Day 4 of my family linguistical experiment
A little context first. A little under four years ago I was relocated to Cordoba, Argentina for a stint at the local development center. My daughter Milena was two months old when she arrived her.
For the first year of her life, she was mostly unexposed to Spanish as my wife and I spoke Portuguese at home and TV was in English. When she was a little over one year old, she started staying at daycare as we wanted her to socialize and later because my wife went back to work. This exposed her to Spanish. So at this point, she was hearing Spanish, Portuguese, and English every day.
About a year later, she wasn’t speaking much yet and we inevitably compared her with other kids her age1, who were already saying many words, some already forming simple sentences. Our pediatrician told us many times that this was perfectly normal but finally said that if we wanted to, we could visit a child psychologist to calm ourselves. We did just that.
After a few sessions, the psychologist told us that we should probably not worry about some neurological problem2 because Milena did not exhibit any signs commonly associated with these problems. She did however told us that she was worried that my wife was working instead of staying home with her child. This led to two things: (1) my wife felt extremely guilty, while at the same time (2) we both felt that this was idiotic. It also nearly led to a third thing: we almost decided to stop going because it was not helping at all. But we still had two more sessions already scheduled and paid for so we decided to at least go to those.
My wife did not go to the next session as she was still angry at the psychologist for making her feel guilty. I don’t blame her. In this session, the psychologist told me that we should stop speaking Portuguese to our daughter. She said this was bad for her and that later she would have many years to learn other languages. In my head, I immediately dismissed this. But…
First-time parent that I am, I started saying a few simple things in Spanish to my daughter. Not whole phrases, but things that I knew she heard at the daycare. Stuff like “come here” and “very good!”, I’d say in Spanish. We went to our last session and the psychologist asked about it and I told her that I wasn’t really saying everything in Spanish but some things. She insisted that we should not expose Milena to anthing else. My wife argued that many said kids learn languages easily but we didn’t really push too hard: we would not get back.
We told our pediatrician about it. He said we were insane if we did that because he personally knew other foreign families whose children learned multiple languages and that is was perfectly normal for our daughter to take a little longer to start talking but that once she started, she’d speak both languages. We agreed. But…
Almost without thought, we continued saying some things in Spanish simply because Milena seemed to respond better. Saying “don’t!” in Spanish yielded better results than saying it in Portuguese, probably because she heard it often at daycare. This led us to saying more and more in Spanish. Coincidence or not, she started speaking more and more. In retrospect, we took the easy route. It wasn’t intentional but that’s what we did.
Now, she speaks well but only in Spanish. And we have been speaking only Spanish to her for almost two years. And this led to a point where I feel uncomfortable when talking to my own daughter. My Spanish is alright, but not perfect. And it does not feel natural to me. It comes out “artificial” for lack of a better word. Also, her grandparents don’t speak Spanish. Nor do her cousins: when they meed, there’s this “wall” between them. My nephews and niece don’t understand my daughter, which leads to frustration and lots of crying. Kids.
Well, a few days ago I decided to start an experiment. I now speak almost entirely Portuguese to her3.
I thought it would be tough and I am surprised that the toughest part so far has been ME. I got so used to speaking Spanish to her that I actually have to make an effort to remember to speak Portuguese. As for her, I am very surprised at how much she understands. I say fairly complex sentences and she gets them, whereas when I used to try those in Spanish, she wouldn’t. That’s obviously my Spanish’s fault, not hers.
She still responds mostly in Spanish but it is clear that she understands what I am saying. My wife and I speak Portuguese to each other, so she must have picked much from that. And being fair, I know she listens to pop Brazilian songs at daycare4 but still, I thought it would have been a little more difficult.
I’m happily surprised.
- Big mistake, by the way. Don’t do that. We are stupid. ↩
- Read, autism. ↩
- I say “almost” because I still use Spanish for words that I know she doesn’t know yet. Like “pelota” (“ball”) and “rojo” (“red”). although I always make a point to tell her what the Portuguese word is so she’ll learn it. ↩
- We catch her often singing songs from Brazil that she’d never listen to at our home — in fact just this morning she actually woke up singing “ah, se eu te pego, ai ai…” in bed, which merits a whole other post… ↩