Bilingual is Better

Photo by tibchris

We hope you’ve been enjoying reading about our first three regular contributors. In case you haven’t had a chance to “meet” them, so far we’ve introduced you to Chelsea (a single, non-native Spanish speaker raising her son bilingual); Susan (another non-native Spanish speaker raising her two boys trilingual); and Elsie (a Latina raising her daughter bilingual who has promised to share her abuela’s recipes with all of us!).

Today we’d like you to get to know Kim who brings a completely different perspective to the subject of raising bilingual children and one where there is a lot of confusion and contradicting information – raising children with special needs to become bilingual. We’re thrilled to have her on board because we strongly believe in providing all of you with credible information. Thanks for being willing to share your trials and triumphs, Kim!

Kimberly Stevens Lane was born to a Costa Rican mother and an American father and was raised in both countries.  She is the mother of four-year-old twin boys, both of whom have special needs and are in full-time special education programs.  She has a Master of Arts degree in Conference Interpretation and is a freelance translator and interpreter in the Washington, D.C. area.

Raising Bilingual Children: An Awesome Challenge

I had it all planned out. I always knew that I wanted my children to grow up speaking Spanish, years before I had them, before I even knew who I would marry. When I married a Midwesterner who spoke not a lick of Spanish, I knew we would use the one-parent, one-language method. At the time, I don’t think I even knew what OPOL meant. I just knew it was what my parents had done in our household, and that it worked for them. When I learned I was pregnant with twins, I was ecstatic. We had two boys that we call Primo and Secondo.

So we did OPOL at home. I spoke to my children in Spanish, my husband in English. We built up a library of books in Spanish that we read every day. Except Secondo didn’t seem too interested in talking. He was more interested in rolling his toy cars back and forth, over and over. When he did speak, he was echolalic—he parroted whatever we said back to us. He rarely made eye contact or responded when I said his name. All of these things became increasingly difficult to ignore.  A few months before his third birthday, we found ourselves in a drab room with two-way mirrors and a bunch of doctors holding clipboards.  Then the child psychiatrist diagnosed my boy with autism and people scrambled to pass me the tissues.

I’m a little foggy on some of the details of that day, but I had one moment of clarity. As we walked back down the hallway to her office, I asked “What do you think about the fact that I speak to Secondo in Spanish?” I still remember exactly how I phrased the question. Not, “Do you think I should?” or “Should I stop?” And I remember her answer. “Oh, it’s absolutely wonderful,” she said, and her demeanor was dreamy, almost zen-like. “It will create so many new pathways in his brain. You can’t even imagine.” That was all the encouragement I needed. I knew, even then, that I would not have stopped even if she had suggested it. I knew that I had to keep speaking to Secondo in Spanish and see what happened.

Raising a bilingual child can be challenging and autism added an entirely new element to that challenge. Secondo had some significant speech delays as well. The school system evaluated his speech when he was 30 months old and the results were sobering. He tested as low as in the six-month range in some areas. And so he started preschool and we entered the world of special education. Language acquisition lost some of its spontaneity. Instead, we had specific goals–goals that were written out in his Individualized Education Program, a legal document.

It was more than a little intimidating, but we broke things down and took baby steps. Goal number one, for example, was to teach Secondo how to ask for what he wanted, as his inability to do that led to constant meltdowns. So for months, at home and at school, we worked on “I want x or y, please.” I thought that if he could learn to do that, he could just as easily learn to say, “Quiero tal cosa, por favor.”  Progress was slow, especially in the beginning, but there was progress.

I am far from an expert on bilingualism and special needs. It feels presumptuous to list what I’ve learned, but I have learned a few lessons along the way.

  • Every child is different. I’m going to fall back on two sayings that are popular in special education.  One, if you’ve met one child with autism, you’ve met…one child with autism. You just can’t generalize when it comes to children with special needs—or any child, for that matter. Two, you are the expert when it comes to your child. I’ve largely followed my instincts and they have steered me the right way.
  • You will find a lot of conflicting information out there. When I googled bilingualism and special needs, what I found made my head spin. The information boiled down to: “Yes! Teaching your special-needs child a second language is great!” And also, “No! Don’t do it!  It’s too much!” This made me throw my hands up and trust my instincts.
  • What you do at home matters. I was despondent when I sent Secondo to preschool when he was only two years old, because that hadn’t been in our plans. I feared English would take over once he started school, but it just hasn’t been an issue.
  • A support system is essential. You know how I just said you’re the expert? The other experts—teachers, psychiatrists, speech therapists—are all invaluable. They show me new ways of doing things. They encourage me. They are a part of our team, and they feel like family. And they all think that it’s wonderful that Secondo’s learning Spanish. Support at home is no less important. I’m lucky to have a husband who’s in this with me all the way and thinks raising the boys to be bilingual is as important as I do. Without him, it would be much harder.

And finally, never, ever underestimate your child. It’s only been a little over a year since Secondo was diagnosed, and he still has many delays, but he gets it. It’s taken a lot of work, but he understands that Mama knows Spanish and Daddy knows English. He loves music and books in both languages. Recently, he came sobbing to me because his brother wouldn’t play with him. “You have to tell him, ven conmigo,” I explained, trying to put it simply. He walked over to his brother and said, “Primo, ¡ven conmigo a jugar con el tren!” I was bowled over.

It may not be working out exactly as I had planned. But it’s definitely working. And my boys surprise me every day.

We’re so lucky to have all our new contributors because we’re sure they’ll be teaching all of us lots of new ways of looking at bilingualism. We hope you’ll come back tomorrow to meet our fifth, and final, regular contributor.

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