All parents are familiar with physical exhaustion, but some of us are even better acquainted with mental fatigue. My son, now almost 29 months old, requires more and longer explanations each day, and he is stretching my Spanish abilities to the max.
Living in Orlando gives me plenty of practice with conversational Spanish, but spending every waking hour explaining the world in every grammatical tense and with as many particularities as an inquisitive kid requires drains me, to say the least. I find the number of “um”s and pauses in my speech increasing at a pace that frightens me sometimes. I can only go so many days calling a worm a culebrita and a lizard an iguanita without pulling out my Spanish-English dictionary and adding to my vocabulary and my son’s.
This is part of the bilingual journey that is markedly different for a nonnative speaker. I don’t have the reference point of memory like native speakers do – of the words my parents used to say to me or those I picked up in the Spanish-speaking community – and I have to resort to the imperfect method of looking them up. I then have to investigate whether or not the words I find in the dictionary are actually used in the immediate community and in my son’s extended family by going to country-specific websites or asking a friend. It goes without saying that this is not a process I’m particularly enthusiastic about doing often.
Discipline is especially difficult to enforce in my second language without simply spitting out angry commands. When a situation presents an immediate danger (such as my boy’s daily attempts to run down the street), my initial verbal reactions are in English. Having to come down from this adrenaline rush and calmly explain to him in Spanish why he should not do it again can be difficult. I can hardly come out with something more complex than “Es peligroso!” or “Vienen los carros.” It’s as though my brain is wired to speak Spanish only when I am calm and not feeling frightened or worried. I wonder if this is a universal bilingual experience, or if it indicates some lingering barrier to official fluency that I need to confront.
At the bottom of this momentary degeneration of language skills is a fear that my son’s verbal development will be negatively affected by my obvious preference for English in difficult moments. Am I sending him the message that the appropriate words don’t exist in his first language simply because I can’t come up with them?
Although I frequently find myself defending my decision to speak Spanish with Isaiah, I have plenty of days when I doubt myself or I just don’t want to do it anymore. Much like all the other parts of parenting, bilingualism necessitates a superhuman level of consistency. Sometimes, I relish the days when I have lots of work because I get to speak English for prolonged periods and remind myself that I am a capable communicator in my native language, even if I sometimes feel like an inept Spanish speaker.