En la Tierra de Papa: A Spanish Immersion Trip for the Bilingual Toddler
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.
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!
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.
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.
This post is part of the July Blogging Carnival on Bilingualism.