Jul 072012

Red-Eyed Tree Frog, Costa Rica

Not every moment has to be teachable.  Sometimes they can just be cuddly.

As mentioned in an earlier post, right now we are lucky enough to be visiting family in Costa Rica.  Besides the joy of seeing relatives we see only every few years and of being in such a beautiful country, the visit is also something of an experiment for raising our bilingual toddler.

At home in the US, our little Monkey is immersed in an English environment, so although his Spanish comprehension is very high thanks to my husband’s efforts, our son now speaks English almost exclusively.  While in the beginning his language acquisition was split almost evenly between the two languages, now that he is older and interacting with more (English-speaking) children, the balance tipped in favor of English quite a while ago.

So how would he respond to being immersed in a Spanish-speaking environment for three weeks?

We are only halfway through our stay, but so far there has been no obvious change in his speech.  He does experiment with new words, playing around with those he finds particularly amusing (“Venga!” Come!), and he is more likely to use some Spanish words than he was before, but in general he still speaks almost totally in English.

Why is this the case?  I have a few hypotheses:

1) Total Spanish immersion?  Well, not quite…

The truth is that our little Monkey is not living 24-7 in an exclusively Spanish-speaking environment, mainly because of me.  I still tend to speak to him in English, though I have dropped the “native language only” rule that we follow at home – where my husband speaks to him only in Spanish and I speak to him only in English.  We have done this from the beginning so that he learns to properly distinguish between the two languages.

But during our visit I have switched to speaking to my little Monkey in Spanish.  This is in part to aid in the “Spanish immersion” effect but also because I am now experiencing what my husband experiences at home.  He often tells me that he will switch to English when around others that do not speak Spanish, because he feels rude otherwise.  Indeed, this is a problem experienced by many bilingual parents.  I feel it keenly here, since we are visiting with family that have not seen our little Monkey since he was a baby.  They all want to spend time with him, and since he spends so much time with me or my husband, I feel like it is rude to exclude them by speaking in English.Beach, Costa Rica

Still, when we are alone, I tend to switch back to English.  Toddlers love routine, and my little Monkey is used to hearing only English from me.  Besides, I am still most comfortable talking in English, so when we are alone, it is a nice break to be able to switch back to it.

I also drop the Spanish if my little Monkey is tired or otherwise feeling grumpy.  When he needs to be comforted, it is not the time to worry about teaching him another language.  What he most needs is to feel safe, and often that means speaking to him in ways that he is most used to.  After all, not every moment has to be teachable.  Sometimes they can just be cuddly.

2. Age and Awareness

A big factor in my little Monkey’s continued use of English is the fact that he is still just a toddler.  At two and a half he is just emerging from the age of parallel play, so often when he plays with his little cousins, they are all in the same space but playing their own little games.  And when they do interact, much of their play (hide and seek or running around the courtyard) does not require much verbal communication.  So the fact that they are speaking different languages is not a problem – indeed, they don’t even seem to notice.

Beyond this, it appears that our little Monkey is not aware that others do not understand him when he speaks English.  For one thing, it is rare that my husband or I is not standing by to translate, but on a more fundamental level, I think he assumes that everyone understands him no matter how he speaks.  After all, Daddy always understands him in English even though Daddy talks to him in Spanish, so why shouldn’t the same be true for Tia and his cousins?

3. Adapting to Many Changes at Once

Of course, being in a Spanish-speaking environment isn’t the only – or even the biggest – change our little Monkey is currently experiencing.  I’m sure he is much more conscious of being around so many new people.  Though at home I make an effort to take my little Monkey to playgroups and so on, he still spends most of his time with just me and my husband.  Not so in Costa Rica!ABC blocks

Here we are blessed with a large extended family.  Nearly every day since our arrival our little Monkey has been exposed to a seemingly endless parade of new relatives.  We visit his grandparents’ house on a near daily basis, and each time we go there we find a different configuration of aunts, uncles, and cousins visiting.

I know how he feels – this is my fifth visit to Costa Rica, and still I am meeting new relatives!

4. Less Talking Overall

And so my little Monkey tends to stay close to Mom and Dad, quietly observing everything going on around him.  Typically this will only last for a brief period of time, and then he is off running and playing.  But even so I have noticed that he does not talk nearly as much as when it is just the three of us.

Is this just shyness or an awareness of the Spanish being spoken around him?  I tend to think it is the former, because when he does feel comfortable and start to speak more, he talks quite unselfconsciously in English.


So in the end, what will come of our little Spanish immersion experiment?  First of all, we know that teaching our little Monkey Spanish wasn’t the main purpose of our visit.  We are principally here to visit family, which we have been lucky enough to do in abundance.ABC Chart

Also, the visit has been a confirmation that our efforts at home have paid off.  Despite the fact that our son speaks mostly in English, it is obvious that he understands everything that is said to him.  When relatives speak to him in Spanish, his responses – though in English – make it clear that he understood them perfectly.  For this, I give full credit to my husband, who makes an extraordinary effort to speak to our son solely in Spanish.

And at this age, the most important thing is that our little Monkey develop a love for the language, since this seems to be one of the most important factors in determining whether or not a child will continue speaking the language as s/he grows older and leaves the exclusive orbit of his parents’ influence.  Many bilingual children avoid speaking the second language once they start school, as it becomes more important to blend in with their peers.

