once I´ve started looking for more, I haven´t been able to find much information about bilingual families with toddlers and kids older than 6 or 7 years old, and if there are some, tracking these experiences as the kids grow older becomes difficult. The documented examples of non-native parents with kids in their teenage years or above are hard to find. If anyone has some guidance, It´ll be much appreciated.
And now the question: Have you thought about the future of your bilingual strategy? Especially those of you that aren´t native speakers; do you have something planned?  

20 August, 2012

Big news, some changes and “the limping wolf”

Big news! There´s a brother/sister for Dani on his/her way. What?, having another baby? Now? With this awful crisis slapping our faces every day? You´re nuts! Hell yeah! If everything goes as planned we´ll be parents again in March 2013.
When things are tough like this country going bankrupt and the European economy shrinking, we tend to rely on the important things of life like your loved ones and the time that you share with them. In our case we are positive about the future, we don´t pursue expensive cars or gigantic flat screens. We know that we could live with less. We have done it before and we would be able to do it again, here or in any other country (preferably one where they speak Spanish, English or German, Chinese is not in the menu yet…).
Now that changes are expected in the short-medium term, we are working to reorient some of the patterns that we have with our little man. We need him to be less dependent on his Mami because she´ll have to pay a lot of attention to the baby soon. The main change we have made is at the moment of going to bed. Now Mami and Papi go to bed with him, then Mami stays with us for some time, then sneaks out to the other room while Papi is telling an amazing story about the trending topic of the day-week. On the first night there were some “Papi, move! Go away! Go and get Mami!” for a while. We have been talking about how tired Mum is and how much she needs to go to sleep and after only 2 days he has assumed very well that he´ll chat only with Papi until he falls asleep every night.
This is having an immediate positive impact on his English. Here are just 2 pearls from these last nights, as an example:
-       It´s raining: He loves the song “it´s raining, it´s pouring, the old man is snoring, he went to bed and he bumped his head and he couldn’t get up in the morning”. He made me sing it like 20 times in a row, and then he said “Papi poor man, he got a bump in the head”. It´s the first time he expresses his own conclusions after observing something in English.  
-       The limping wolf: There is a statue of a wolf without one of his paws in a roundabout near home. He saw the statue and we started talking about the poor wolf, the story that we made up is that he got a wound on the paw and that´s why he couldn´t walk well and he was limping. That day the little man got a little scratch on his foot and after curing it that night he said: “Papi, the wound! It hurts so bad! I have a wound on my foot LIKE THE LIMPING WOLF!!!” I just looked at him in the dark in shock, half LOL, half tremendously glad he is catching things so quickly.
My ME time/our couple time before going to sleep is gone, but I think it´s being very beneficial for his English skills, so I think it´s just temporary and a fair price to pay!!

09 August, 2012

The easiest path

The human being is a lazy animal, let´s face it. Since the ancient times, most of the technological innovations are oriented to make our lives easier, carry less weigh, open things with only one finger, and of course think less.
Is there any wonder that our kids tend to choose the easiest path when it comes to acquiring languages? Nope, keeping things simple seems to be a universal motto.
Now he is 2 years and 3 months old, we have entered a phase in which the half-meter man has developed the ability to get away with things without making the effort of speaking English with his weird Papi.
Since the last 3 or 4 weeks, and coinciding with a more than evident step forward with his Spanish, our typical conversations go as follow:
-       Boy: “Papi, ven aquí y toca el agua, ¡está fría!”
-       Me: “Ok, so you want me to go there and touch the water? Do you think it´s cold?”
-       Boy: “yes”.

Another one:
-       Boy: “Mira Papi, mira qué rápido voy con la bici”
-       Me: “what?... you want me to see how fast you go riding your bike, don´t you?
-       Boy: “yes”.
And that´s it. The structure starts with the boy telling me something in Spanish, then I reformulate it in English (he understands completely), and then he says “yes” which means “that´s what I wanted to say but it came out much easier in Spanish, and as long as I hear you speaking to everyone but me in Spanish, I assume you can understand me and there is no need to go on with this farce”.
My father always says that children are just shorter, not dumb and he is so right. So I have tried to talk to him about speaking like Papi, and how fun it is, and that he has to speak to me like I speak to him because otherwise Papi has trouble understanding, but immediately after he goes on in Spanish again, and I think it´s because he can´t help it so far. He is also evidencing awareness as he repeats sentences that I say in Spanish to other relatives, and then he looks at me like saying “you were speaking Spanish, you know that, don´t you?”, so yes, we are at that point.
Once I have clearly detected this new phase I´m trying 2 strategies to get back on track:
1.    No English, no response but being flexible, without going too far. There is a perceivable difference in his reactions if he just wants to show you something or he is actually asking you to do something. In the first case if you ask him to say it in English, you get a weaker response.
-       Boy: “Papi, mira qué grande es ese camión!”
-       Me: “What?”
-       Boy: “the truck!...”
-       Me: “I see, there´s a big truck right there, did you see how big the wheels are? By the way, what color is this truck? I can´t see it.”
-       Boy: “White!”
-       Me: “Wow, I see it now, so we have just passed a big white truck, I hope it doesn´t get a flat tire…”
If the same conversation had been held in Spanish, his interventions would have been complete sentences.
In the second case, when he wants me to do something, he switches much more easily and tries harder to say things right. If I detect that he is not using English due to laziness, I insist until he gives me some English equivalent, then I proceed and try to prompt more sentences. If I see that he is trying but he can´t find the word, then I give him a lead, so he can continue and then I reinforce the sentence and talk about it.
2.    Mum is joining playtime in English. I read once that same actions have a much higher impact on toddlers if they come from mum, than from dad. It´s been documented that if the mother is the one encouraging the minority language, the possibilities of achieving competent bilingualism are higher. Mum is more than fine with English, but I understand that having to go mentally over every sentence that you are about to say is really exhausting. Anyway she has promised to work more on it, and we have had the first positive outcome this weekend. If she switches into English, yet the communication is not that natural, the boy initiates many more interactions in English all by himself. So the impact here is clear.

I´ve read that this phase is a very common one, but I can´t help but wonder if we are doing things right, if I could do more to encourage bilingualism or if this whole thing will work out in the long run. I even guiltily wonder myself if this is sometimes turning into a personal challenge (ME fulfilling MY objective) more than providing more opportunities to my boy in a natural way, which is in the end what all this is about. I´ve been trying to look for the source of this sudden worrywart crisis, and I have come to the conclusion that his recent huge improvements in Spanish are making me feel like our connection is somehow lagging behind.
Anyway, what we do have clear is that we are not giving up, so I guess we´ll try to find our way and see how we navigate the turbulent waters. And yes, he might be stubborn, but so far Papi is still holding the stubbornness gold medal in the family…