How Truly Bilingual is my Daughter?

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Vanessa visiting one of the classrooms I spent many an hour as a child back in Peru. San Silvestre School.

I’m worried. I know I shouldn’t be. But, I’m a mom. And moms worry, right?

I know that what I’m going to say is going to sound crazy considering all the research I’ve been doing the last couple of years, all the tips and studies shared by our knowledgeable experts, and all the support we’ve gotten from the awesome community SpanglishBaby has become. But here it is: I have started to think that maybe I should’ve spoken more English to Vanessa in the last 4 1/2 years.

¿Qué qué? Did I just say that? Okay. Let me backtrack a little.

Last week, it was time for parent-teacher conferences over at Vanessa’s preschool. “Are you kidding me?” my husband asked when I told him I had to leave work early so I could make it to the meeting. “She’s only 4!” Whatever. And, by the way, she’s 4 1/2.

Anyhow, I was particularly interested in what her teacher had to say for a couple of reasons. First, unlike past years when I was a SAHM and I had tons of interaction with my daughter’s preschool teachers both before and after school, I now work full-time and barely know the teachers since I only get to pick her up and I’m always in a rush to get back to work. Second, while it’s true that Vanessa is only 4 1/2 and this is preschool, this is her last year there and it’s actually considered pre-kinder. She will be starting kindergarten the first day of August. In other words, Vanessa will be changing schools for the first time in 2 1/2 years and I wanted to know how ready her teacher thought she was for that.

I mean, I know my daughter. I know she’s ready, but I wanted to see what her teacher had to say in terms of the whole English-not-being-her-first language thing.

So here’s what she said: Vanessa is completely ready. She wouldn’t be able to stay another year in preschool because she would get bored. She’s extremely intelligent, understands absolutely everything, can follow directions to the T, is a bit of a drama queen when she doesn’t get her way (surprise!) and…she’s really shy!

Shy? “Are you sure you’re talking about my Vanessa?” I wanted to ask her because, really, I’d use a lot of words to describe my daughter, but S-H-Y would not be one of them. In fact, the opposite of shy would be more like it!

So, what’s going on? Vanessa’s teacher explained that while she had no issues communicating with her peers, she didn’t really talk to her or her assistant that much. She said that when she did, many times they could barely hear her and that sometimes it seemed as if Vanessa wasn’t sure she was saying the correct  word. I immediately asked if this would be a problem for her in kindergarten, what with a much larger class and a more rigorous schedule. Vanessa’s teacher didn’t seem to think so. She just suggested I mentioned my daughter’s shyness to her kinder teacher. But how can I do that if I’ve never even seen/known this side of her?

I have to admit all this made me very disappointed and sad with a bit of guilt. I know everything will be fine and soon I’ll be writing about how Vanessa doesn’t want to talk to me in Spanish — considering she’ll be immersed in English most of her waking hours five times a week (Oh, God, how I hope this doesn’t happen!) — yet, I can’t help feeling as if I should’ve spoken to her in English a bit lot more.

Unlike those of you who use the OPOL method (which, by the way, I think might be a lot harder, but is the better way of raising fully bilingual children), my husband and I can count in one hand the times we’ve spoken to her in English. I know that Vanessa is not shy. She just doesn’t have the same vocabulary in English as she does in Spanish. I swear that if you only heard her speak in Spanish, without seeing her, you’d think she was a lot older than her 4 1/2 years. Her vocabulary is tremendous for her age. (And I’m not saying that just because I’m her mami. This is what I’ve been told over and over again by others after they hear her speak, including all of my Spanish-speaking family during our recent trip to Perú!)

So now I’m left wondering if I did her a disservice by not using more English with her. After I left the parent-teacher conference, it occurred to me that we still have about four months before she enters kinder and that maybe I should switch to talking to her in English in the hopes that we could enrich her vocabulary. Pero eso es una locura.

Truth is that speaking to her in any language other than Spanish (save for the little French I use with her on occasion) would be a complete farce for both my husband and I (with all due respect to those parents who are raising their children bilingual by talking to them in any language other than their native one. I admire you to no end, as I’ve said many times in the past.) Spanish is our mother tongue and the most natural way for us to communicate in, especially with our children.

Entonces, ¿qué? Well, as I said at the beginning, I know I’m crazy to be worried about this and, as everybody who started kindergarten knowing not one word of English has already told me, I also know she’ll be totally fine. Yet, I’m still worried.

I guess that’s what mamis do.

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