If nothing else, I feel secure in the fact that this trip strengthened our little Monkey’s association of Spanish with people he loves, a connection already cemented because of his love for his father.  And in the end, that is the most important gift we can give him.

This post has been shared at Natural Mothers Network’s Seasonal Sunday Celebration, Worldwide Culture Swap’s July Culture Swapper, Milk and Cuddles’ Mommy Club, and Bicultural Mom’s Multicultural Monday.

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This post is part of the July Blogging Carnival on Bilingualism.

  22 Responses to “En la Tierra de Papa: A Spanish Immersion Trip for the Bilingual Toddler”

  1. I loved reading about your experience. How lucky you are to have relatives to visit in Costa Rica! I speak to my son in (non-native) Spanish (and not all the time) and that’s most of his exposure. He does understand everything, but definitely prefers to respond in English…like your son.

    • Lynn, wow, I really admire that you are speaking to your son in a non-native language! I am lucky that I can just use my native language and know that my son is getting Spanish from my husband. Good luck and thanks for the visit!

  2. […] July Blogging Carnival on Bilingualism is up!  You can read my post on our trip to Costa Rica with our little Monkey, as well as lots of other great posts.  Be sure to check it […]

  3. This is the ultimate experience! Very inspirational. Combining fun with learning is always the best way to really absorb what it is you are learning. Your son probably doesn’t realize he is learning.


    • Great point! Especially for little ones, making learning fun is a must. And it’s so easy to do, since they are so curious about the world and wired for exploring it. Thanks for stopping by!

  4. What an incredible opportunity for your son!

    • Thank you! Traveling with a toddler is not easy, but it was definitely worth it! We just arrived home late last night, and although my husband and I are still quite tired, my little Monkey is already asking to go back to the airport!

  5. […] recent three week trip to Costa Rica has made me appreciate quality convenience foods.  While on the road, packaged foods are a […]

  6. […] I suddenly learned words I had never known (or needed) before.  And I learned even more during our latest trip to Costa Rica, now that our little Monkey is a toddler.  (By the way, I never heard anyone use a Spanish […]

  7. I think total immersion is the best way to learn any language. I tried learning French for 4 years and didn’t get anywhere but as soon as I moved here and worked in a French speaking office I learned a ton in months.

    • You are so right! Nothing compares to being forced to use a language all day, everyday. Besides all the practice you get, I have found that the language I had learned in the classroom was very different from what people used everyday. It’s hard work, though. Good for you!

  8. This is great Leanna! I love your confidence on the topic! 🙂 This is something I definitely struggle with…wondering about future fluency and how each interaction with Spanish may impact that journey. Our daughter is four and my husband and I have been thinking about doing a trip abroad to help in our home because neither of us is truly fluent.

    Overall, it’s been a bit of a disappointment for us as non-fluent speakers because it’s so essential that we pass it along, but it’s also a huge struggle.

    Thanks for linking up to the blog hop and for sharing all your thoughts on immersion! I will be sure to keep these in mind if we end up going soon! 🙂

    • Hi Chantilly, thanks for the visit and for hosting the linkup! Your blog is such an amazing resource! I actually have some anxiety about this topic, but I’m trying to learn to relax about it and think about how much more my little guy knows of Spanish than I did at his age! I’m also really lucky in that my husband is a fluent speaker, so that takes a lot of pressure off of me. (Although I speak Spanish, I’m not a native speaker). I would really encourage you to do the trip, especially since your daughter is a little older. (My son is 2 1/2). Not only will it help her learn Spanish, but it will be a wonderful experience for her culturally as well – and probably really fun for you and your husband too! 🙂

  9. […] communicating: I have written more fully elsewhere about my reflections on our recent trip to visit my husband’s family in Costa Rica. During our visit, my little Monkey’s Spanish-speaking grandparents were frequently left in […]

  10. I started reading your blog a few weeks ago. We are also a bilingual family and my older daughter learned to distinguish between English and Spanish speakers around age three, so I am sure your son will learn soon. My younger daughter learned even sooner by imitating her sister.

    • Thank you, Elisa! That is good to know! And it will be interesting to see how our younger son’s development is different because of being able to imitate his big brother. Thanks for your comment!

  11. […] If at all possible, travel is a wonderful way to raise a world citizen.  We have put a lot of effort into teaching our son about his Costa Rican heritage, but his understanding of the country and language grew by leaps and bounds when we were able to visit family there recently. […]

  12. […] often struggle to see improvement in our kids’ language skills when we travel.  When we took our son to Costa Rica last year, he was only 2 1/2.  And while I know the trip did help his Spanish, it only had a small […]

  13. […] my husband, who is from Costa Rica, speaks to them only in Spanish. Although we are lucky enough to travel to Costa Rica periodically, for the most part our Monkeys are immersed in the English-speaking environment of the […]

  14. […] but that was so important to her parents.  This must have seemed very familiar to him, after his trips from his home in the US to my husband’s home country of Costa Rica.  In the end, the girl comes to […]

  15. […] studies.  This type of trip is especially important if you have family abroad, as it can help bridge any communication difficulties due to […]

  16. […] my husband, who is from Costa Rica, speaks to them only in Spanish. Although we are lucky enough to travel to Costa Rica periodically, for the most part our Monkeys are immersed in the English-speaking environment of the […]

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