The Great Bilingual Experiment

At 13, I started to teach my youngest sister Spanish. She was one, a great age to learn a second language. I’d say, “Hola” and she’d repeat it. I moved onto the next logical phrase, “¿Dónde está la planta?” Where is the plant? I picked one fern in particular. I’d ask the question, then motion to it, “Aquí está la planta.” (Here is the plant.) After a bit of repetition, I’d ask and she’d point to it. Success! Or was it?

Once high school began, I forgot the lessons. At winter break, I asked the question and she got it right. I was over the moon. But when I said a different phrase, she signaled the same way. I huffed in frustration, realizing Spanish-like noises meant point at the fern, but without comprehension. Boo-hoo. Any further attempts only led to the same Pavlovian response on her part (the plant signal), and I gave up.

When my youngest cousin was five we camped with our families in the northern woods of Minnesota. I tried again. I played tether-ball tennis, speaking Spanish whenever we were together. The words I repeated most were, “Hola” and “muy bien” (very good). She learned those, and called me her “tall teacher,” which I loved. But although I’d studied Spanish nine years, spent a semester in Spain, majored in Spanish and taught teenagers the language for two years at a private school, I had no teaching license or formal second language acquisition training. My failed attempts were unscientific and inconsistent.

I dreamed of raising bilingual children. From my brief teaching experience, I realized speaking Spanish every day from the beginning was key; total immersion from birth, ideal. I read how-to books on bilingual families. I swore that every morning, in sickness and in health, I’d speak the “target language,” Spanish, with our child until noon (or until school started). We’d speak English with Daddy. Then use Spanish again at the end of the day. My will alone was not enough to produce a Spanish speaker; it required routine, discipline, constancy, community and love. I decided it was worth it to try.

My first words to our newborn were, “Hola, mi amor, bienvenid@.” (Hello, my love, welcome.) Our child and I went about daily life; breakfast, baths, board books, singing songs, walks, bicycle rides, games, playing cars, talking to stuffed animals in the target language for the first half of the day. I’d lapse into English after talking with their Daddy, friends on the phone, or family visits, but I kept my morning promise 90%. After lunch, it was English. Following this method, their first word was, “agua.”

The formula worked until they were two. We couldn’t find a bilingual preschool. After monolingual English preschool, they refused to speak Spanish. I’d speak to them en español and they’d reply in English. Unfortunately, this is common for kids in countries with one dominant language. But, fortunately I met moms also raising kids in Spanish and we formed a play group. We had fun play dates, zoo expeditions, and celebrated birthdays with our bilingual friends. But even surrounded in Spanish, our child continued a pattern of responding mostly in English. But they understand well el español.

I thought bilingual elementary school would turn this around. We were lucky to get into Nuestro Mundo (Our World) public school. Our child learned to read and write en español, which was beautiful. But they’d converse in Spanish with their teacher only, not other students. They learned a lot, but in the end the school wasn’t a good fit.

We’re one year out of immersion school, still continuing our half-days in Spanish. What started as an experiment, has transformed my life. Spanish is now a tender maternal language for me; mi amor, mi vida, mij@ (my love, my life, my son or daughter). On occasion, I’ve had days when I wondered if it was hubris or madness for a non-native speaker like me to pursue a bilingual home. But I consider it an act of love, both for the Spanish language and for our child.

This summer, our child realized their vocabulary was slipping and decided to speak more Spanish. A Venezuelan friend asked them this week if they like to speak español, and they replied, “Sí, mucho.” That was a golden moment. Wherever our child’s path leads, I hope this experiment will open doors in el futuro.

una bellísima mariposa

Gracias for reading Fake Flamenco! Olé! -Rebecca

Para leer este ensayo en español, haz un clic aquí.

Rebecca Cuningham

7 thoughts on “The Great Bilingual Experiment

  1. What an amazing story and such patience on your part.

    We were raised bi-lingual (Italian/English) but never studied grammar, just spoke Italian at home. When I left at 19, I rarely spoke Italian again and so forgot a lot.

    Moved to Italy in 2016 and was thrown in the deep end. I have to say, it’s slowly coming back from the crevices of my mind. The issue is that because I never learnt the grammar, I’m always stumbling with verbs and so correct pronunciation. I only need to open my mouth and locals know I’m not from here…

    The other small issue is that Italy has around 13 Italian languages (don’t quote me) and over 200 dialects. Someone on an expat group said it’s over 600 dialects, but not sure from where this figure came. Funny, I’m half-way through writing a blog about this very thing in Italy, as in addition, Italy also has a complete language using just hands – you think I jest! 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Lucky you that you had an early start on another language. I know what you mean about grammar. For me that can be challenging. It’s fascinating that Italy has maintained the separate dialects. In Spain there are regional languages, but in Italy it sounds like there are extensive differences in language and dialect. I believe you about the gestures! What’s your favorite one? -Rebecca

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I am indeed lucky and so glad my parents forced us to speak Italian at home.

        When I was in primary school, I was a little embarrassed to have Italian heritage (my surname gave it away also in roll call). Kids would come to school with a Vegemite sandwich, whilst mine was salame and smelly cheese! Although kids wanted to trade lunches, I didn’t see the value.
        Although later in high school, I didn’t mind at all that my family was different, especially when friends visited. Where food was concerned, friends loved coming to my house as for them, it was like visiting another country! 🙂

        I guess it’s because Italy wasn’t always a unified country and so, it did have many languages, some regions had seperate currencies and politicians.

        I have a few favourites but the “I don’t care”, hand-flicking out from under the chin one, is a cool gesture.


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