Bilingual is Better

Before our baby was born, my husband and I had a silent agreement, “We’d raise a multilingual child.”  I won’t deny, I was worried, would this delay her speech? I often wondered if she’d be confused by hearing all three languages spoken at once. Friends said babies were like sponges, they absorb everything, so my worrying went away, well, decreased.  And so our daughter was born and we began speaking all three languages.  My husband’s native language is Croatian, mine is Spanish, and we speak English with each other and hoped that as she got older–she’d comprehend the difference–like magic.

When our daughter, Isabela, was 13 months old, we moved from Colorado to Croatia. It was a family decision, one that benefited Isabela the most because she had both parents at home full-time telling her things like “No” and “Don’t put that in your mouth” and one set of grandparents that spoke only loving words to her in Croatian. Then, the time came, mixing both languages in the household especially with words that were easier for her to pronounce. Elephant, in English, has 3 syllables, but the Croatian word slon was shorter, so we used that instead. This was also the same time I dove into the language and took classes to learn my husband’s native tongue. (I also wanted to understand what the in-laws were really saying about me.) So I focused on speaking the same command words my husband used, like polako, “Be careful”  and “Don’t put that in your mouth” Ne Usta! Our child was lucky–hearing all the negatives in three languages–we’re saving up for her therapy sessions instead of college.

In an instant, Isabela, or Beli, spoke more Croatian than Spanish or English which was normal, since we were living in Croatia, right? She knew her body parts in Croatian, colors in English (from watching children’s educational programming–thank you Big Bird) and if she wanted something to drink she asked for agua. I recall a conversation I had with a friend when I mentioned how Beli used all three languages throughout the day. She told me about the One Parent One Language (OPOL) method and explained that this would increase the likelihood that Isabela would be bilingual; except in our case, trilingual. We wanted our daughter to have a connection with both of our heritages and weren’t too worried about the English language since we knew at one point we’d be returning to the States and she’d have greater exposure there.

According to this OPOL method, my husband should only speak Croatian to her, and I would speak Spanish. But to be honest with you, I was falling victim to Spanglish. When I read books to her I would say “look the tree es verde and the cielo is blue. Or when I was dressing her I would say, la blusa, los shorts, y los shoes. I can get by with basic Spanish used around the house, but there are many words that don’t come easy so I usually have to consult with my Dad or Mom for example “¿Cómo se dice fence en español?” Sometimes I wonder if I’m only confusing her or is she really grasping each language independently? Or, is she too young for us to even be worried?

But Beli was fine with us mixing the three languages, or so I thought, until we took a trip to the States to visit my family after being overseas for a year. The trip back home was an eye-opener because my family couldn’t understand when Beli asked in Croatian, Sto je to? “What is this?” When referring to things or people. I was interpreting for my 2-year’old! My sister told me, “I can’t understand what your daughter is telling me.” I wanted my family to have a close relation with my daughter, but I felt I had failed by mixing all three languages. So upon our return to Croatia I mentioned to hubby that it was time I used the OPOL method (although I would add that he was already doing that, speaking only Croatian).

There were times when Beli would  stare at me, lost in my Spanish words and would instead turn to Daddy because she couldn’t understand what I was saying. A few months passed before finally, she was proficient in speaking Spanish. I don’t know how she knew but she only spoke Spanish with me and Croatian to everyone, including our friends who visited us from the States, I guess she thought Mami was the only one who didn’t speak Croatian.

Of course all this changed a few months ago when we moved back to the States after having lived in Croatia for almost 2 years. Isabela quickly became immersed in the English language and to my pleasure now sings along to Dora, a monkey who wears boots, and an overzealous gummy bear on YouTube. My nephews speak mainly English at home and at school, so she switched to English when with them. She refuses to speak Croatian to my husband, maybe because he stayed in Croatia to finish some paperwork and returned a month ago and she was no longer exposed to the Croatian language on a daily basis.

So what has changed in our home? Well, I try to speak strictly in Spanish and when she asks me something in English I repeat the same question but in Spanish, for example I ask her, “Beli ¿dónde está tu cuarto?” She replies, “Far away.” She only speaks English or Spanish to my husband and he responds in Croatian.

Mi niña preciosa (my precious daughter) no longer speaks Croatian. I feel terrible when my mother-in-law calls us over Skype and Beli doesn’t want to talk to her. I’m sure it has to do with the transition of moving back to the States; it was been a big adjustment for all of us, but I’m hoping that with time, as we settle in to a regular routine, Beli will begin to speak Croatian to her Daddy and Spanish to me.  A ver como nos va. (We will see how it goes) In the meantime, because that still worries me, I’ve started my own therapy-savings jar.

Elisa Bijelic is both the mother of Isabela (3 y.o.) and the wife to an American-Croatian citizen.  She was born in Chihuahua, Mexico and grew up in Texas and lived with her husband and daughter in Croatia for 18 months but recently returned to living in the States. She holds a Doctorate in Pharmacy and currently lives in Colorado with her family and you can find her blogging over at www.croatia-eolivas.blogspot.com.

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