Bilingual is Better
Jun
23
2011

When They Answer in English

Posted by:  |  Category: Bicultural Vida, Daily Blog

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Photo credit: the00rig

It’s happening. My worst fears have been realized: my son is now answering me in English when I speak to him in Spanish.

Maybe he just forgot a few words and it’s easier for him to explain this subject in English.

Yes, he understands every word of Spanish. Yes, he can translate flawlessly upon request. Yes, he speaks Spanish with those who do not know English.

But why does he answer ME in English, when I’ve used 90% Spanish with him for 3.5 years??

This stresses me out to the extent that, every few days, I give Isaías a little test. Sometimes, we call his father or another Spanish speaker and I breathe a sigh of relief when he switches to Spanish automatically. Other times, I purposely say things incorrectly in Spanish so that I can feel reassured when he corrects me.

Ok, he knows Spanish. So why is he not using it?

What I realize, but can’t seem to fight, is that this worry is all about me and not at all about my son’s ability. It’s not as though he has a deficiency; if anything, he’s leaps and bounds ahead of most 3-year-olds in his communicative skills. Everything I wanted for him when he was born has happened. He’s a happy, healthy, bilingual child who makes me laugh every day. So why am I searching for ever more fluency? I must have impossible expectations and irrational fears.

Now, I’m paranoid about being one of those helicopter parents who is never satisfied!

Clearly, this thought process – which I create several times a day – becomes a proverbial slippery slope. I can fall so far into the abyss of self-doubt that I start thinking about decades into the future, when I’m reminiscing about the first few years of my son’s life, those long-lost times when he spoke Spanish beautifully. It’s a classic case of inventing my own reality, like a body-image delusion.

If I step back from what I’m thinking and pay attention to what I’m feeling, I know that a lot of my fears are about my own aptitude. No matter how often or how well I speak Spanish, I will never be a native speaker. I can’t change my culture or language, but I can always add to it. The additions will never be complete: I could never learn enough vocabulary or understand enough nuances to BE of Latino origin. I am just a speaker, not truly a member of this intimidating group. Part of me doesn’t want my son to ever feel this exclusion, this constant challenge of never truly sounding like he belongs with Spanish speakers.

The truth is: he is already better at Spanish than I am. He has a perfect accent (no accent) and understands idioms and subtleties. I will never keep up with him, and he will likely be one of those members of that group that I look upon from a distance. Instead of being afraid of his leaving me in the dust, I should relish his free will and broad proficiency. He can CHOOSE which language to speak from moment to moment, and that is the greatest freedom there is.

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