Monday, October 26, 2009

What language are you?

Language. It's how we learn to put our world together when we first start to talk. It helps us identify, or integrate into different groups as we grow. Language is not only a system for communication, but also a whole lens for relating to ourselves and others. When I was in my last year of the master's program in Spanish, the coordinator of the teaching assistant program was doing research for his doctoral dissertation on the subject of language and identity. He was passionate on the subject, and he really got me thinking about it as well. A person who speaks more than one language has the opportunity to open another window into him or herself, in addition to being able to communicate with a much broader audience.

So toward the end of my pregnancy I began to wonder what language I should speak to my new baby. Since my husband is Mexican and Spanish is his first language, we always knew that he would use Spanish with our child. I had read about different approaches to introduce two languaes to a child, and many advised the "one-parent, one-language" approach where each parent speaks their native language. Following that course, I would speak only English to the child. Yet, I was also interested in the "hot-house" approach, where both parents speak the non-native language of the country (Spanish) with the rational that the child would be exposed to the native language (English) everywhere but in the house, so as to expose the child to as much of the second-language as possible within the family. I thought that both approaches had much merit, and wasn't sure which path to pursue. Basically it came down to this: Do I speak English or Spanish to my baby? Well, Spanish I thought. Give this baby as much Spanish as possible from the get-go. Immerse him or her (we didn't know it was her until birth...) with "imput" of the language. The more imput, the more (eventual) output. Very scientific. Being that I teach Spanish for a living, how hard could it be to teach my own child from birth?

Well it was harder and yet more natural than I ever would have imagined. There were days that I just stared at my newborn and willed myself to talk to her, but could not. I had become mute! I wanted to follow my "theory", I wanted to immerse this little being in "second" language imput, yet I could not find the words. They were not on my tongue. I became so frustrated that I truthfully felt like a failure when the maternal words did finally appear, but in English. And sometimes not even that! I used a baby jargon that honestly, I don't know where it came from. All words had to rhyme it seemed, and many were nonsense (and pluralized) words. ("It's time to change the diapsey-liapseys again luvsey girls"...What?!)

Even my husband gave me the raised eyebrow on many occasions and the "I-thought-you-were-going-to-speak-Spanish-to-her" talk (even though to be fair, I had come to a compromise and declared that I would speak English to her while it was just the two of us or in the company of others, but at home with my husband I would only talk to her in Spanish, since my husband and I communicate with each other entirely in Spanish anyway. And that was really what he was calling me out on). My only saving grace it seemed, was that we read together. All the time--in English and Spanish (and even French, but that's another story, since my pronunciation in French not always...accurate!) In fact, I read to her all the time from when she was weeks old. Why? Well apart from all the benefits that the experts preach about, it was a way to expose her to language. And I didn't have to worry about what words to say, because they were already written down for us.

As time went by, I realized that she was listening and taking in what I and others had to say. Case in point, my husband repeating "ca ca ca ca ca ca" over and over while changing her diaper, and as I've mentioned before, "caca" was right after "mama" and "papa", which she still uses gleefully to identify anything potty-related. And then there was my dad, who for months had this game of pointing to himself and drawing out the word "Graaaaaaandpa" and then after a pregnant pause pointing back to her and saying "baaaaaby". We all laughed, until months later the joke was on us. She says "grandpa" clearly and succintly now, every time she sees him, if his name comes up in conversation, or if she hears his voice on the phone...even though she has not once said "grandma" (Sorry Mom, but don't worry--it's coming).

Now I have relaxed, because I see that she is actively acquiring both Spanish and English (which was the goal of any of my studied "approaches" to the matter, anyway) and not only that, she is acquiring our (it's in both sides of the family, honestly, in both languages) silly language contortions and inventions. I mean, when that darling child exclaims "YUUUUUMmmmmies" when she's about to get lunch, I have no doubt that she thinks that the word means "food" because that's what I use to describe pretty much anything she's about to eat (in the hopes that my forced cheerfulness will go far in getting her to eat whatever it is). Or the fact that she runs by the bathroom where her daddy gives her her beloved bath squealing "aguita aguita aguita" because she loves water in all forms but especially when she's splashing around in it happily (the point being that not only is the word "agua," but daddy taught her to use the Spanish -ita suffix to "soften" the word--literally -ita means little--and make it sound more child-like, or affectionate). I actually speak to her in a mix of Spanish and English and jargon, so I've officially forgoed all of the theories at this point...

So how much does language help to shape our identity and our way of figuring out our world? Well, according to me, obviously it is fundamental. But whether you speak only a few words in another language--as so many toddlers do today, thanks to Dora and Diego--or six (as one African student of mine does, Spanish will be his seventh), it's also as deeply personal and unique to each of us and our family situations as we are as people. I value Spanish and languge learning in general, so I hope to pass those values on to my daughter. She is already engaging in two languages at the same time and showing even me (who for all of my expousing on the subject can be secretly speculative when it comes down to it) that from a child's perspective, it is the most natural thing in the world. That the fact that if I say "bread" to her and she responds with "pa, pa" ("pan" in Spanish), that it's just another way of expressing the basic idea, just as we might say "bread" or "muffin" or "bagel" which aren't technically the same thing, but they're all words that describe a food belonging to the grain category, so enough said in the eyes of the one-year old. We accept that there are synonyms in our own language ("too" is "also"), so for her, she constantly is hearing and piecing together her synonyms--which in most cases, just happen to be words in two different languages. We adults make it complicated. For a child it is simple and natural and fun.

I am proud that her identity is already being shaped and blended into a whole, with language playing its essential part. English, Spanish, and our silly family jargon (which is just as much apart of this clan as the "official languages" are), and maybe even a little French from the exposure of her French-speaking playmates, and perhaps some Portuguese from the Brazilian side of the family, and whatever other language she may decide to engage in as she gets a little older. They will all come together and form parts of who she is and how she approaches people and the world. She will decide then, how exactly these pieces have helped formed who she will have become.

Maybe someday in the U.S. we will finally "get" that second language learning is a gift we can give to our children while they are young. Shouldn't all kids have the opportunity to learn another language from elementary school on?

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