I saw them one day at the Ikea superstore just outside of Madrid, a couple of years before Pedro was born. A family of four: Mom, Dad, Sister, Brother. Sister: “Mom, can we get something to eat?” Mom: “Ask your father.” Hmm, I thought. An American family. But wait. Sister to Dad: “Papá, podemos comer algo?” Dad: “No, ahora no. Luego.” I nudged my husband excitedly. “See? That’s what we’re going to be! A bilingual family!”
I had read lots about the OPOL method — One Person, One Language — where each parent speaks to the child only in his/her native language, and the child switches back and forth to accommodate. It is very popular for families in our situation, and here was a perfect model right in front of us. If we had caught up to them before they disappeared behind the sofa beds, perhaps they would have confided that it’s not always as easy as it looks to raise bilingual children. Now, our son Pedro is 18 months old, and as he makes his first forays into the world of verbal communication, we are beginning to see for ourselves.
Where we live, it’s not unusual to hear other languages on the street. A sign at a local supermarket welcomes customers in three languages: Spanish, Polish, and Romanian. In the neighborhood a few blocks north of us, one can hear Arabic and occasionally even other tongues I cannot identify. In this Babelian mix, English is seen as a high-status language; everyone wants their children to learn it.
“Oh, Pedro is so lucky!” people exclaim. “He has his own private English teacher right in the house!” I usually just smile and nod, though I find the comment vaguely irritating. “I’m not a live-in English teacher, I’m his mother!” I want to say. “And English is his mother tongue!”
Of course there’s always room for worry. At first, Pedro’s language development seemed to be lagging behind that of his peers. He got “mama” easily enough, and soon “no” became a favorite (undoubtedly the word he heard most often) but didn’t move on from there for quite awhile. Now, at 18 months, he has 15 to 20 words, some in English, some in Spanish, and some — well, let me just back up a bit.
I suppose it shouldn’t have come as a surprise — after all, his favorite book has always been “Old Mac Donald.” But we were a bit taken aback when, at about 15 months, he added a new word to his vocabulary: “quack” – followed quickly by “meow” and “moo.” Despite our best efforts to introduce such classics as “book” “teddy” and “more”, he seemed content to add “neigh” “bow-wow” and “baa.” Did we have a budding Dr. Dolittle on our hands?
Maybe he delighted in those sounds because they were the most fun words he heard. After all, my husband and I did put our all into these animal interpretations. Or maybe it’s because the sounds are the same — or similar — in both English and Spanish. A friend suggested that Pedro was just practicing the art of diplomacy, so that neither parent felt that his/her language was being neglected in favor of the other.
His next word, venturing off the farm, seemed to follow this principle. When he wanted something to drink, he would ask for “wa-wa.” Water, or perhaps, agua. Later I was proud to hear him use “ba” for ball, and my husband was happy to hear “cucha” for coche (car.) Pedro can now recognize and point to both his head and his cabeza. The experts say that while an initial period of language mixing is normal, most children learn quite quickly not only which words belong to which language, but also which language is appropriate for each context — and person — they encounter.
Still, some days it seems like a competition. Pedro is working on English versions of two of his favorite things: cheese and keys. But another favorite is clearly “loj” for reloj (clock). I think back to the first time he said it and kick myself. We were in the toy store, looking for a toy clock to encourage his newfound fascination. I found one, and commented to my husband, “Aquí hay un reloj.” At that moment, Pedro reached out and touched it, and repeated, “reloj.” “Yes, that’s right, honey — it’s a clock.” I quickly told him. But it has been “loj” ever since.
Then he added “knee” and a couple of weeks ago, though not since, he repeated “mee!” insistently as he watched me cut up his meat. So far, so good — but we’re not out of the woods yet. Though we have lots of English-language books and videos and periodic visits with my family, most of the time I am on my own, solely responsible for Pedro’s English. From what I’ve read, maintaining the minority language is always a challenge in the face of all the other input from the society at large.
A few days ago something happened that really brought this home to me. Pedro acquired his current favorite word, “pato,” for zapato, shoe. I’ll admit it’s cute to hear him say it, especially when we walk by the shoe store with its well-stocked display window. So, great — except that this was one word I was counting on him to produce in English. After all, how many times a day, for the past several months, had I been talking to him about shoes? “Pedro, where are your shoes? Bring me your shoes, please. We need to put our shoes on now. No, Pedro, that’s Daddy’s shoe…”
But the truth is, he does know what “shoe” means, even if he chooses not to say it for now. I’ve decided not to worry — this business of learning to talk is complicated, even for monolingual children. Maybe tomorrow he’ll add another English word, or, why not, another animal sound. For now I am taking it all in stride, maintaining my sense of humor. When people ask me what language he speaks, I assure them that he is trilingual. “Oh yes,” I reply to the quizzical looks. “He’s got a good start on both English and Spanish, and he’s quite fluent in barnyard speak.”