Bilingual is Better

Photo credit: surlygirl

Like many of you reading, I had it all planned out.  I had read about One Parent, One Language and knew that was how I wanted to raise my children.  It was what my parents had done at home with me.  My husband was completely on board.  Making sure my children learned Spanish was important to me for many, many reasons.

And then they were born and it was just the strangest thing–I found that speaking to my babies in Spanish was actually quite hard.  Whenever I tried to talk to them, English threatened to spill out and thwart my good intentions, and for some reason English seemed more…natural.  I fought against the feeling and made myself speak Spanish anyway, but I was feeling somewhat blue and more than a little frustrated with myself.

I’m sure there were plenty of post-pregnancy hormones involved, and there was also the fact that I had no idea what I was going to do with two newborns.  But mostly, I think now that things felt so daunting because I was establishing the language in which I would have a relationship with my sons.  Because back in the day, before I had heard of OPOL, whenever I thought about it at all, I thought of all of my relationships as being conducted in a language.

English with my father.  Spanish with my mother.  English with my brother when we were little, with a shift over to Spanish at some point, though I don’t remember when.  Even with my colleagues and friends who are also bilingual, we seem to have picked a language at some point and stuck with it.  Switching languages, as we often do to be polite in the presence of others, just feels strange.

So I watch, fascinated, as my boys develop a relationship and I take note of which language they use.  This is partly, I must say, because it is a very recent phenomenon.  Secondo has autism and Primo got an official autism diagnosis this month as well.  Other mothers would often exclaim, “Oh, it must be so nice, they must entertain each other so well!”  And I would nod and smile, but the truth is that up until just a few months ago they largely ignored each other.  Loved each other, to be sure–one was often aware of the other’s presence and became upset if his brother wasn’t around, but that was about it.  Along with their educational teams, we decided that after being separated in school for two years, they could be in the same class this year, since they never paid too much attention to each other at school.

Then, last spring, things started to change.  In the evening now, after I’ve turned out the lights and shut their bedroom door, I hear them.  They chat with each other, read books together, clamber out of bed and take toys off the shelves.  My husband and I exchange looks on the couch in the living room, but neither one of us is willing to go upstairs and interrupt their time together, even though it’s way past their bedtime.  Language learning has been such an uphill battle that hearing them chitchat upstairs is music to my ears.

I hear them ask each other questions.  “Which food is your favorite, this or this?”  I know this is from a Richard Scarry book, and I make a mental note.  Discussions about Richard Scarry, apparently, are in English.  Then, later, “Mira, ¡un avión de American!”  So playing with the toy airplanes is an activity conducted in Spanish.  “Secondo, ¿tienes  un círculo rojo?”  Bingo is played in Spanish, then.  And so on and so forth.

I listen, and I wonder what language will define their relationship.  It is fluid, for sure.  I leave town and hear them chattering away in English in the background while I am on the phone with their father.  When I am around, there is more Spanish when they talk to each other.  I encourage the Spanish, of course, but they live in the U.S. and I realize that at some point their relationship may be an English-only one.  But heck, some days–many days–I’m just happy they’re speaking any language at all.

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