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…


  1. I think a lot of bilingual families go through a phase like this. Showing your child that English is important and/or cool (depending on age!) can really help. The easiest way would be to put him in a roomful of English-speaking children, but that may well not be possible where you live. Failing that, an adult outside the family who can more easily pretend not to understand Spanish, to come and talk in English would be a good boost. Favourite cartoons in English can be helpful as well. I had a rule where I insisted that my son spoke to me in French, but I know this 'pushy' approach is not for everyone. Let us know how it goes!

    1. Hi T,
      I agree with you. In fact I´m looking for some Playgroups in Madrid, where expats take their kids to play in English and keep the language alive. The adult from outside the family would have to be an aupair, which might be something worth considering in the future. Regarding tv, we don´t watch any Spanish tv at all, all that we watch is in English, it´s like a family rule, but I think this one will pay off in the future, when he gets more interested in tv than he is now. Thanks for your comments and advice!

  2. Hi Dani,
    I just sent you information about NS, the playgroup that I started for my son when he was just a year old (now 6 years old!!!).

    Keep on doing what you are doing, it definitely pays off in the end, despite the worries and doubts... and it is sooo worth it!

    Look forward to hopefully meeting you soon!