Bilingual is Better

Photo credit: Brit

Estoy terminado,” is what my son says every time he’s done eating.  Not, “he terminado,” or “ya terminé.”  When he wants to know what something’s for, the question is, “¿Qué es eso para?”

And it drives me absolutely crazy.  Because both examples are such direct translations from English.  I am finished.  Estoy terminado. What’s that for?  ¿Qué es eso para?

As I do whenever my boys say something that’s not quite right, I correct them gently without quite correcting them by repeating the correct way to say it back to them.  Sí, ya terminaste.  ¿Quieres saber para qué es eso? If they’re talking to me in Spanish and use a word in English, I supply them with the Spanish equivalent.

Gentle corrections or not, though, the expressions persist, and I wonder what to do about them.  We all worry about making sure our children learn the minority language—and worry that if we become too critical, learning the language will no longer be fun for them and they will rebel or give up.  In my case, throw in my boys’ speech delays and it makes me even more reluctant to correct them.

Part of the reason the mistakes drive me so crazy is that they’re happening more frequently.  My kids are having a great final year of preschool, and though they’re keeping up with the Spanish at home and even with one of their teachers, they’re in a mostly-English environment all day, and I think it’s starting to show.

Part of the reason is my training.  I thought my Spanish was great when I decided to pursue a master’s degree in interpretation.  After all, I had lived and studied in both the U.S. and Latin America.  Fortunately, I was blissfully unaware of what I was getting into—the program, though it was excellent and I loved it, was simply brutal.  It was two years of constant criticism and extremely hard work.  I practiced interpretation with my classmates at 6:00 a.m. and then again for hours after class in the afternoon.  People routinely broke down in tears during class.  When we allowed one language to seep into the other, it was called “contamination.”  Realizing just how much I didn’t know was quite a rude awakening.  After years of code-switching or using Spaniglish with my friends and family, I essentially broke the habit.

I read this post on Spanglish with keen interest.  Although I am teaching my boys Spanish, I try hard to always be aware that I am not raising little interpreters, and I have no interest in doing so.  This site has educated me quite a bit, actually.  I’ve loved reading about code-switching in children and how it is a natural part of dual-language acquisition.  The way my children can switch back and forth never ceases to amaze me.  However, I did realize something huge about myself when I was in graduate school:  Whenever I found myself speaking Spanglish, I was usually switching to the other language because I had never learned how to say the word I was looking for in the first one.

That’s why I try hard to at least provide my children with the word they need, or to point out that marrón is the same color as café, for example.  And it’s clear that reading to them in Spanish is so hugely beneficial—they routinely use expressions that I don’t use but that I recognize from their books.  I also believe that lacking vocabulary in your second language is not actually a serious problem—we can all learn a new set of vocabulary.

The last time Primo told me “estoy terminado,”  I decided to try a different tack.  “That’s not quite how you say it in Spanish,” I told him.  “You say, ya terminé.”  I watched the wheels turn for a few seconds and waited for his reaction.  “Sí, así se dice,” he told me unequivocally.  “Estoy terminado.”  Then he laughed, and I laughed, and we had a mock argument and went back and forth on it a few times.

My reasoning was that Primo is an intellectually curious little boy, and he might appreciate the explanation and the correction.  Apparently not, at least not right now.  So I’m left pondering my next move, I haven’t really figured out what to do about correcting mistakes, and I have no idea how to neatly tie up this blog post.

Except maybe like this:

Estoy terminada.

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