Photo credit: pulihora

Mami todavía no vamos a ir a home porque estamos buscando un treasure.

This is what my almost 4-year-old said to me last week as we were heading back from our regular afternoon stroll to the duck pond by our house. I was floored. I know this is totally normal in the journey of those becoming bilingual. I’ve researched and read enough to know there’s nothing to worry about, but I can’t deny I was pretty surprised. I mean, I’ve heard her sprinkle her sentences with an English word once in a blue moon, but lately she’s been doing it a lot more. The thing is that I have never really spoken to Vanessa in English. The English she knows, she’s learning in preschool. In other words, she’s not even going to school on a daily basis and I still have lots of control in terms of the amount of exposure she gets to her first language, and yet we’re already seeing the influence of the majority language.

Over the weekend, while chatting with some of the moms from our bilingual playgroup, I mentioned what I had started noticing in Vanessa’s language development. At least one mom said she’d seen the same thing happen with her daughters. The main difference is that in their particular case, they use the OPOL method, so in my head, it actually makes a bit more sense that her daughters are demonstrating this way of speaking. In other words, they are exposed to both languages at home, whereas in our case, Vanessa is only exposed to Spanish at home. I guess what I’m trying to say is that more and more I see how unfounded my doubts about her learning English on her own were and how real the worries about English taking over really are.

Now, as you can imagine, my daughter obviously knows the word casa. I mean that one in particular has been part of her vocabulary from very early on. So she definitely didn’t use the English equivalent because she didn’t know how to say it in Spanish. It seems to me, and to the moms I was talking to this weekend, that in this type of situation it’s more of an automatic thing. I think it has to do using the first word that comes to mind regardless of whether it’s in English or Spanish. At the end of the day, let’s not forget that her young brain is processing two languages at the same time!

In terms of the word tesoro, I’m pretty convinced the usage of its English counterpart has to do with the fact that she probably didn’t know the word in Spanish. Although I’m sure we’ve used it in the past, we probably haven’t done it enough for it to stick. Meanwhile, she just spent a whole week learning about pirates and treasures in preschool.

So, what to do?

There’s a Difference between Correcting and Modeling

My initial reaction when I heard Vanessa say that was to tell her: “Así no se dice.” But I’ve read enough about this topic to know this would do no good. I used to tell her I didn’t understand because I spoke no English, but she’s almost four and she’s caught on. She now knows that’s a lie. Instead, I just agreed with her comment and repeated it emphasizing the words “casa” and “tesoro.”

Teach Them the “Right” Words

In an effort to make sure Vanessa learns and remembers the word tesoro, I’ve made sure to incorporate it in as many conversations and as often as possible. From stories about the tesoro we’re going to bury for her upcoming pirate-themed birthday party to a fun conversation about the awesome stuff to be found inside one. Remember, tesoro is the one word I’m convinced she used in English because she didn’t necessarily know it in Spanish. Or if she did, she just hadn’t used it enough to remember it.

Keep at It

Although it’s probably easier to just ignore it, try to make it a point not to. In my daughter’s case, I think the issue is still kind of mild, just a few words sprinkled here and there, but I know there will be a lot more mixing as her exposure to English increases, i.e. when she starts school.

Don’t Sweat It

Having said all this, I do want to emphasize that you try not to worry too much about it. Try to remember that mixing languages is part of the bilingual process. There is nothing wrong with your child if he does it. You’re not doing anything wrong. Just follow the steps I just mentioned and just make sure that speaking the minority language continues to be fun!

Has this happened with your children yet? What do you do?

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