I have always been somewhat anal about language – grammar and the like. I think if someone had told me when I was a kid (before I became bilingual) that the nouns I used were interchangeable with others that I had never heard before, I would’ve been…well, perturbed.
This is why I am completely floored by my son’s ability to latch onto 2, 3, 4, or more nouns for every thing in his world. Isaiah doesn’t just move fluidly between the general English and Spanish terms. Sometimes, he chooses to use a slang term instead. Por ejemplo, he will hop around on the floor, point to himself, and say “frog.” Then when I ask if he’s a rana, he will emphatically answer “NO, sapo!” He understands 4 words that mean “frog,” but seems to choose a different one each time.
Isaiah doesn’t seem fazed when a Spanish speaker introduces a new term to him, either. I envy his lack of a visible reaction. If he hears an unfamiliar word in the context of a sentence, he simply proceeds with whatever he thinks he’s been asked or told to do. If he guessed wrong and is corrected, he listens to the requisite explanation and then just goes about his day, one word richer. ¡Qué chévere!
Most exciting is seeing how truly established my son’s linguistic flexibility is at the age of just 2 ½. Here on SpanglishBaby, there has been much discussion about the supposedly smooth transition to tri- or multilingualism in children who are raised bilingual, and I am thrilled to witness the seeds of this already. My son has spent quite a bit of time with a German family in our neighborhood. They speak English well, but I told them I was comfortable with them using their native language around Isaiah. The first few times I heard them speaking to him in German, I didn’t pay much attention to his response. Then, one afternoon when we were playing outside with them, the 5-year-old began giving him commands in German. I watched as Isaiah looked his amiguito up and down, studied his body language, and followed his commands without skipping a beat. If I didn’t know otherwise, I would’ve thought he understood German perfectly.
It would seem that after nearly a decade of speaking Spanish and a few years of reading and research on bilingualism, I would not be struck by such an observation. Yet, it is simultaneously fantastic and frightening every time I am reminded that communication is mostly nonverbal. Is it not a powerful thought that, no matter how many words we can give our children for naming a given object, there are moments when no word is necessary?
Especially for those of us with an interest in language learning, it is easy to forget that these systems we have created for expressing ourselves in detail are built upon imperfect foundations and shored up by the signals that we emit unconsciously. In fact, the experience of nonverbal idea exchange woven into our given, and chosen, languages can even be – dare I say it? – de otro mundo.