Until recently, this exaggerated riff between my husband, Luis, and our 14-month-old, Ana, was daily. He wanted her to say papi, which is daddy in Cuba, but she continued to default to the American version. Finally, she dribbled it out and now calls him papi in shotgun repetition anytime he’s within reach. Luis is, to say the least, overjoyed.
I think about how strange it would be to raise my children in a country that isn’t my own and how I would try to integrate my foreign world into theirs.
Language is a good start. It’s more than a collection of words; it’s a direct line to home. What we say and how we say it is a massive part of identity, embracing nuances, humor and familiarity embedded in us since birth. Consequently, we carry the linguistic, cultural bundle with us wherever we go in the world.
Yet, anyone who immigrates has to adapt. Point, Luis is called papi by his youngest and his oldest and daddy by his middle child. Marcos used to say papa for years and one day last year, just like that, he switched to daddy.
Luis never blinked, never tried to sway him, accepting his American-born son as is.
In our blended household, we’ve all evolved, communicating in what may appear to be a riddle, a Spanglified Dr. Seuss of sorts. It goes something like this: Luis and Luisito speak Spanish to one another. It’s a 50/50 hybrid of English and Spanish with me, nearly all Spanish to Ana and almost all English to Marcos, though he understands Spanish and will respond to it, but in English. The exception is with his sister, to whom he tries to teach Spanish.
“Sissy, this is a león,” he says, holding up a spongy, feline bath toy. “Cómo hace el mono, Sissy?” She makes funny monkey noises in response to his question.
His efforts with Ana largely trail mine. I read and sing songs to her in English, but I primarily speak Spanish to her, just as I did with Marcos when he was little. Ironically, I am the main source of our kids’ español, looking to their dad and big brother to clean up whatever messes I make.
Let me be clear here: I minored in Spanish in college, lived a semester in Madrid and have been married to a Cuban for 10 years, but I do not speak like a native and I never will.
Children need to be exposed to a language before three years old and about one third of their awake time to be actively bilingual, according to Christina Bosemark, the founder and director of Multilingual Children’s Association.
I’m the one with the kids the bulk of the weekdays and if I don’t get that other language in there, it won’t happen. So you can imagine the looks I get out and about as I, the fair skinned, light-eyed, freckly Southern girl, carry on with Ana and Marcos in Spanish:
The other American mothers at the park: “Look at the duck!”
Me: “¡Mira el pato!”
“Let’s go eat lunch,” they say.
“Vamos a comer,” I say.
“Get down, Johnny” they coax.
“Bájate, Anita,” I press.
Body parts and other animals, the sun and the moon, milk and juice, crackers and cookies, it’s all in Spanish, too.
My family is very sweet, never saying a word, but they have to think I’m a bit loopy. The way I’m raising my kids has nothing to do with the way I was brought up. I had a great childhood, but it was insulated. Pretty much everyone I knew was white, middle to upper-class and from the south. The only time I remember hearing Spanish was on the monorail at Disney World and it sounded as much like a caricature to me as Mickey and Goofy with its over enunciated diction. I didn’t have a clue what the recording was saying and don’t remember striving to.
So is all of this screwy? Am I doing it all wrong, speaking a language that isn’t my own to my infant children? Am I confusing them?
Experts like mothers to speak their native tongues to their kids, which makes sense, but toddler speech therapist, Rebecca Hawkins Haas, takes it easy on me. She suggests that what I’m doing isn’t an issue as long as there is no language delay by age three.
Marcos said very little at age two and we were told within days of entering a morning school that he might need professional help. I was open to it, but I knew instinctively he understood, though mostly in Spanish at that time. It’s what the American-Speech-Language-Hearing Association calls a ‘silent period,’ which is normal for many bilinguals. It was only a matter of weeks of being around children his age for hours at a time that his jumbled faucet of Spanish and English turned on and it hasn’t stopped since. Today, he has a strong first-grade English vocabulary and a clean Spanish accent when he speaks.
But I have wondered what is it, really, that pushes me to speak Spanish to my kids, when it doesn’t come naturally to me and frankly, when I’m often too tired to even speak English?
Of course, I want them to embrace both sides of their family trees and to be able to talk to their grandmother, Abuela Ana, in Cuba. They need to find her relevant, know how much she adores her family and how much fun she is.
And yes, there are a million and one studies about cognitive advantages that bilingual children hold. They tend to learn faster, have larger vocabularies and a leg up as job-seeking adults. Certainly, it’s a gift for children to have access to more than one language from a young age. They won’t have to work as hard as Luis and I did.
But there’s more. It wasn’t until Marcos was three or four that I figured out what it was. My little boy is curious, in a global way. Standing at my hip, he asked to look at Savannah and Havana on a map. After peppering me with questions about his island-bound family and how his daddy grew up, he veered far right.
“What’s that?’ he asked, pointing to China. This led to questions about food, culture, weather and time. We looked up answers I didn’t have on the Internet together and discussed. Back to the map, hard left. They speak Spanish in South America, right, Mommy? Like Diego (Dora the Explorer’s jungle-roaming cousin)? Further school-age investigation. These types of conversations continue today.
Also around that time he began to tell Luis and I what language to speak to whom. English to local family members and his teachers and Spanish to Abuela Ana and Cuban friends visiting. He wants everyone to understand and to feel included. Empathy.
Soon came silliness with my dad using Spanish words Grandaddy doesn’t know, joke, joke, giggle, giggle – note here, using humor, not fear or separation for differences in his world.
Those are important things to carry into adulthood, I think, especially when you look at the world we are in.
Open, as always, to discussion!
The spectacular Lucille Ball: Lucy Tries to Speak Spanish
Folks, Spanglish is here to stay.