Tuesday, January 26, 2010

The dawn of a new understanding

Maybe that title is a bit deep for the topic of this post. But this post is very long and so maybe it deserves a deep title. This post is about kids. Little kids. Little kids learning a second language. But, I would argue that it is like dawn, and it is a new understanding. But maybe not "the dawn of a new understanding." The problem is, I've heard language-learning compared to a light suddenly "coming on," as if after a few months my kids would be able to flip a switch and suddenly be fluent Spanish speakers. Maybe we haven't gotten to the switch-flipping stage, but I have to say, it seems more like a gradual lightening to me.

A few friends have asked recently how my girls are progressing in the language here, so I thought I'd share a bit about their progress with you all.

When we arrived here, the most exposure my kids had had to Spanish was Dora, a few movies in Spanish here and there, a few bilingual books, and me trying to speak Spanish with them when they were babies but quickly realizing the limitations of my sub-par second language abilities and eventually giving up. They could count to twelve, they could say hello and goodbye and please and thank you. They knew a few colors. That was about it.

For the first few weeks here, both girls refused to speak even the little Spanish that they knew. It was embarrassing, it put them in the spotlight, it made them uncomfortable. So they avoided it.

During our first teacher's conference in September, Callie's teacher noted that Callie would not participate in group songs and rhymes that were in Spanish. If the class went straight from singing "Bingo was his Name-o" to "Tres Pollitos," she would sometimes participate in the first line of "Tres Pollitos" until she realized that she was speaking Spanish, and then she'd clam up. Near the middle of November, Callie's teacher came to us and said, "Callie is really participating in the Spanish parts of our class! She's opened up and I feel like I can see her whole personality now! She was so closed before, but now she is showing us who she is." At that point, Callie had started not only participating in the Spanish songs and rhymes, but sometimes she was the loudest kid in the group.

Callie's teacher speaks fluent English and in order to avoid speaking English with Callie, she sends Callie off with the assistant teacher, Dulce, every day. Dulce only speaks Spanish. And Dulce LOVES Callie, possibly as much as Scott and I love her. Even better, Dulce seems to have made it her duty to be sure Callie learns Spanish. Every day she quizzes Callie as Callie walks out the front gate of the school. "Hasta mañana, Callie! A mi, a mi!" And then Callie repeats what Dulce said. Yesterday as she left school, Callie learned how to say "I am wearing a green shirt and blue pants." And there was some discussion of whether Callie's shirt was a shirt or a dress that she was wearing like a tunic. So she learned to say "dress" too.

After school yesterday, Callie was outside playing with some of our neighborhood kids who speak almost no English. One of the girls, Natalia, had torn up a flower that Callie had just picked. Callie ran inside screaming and crying (she adores her flower collections) and asking me how to tell Natalia that she tore up Callie's flower. This was an amazing step for two reasons: first, the kids usually ask me to come translate for them when they are having problems and, second, it showed me that Callie was comfortable being confrontational in Spanish, which seemed like a big step to me. I didn't know how to say exactly what Callie wanted, but I got close enough with, "Se rompió mi flor." Callie ran back outside, slammed the front door, got in Natalia's face and cried, "Natalia, ¡se rompió mi flor!" I realized later that I could have translated it better, but Natalia understood what Callie was saying.

A month or two ago, Callie never would have been able to repeat that sentence. It would have come out like "ser ompi omi flor" or something, but at this point, she was able to listen to me say it once and understand what the different words in the sentence were and then repeat them as clear as a bell. To me, it was one sign among many of how far her understanding of Spanish has come in the past five months.

Brynn's understanding of Spanish has developed differently. While Callie is able to think in both Spanish and English and fly by the seat of her pants in Spanish, Brynn seems to take a more logical approach approach. Maybe because of her age, or maybe because she speaks (and is spoken to in) English a lot more in school than Callie, Brynn is more of a translator. She figures out what she wants to say in English and then translates it, sometimes very literally. She seems to be getting better in this respect, but I think it will take Brynn longer than Callie to speak Spanish effortlessly.

We had two exciting developments in Brynn's Spanish skills yesterday. The first was when Scott took Brynn with him to the MiniSuper to pick up some butter. Before they left, I told Brynn how to say "butter," because I was positive that neither one of them would be able to find the butter in the store without help. Sure enough, they arrived at the store and split up to look for butter. Neither one could find it so, with Scott still across the store, Brynn walked up to the grocer and said, "¿Dónde está la mantequilla?" I realize that this is not a difficult or grammatically-complicated sentence, but to me, it is telling that Brynn was willing to speak up and ask where the butter was. What I think is even better is that the grocer, who recognizes Brynn but never talks with her because I'm always there doing the talking, looked at her in surprise and then immediately took her to the butter. He had no problems understanding her. Both girls have amazing accents -- listening to them speak is like listening to a native speaker. Their grammar and vocabulary leave something to be desired, but with four and a half more months here, I know they'll continue to improve.

Okay, one more story, because you know I'm such a grammar geek...last night in the kitchen Brynn was telling us in Spanish how much she likes Libbie. When she spoke this sentence, I have to say, I was THRILLED! In the midst of a whole paragraph of other sentences, she said, "Me gusta a Libbie." Whoa! Easy sentence, yes, but how many beginning Spanish speakers remember to include the "personal 'a'?" Completely floored, I started to go on about how impressed I was that she'd just used the "personal 'a'" and then realized that nobody else in the house knew what I was talking about. Hmmm...reminiscent of talking to my family about using the subjunctive tense in English, or not ending their sentences in a preposition.

So, yes, I do see a light coming on. But, it's not the "flip of a switch" kind of light. It's more like sunrise or one of those alarm lights in the SkyMall catalog -- you know the ones that come on gradually to wake you up like the sun? I've always wanted one of those...

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