The following is a guest post by Carolina Gomez founder of 1-2-3 Spanish Together.
We are a bicultural family living in Boston, MA. My husband is from the United States, and I am originally from Colombia where I grew up and lived for the first two-thirds of my life. We are both bilingual, and although we learned our second languages as adults, without the opportunity to learn or being exposed to a second language as children, we understand each other’s culture very well. I have been in the United States for 10 years and, prior to that, my husband lived in Colombia for four years. We try our best to take frequent trips to Colombia.
When we got married –in Colombia- we decided we were going to live our married life in a totally bilingual world starting inside our own house. We divided the house in sections, designating spaces where we could only speak in Spanish, places for English, places where we each had to speak our second language, a Spanglish place, and a place where we could speak the language we wanted. We had signs all over the house to remind us about the language we should use.
It became even more fun when we had our first child five years ago here in the U.S. Actually, it got interesting even before she was born since she was listening to Putumayo Music CD’s in different languages starting in the womb.
During her first months, our daughter spent a good deal of time with both of us. I remember her first word was “dada,” and she was constantly playing with her tongue to roll her “RR”. I was very glad to hear her first word, and I do have to admit I was sad because I wanted that first word to be in Spanish. How could I be so selfish, since as a bilingual child, she could say her first word in the any language she wanted to? She was so lucky she had choices! As parents we were always having discussions such us “no, she said it in English, I heard this,” or “No, I am sure she said it in Spanish.” We both wanted to hear words and phrases in each other’s language, but it was playful between us, too. One day I sat her in her high chair, I clearly remember this, when she was about 11 months old. Anyway, she was all ready for dinner. I made her scrambled eggs (yeah, I’m not much of a chef!!), and she was very happy munching away and said something that to me sounded like “Hum, mami.” I laughed and told my husband, “did you hear what she said? She just say “hum, mami!” I was so happy, but it didn’t last long because my husband happily added, “no, she didn’t say that. She said “Oh, yummy.” She is five years old now and I still think she said “hum, mami.” He’s pretty sure it was just her tummy talking…
We have had a lot of fun experiences raising a bilingual child, and she really became a Spanglish baby when she started to use both languages to create her own words. This is not the Spanglish we commonly hear, with code switching replacing complete words from different languages, she was creating complete and new words using both languages. We heard things like moona (moon+luna).
Now that she is 5 years old we hear how she borrows and transfers grammar from one language to the other, we also see that she tends to have a first language depending on the context. For example, after visiting for just a few weeks with family in Colombia, her Spanish is dominant, but once back in the U.S., she feels more comfortable with English, but is still able to keep speaking Spanish at home. We also see how she is a really good translator, when her “dada” says something to me in English, she passes it along to me in Spanish without blinking. She is also able to identify with whom she should use English and with whom Spanish is more appropriate. And of course, her bilingualism journey is not yet over – in fact, she is already expressing strong interest toward other languages, inventing her own language called “Kambucha,” perhaps named after the tangy drinks her papi likes so much.
With time in Colombia as well as a summer in Guatemala (my husband works for an international conservation and development organization with regional offices in Guatemala), she not only absorbs Spanish but observes everything around her and soaks up culture like a sponge. In Guatemala, within a week of living there, she was copying the women who carry water on their heads and make tortillas with their hands whenever she played in her own little make believe world in our own little apartment. And, come to think of it, since she’s never taken a school bus, I’m sure the first time she boards one, she’ll exclaim, “Hey, this is just like the chicken buses from Guatemala,” having been exposed to trusty Bluebird buses in reverse order from your average kid.
Raising bilingual children is not only about giving them the gift to learn different codes to communicate with other people, but also raising human beings who are tolerant of and genuinely interested in other cultures and being part of an ever more dynamic world. It is a real gift, and I’m so proud I can give it to her!