When motherhood was a theory impending practice, the soundtrack I had in my head was this: me speaking only Spanish to our children, my husband speaking only English, our children zinging forth adorable, fully formed, and unquestionably fluent sentences in our respective languages to each of us. I didn’t anticipate that I would want to speak both languages to them, often in equal parts, or that my husband would want to practice his Spanish sometimes, or that actual children might greet long-held expectations and inflexible plans with a belly laugh at best, a rebellion at worst. And so, with our older daughter and son, the way their bilingualism began playing out made me anxious that I had to be doing something wrong.
I’d been reading all the how-to-raise-bilingual-kids books I could get my hands on and, although these were valuable on the level of helping me get organized, they didn’t serve me well on the level of raising-bilingual-children-as-a-process. There’s nothing about a textbook that will see you through the moments of mess.
In particular, our mess sounded like me talking to our older son and daughter mostly in Spanish, them (thanks to their negligible age difference) talking amongst themselves in their own made-up language which, though wholly unrecognizable to me was full of sophistication for them, and me resorting to English again for a couple of weeks at a time until I gathered up the stamina to try again. Lather, rinse, repeat.
During that year, I began the habit of keeping lists of the words the children spoke. With our older two kids, the lists got up to several hundred words. I consulted them every few days and, at any moment, could have probably told you the percent of words in English vs. Spanish. I used to wonder at the weeks that seemed to yield language explosions and lose sleep at the ones that didn’t. I still remember the panic I worked myself up into when, after a two-week period during which they started using twenty new words in Spanish, they went another two-week period in which, no matter the circumstance, the only Spanish word they’d utter was the word for kite — papalote.
In theory, raising them bilingual would be nothing but advantageous for them. Bilingual children would not, according to the expert authors, be confused or late-talking. But in practice, our older two children did seem a bit confused and, our son more than our daughter, definitely late-talking compared to their monolingual counterparts. We must be doing something wrong, I thought, and then, resigned, braced myself for defeat in the form of monolingualism when our younger daughter was about to come home. I imagined I could either have three fantastic, happy children, or keep fighting, and as I saw it, lose the bilingual fight.
But as it turned out, our younger daughter’s arrival, contrary to all expectations, made the kids’ bilingualism and language development, and my relationship with it, much better. In order to get through the three-kids-under-two, eighteen-diaper-changes day-to-day, I had to give up the vocabulary lists, the obsessive research, the self-doubt and just do my best, without over-analyzing. What was left were the spur-of-the-moment songs and games and stories and chats. A third child was the tipping point for our family where we learned to step back from the theory, put away the books, and trust our instincts with our particular kids. We let go of the rigidity in favor of fluidity and there’s progress, though we keep track only of its direction rather than of its minutiae.
Now about a year and a half after the peak of those wearied months, a dear friend calls from Guatemala on our son’s third birthday. We’re all sick in bed with the flu, but she wants to talk to him and wish him a feliz dia. I apologize for the fact that he’ll be hard to understand and will probably speak in English before handing him the phone but, to my surprise, he speaks in Spanish to her.
“Hola, como estas?” It’s in his slurred together little boy speech, but intelligible.
“Dos!” he answers when our friend asks him hold old he is now, “No, tres!”
She asks him what he got for his birthday and he starts jumping up and down. “Un tren!” And then he yells, “Gracias! Adios!” and starts blowing kisses — besos — into the phone.
He turns to me, returns the cordless and says “Thank you, Mami.” In English. I stand there, embobada. Dumbfounded.
Maybe it’s a hallmark of motherhood that, though we are the ones to spend a lifetime trying to equip our children, we’ll never be the ones to fully reap the benefits. Maybe it’s not the point for me to raise my children bilingual so that I’ll have three more people at home to speak Spanish to me. It’s not about me, though the significant effort the task requires sometimes makes me believe it is; it’s about them.
I fill our bookshelves with books in both languages, and play the Cuenta Cuentos, the storytime tapes I listened to as a little girl in Spain, during their naps. Latino pop culture circulates through our house in magazines, TV shows via satellite, and movies. They hear some Spanish at least every day. I no longer imagine with certainty that my children will be equally at ease in either language in any situation, or that they will chose to speak to me exclusively in Spanish. But quizas; perhaps. I have faith that the Spanish I’m giving them now might be like a song they hear all their lives, at whatever volume, and that when the sound gets turned up, no matter how much time passes, they’ll be in time with it, and know the words to sing along as they want.