Wednesday 12 November 2008

Living in a Bilingual World (Allegro)

- But I don't want to do it that way, papi. It's... it's... it's... boring.
- Yes, I understand what you're saying, nene, but there's no other way of learning a foreign language.
- Yes, but that's what you used to do in university, I don't have to do the same.

I was fighting a losing battle. For months now I thought I had talked Son into writing down the words he did not understand everytime we read together in Spanish. I firmly believed that he had realised the importance of scribbling hitherto unknown terms and phrases and going over them later. But I could see now that my attempts had been futile. Son had pretended all this time to agree with me whilst covertly wishing to flee this so-called linguistic prison I had placed him in. A younger version of the Count of Montecristo perhaps.

The fact is that I learned English by both imitiation and perseverance. The former was through copying the accents of various actors I came across on telly or at the pictures, usually American and always very well-known. Thus I had my Steve Martin phase (The Man with Two Brains), my Dustin Hoffman phase (Kramer vs Kramer), my Denzel Washington phase (Malcolm X) and my John Malkovich phase (Dangerous Liaisons). There were others, surely, like Murphy (Boomerang), Hopkins (The Silence of the Lambs) and John Cusack (High Fidelity). At home I used to cover the subtitles on the screen everytime I was watching a movie on my own (unlike in Spain where films are dubbed, in Cuba they are subtitled, which makes it easier for foreign languages students to grasp at least a little of the content of the movie and practise their listening skills).

Perseverance was even more rewarding. I used to walk around Havana with a pen/pencil and a notepad and whenever I had a chance I sat down and scribbled on my little notebook the words and phrases I had learned that day, be it at uni or after going to the pictures. I, then, proceeded to place them in differente contexts from the one I had just seen them in. This resulted in me amassing a large vocabulary through the end of my second year in uni. I had hoped that Son would follow in my footsteps with Spanish. How wrong I was.

And the issue is that he is his own little person with a different personality to mine. Whereas I fret over words I don't understand and whose origin is obscure, he prefers to sit on my lap and ask me directly and without the interference of a dictionary the meaning of the words he doesn't understand. Wife said to me: 'Leave him be, he's only ten and he's not you'. Daughter also joined in the chorus of disapproving voices and articulated her opinion: 'Sometimes we just want to play, not learn'. In the end, I gave up. He no longer brings down his dictionary, notepad and pencil. He no longer gets off my lap momentarily to jot down the terms which I hope will be flouncing out of his mouth in a lively and bouncy manner in the immediate future. Instead we both sit together by the light of the lamp in our lounge and we read in silence, occasionally interrupted by the sound of his young, ten-year-old voice asking me: Papi, what's the meaning of this word? But instead of sending him straight to our bilingual hardback friend, I just look into his eyes and say: It means so and so, Son.

Copyright 2008


  1. There are many ways to learn and absorb. The good news is...he is reading and questioning. Hooray!

  2. He will have fond memories of asking and you telling him the meanings. And down the road, he will look them up himself. Your kids will thank you for being multi-lingual. Maybe not yet, but they will.

    Your Malkovich phase would have been interesting! ;^)

  3. I feel your pain. I, too, tried the dictionary approach and was met with much resistance. The Favorite Guy says, "ask your mother"-the children sigh in unison and say, "aww man". So I've given in to the masses.

    If it's any consolation, my 17 year old has been meeting with college recruits who compliment his broad vocabulary. *Winks*

  4. I loved this post!I am identified with the kid... (at this age, future is the next morning...)

  5. Thanks to all for your kind comments. Yup. The dominating Scorpio inside me has to relent sometimes. Hard as it is, he has his own persona and should be allowed to express it. As you all mentioned, at least he is questioning.

    Greetings from London.

  6. many way to learn...

    Smile : I am like the kidddddddd !

  7. My mom says " I tormenting you poor thing for your own good" I still can not spell... rejoice him in your lap

  8. Thanks for your comments, everyone.

    Greetings from London.

  9. My Father in law pays for my children to learn Italian. They do not appreciate this great gift and complain about the studying.
    I cannot speak any other language and am frustrated by this!
    It is a small world and knowledge of language and cultures is a useful thing!

  10. Fantastic post! English is my third language and I feel your son's pain. Do you speak spanish to your children? I tried to speak only Dutch to my daughter when she was a baby but when she became a toddler, she squeezed my lips together and said: "No, Mommy, no!" I relented also. Then I tried again with my son and he tolerated it for a very long time, until he was school age. In actuality, my Dutch was too primitive to serve all of my communication needs, and I was the one who quit. I wish I persisted.

    My mother learned enough Spanish to carry on a decent conversation by watching the Telemundo soap opera's at night. Like you, she had dictionary in hand at all times and learned the language one word at a time.

    Having said all that; I say, keeping your son on your lap should trump all other behaviors because you will miss these days dearly.

  11. Thanks, carolyn and dutch for you kind comments.

    Yes, dutch, I do speak in Spanish to my children and they're both bilingual, it's just that I am too much of a perfectionist sometimes.

    Greetings from London.

  12. I also liked the old way: the dictionary, repeating the words one does wrong, etc, but I think this is not the rule anymore.
    For example, I was today at work translating something from English into French and I realized that I am used to write the words without accents and let Word highlight the mistakes so I can select the good word from a drop down menu. Will I ever learn to use the accents?
    Probably no.
    But that's the way most people do these days.
    Al Godar

  13. Al, same here, man! :-). I let Word do the work for me these days, but you can't trust it, can you?

    Greetings from London.

  14. I'm impressed that you worked so hard to learn English. I'm guessing the key is self motivation. Are there favorite movies your son could only see in Spanish? Could you visit Spain or Cuba so he can see it in action?

    I tried reading picture stories to my children in French, but they weren't too interested, my son especially, and now he regrets it. My daughter was more into it especially after her best friend moved to Paris. Unfortunately I'm not fluent, but I think any exposure helps. So your son is most probably learning more than he lets on.

    My brother's wife is Japanese, and since they live in the USA, they speak only Japanese at home and sent the kids to Japanese preschool and K. The oldest is now bilingual at age 7, but it was slow in both languages for her. It all seems worth it now that she's doing well in American elementary school and still speaking Japanese at home.

    Are there bilingual schools in London for Spanish? There are some in the USA.

  15. Yes, Sarah, my son does watch films in Spanish, although it's normally Spanish from Spain, very different from mine. There are bilingual schools in London, but I have never enrolled him in one, the reason being is that the home environment is much better to develop his linguistic skills than a setting outside our house.

    Good for your brother and his partner. Wow, Japanese! I wish! :-)

    Greetings from London.

  16. What an amazing gift you are giving your son. I would love to be able to teach my children a second language. 2 years of college Spanish and I can conjugate verbs, but "its all Greek to me".

  17. oh..he sounds so cute this little one and really he watches movies in spanish!
    wow ! his father should be impressed..

    do you know i still write down the words i don't know on a notepad? (English words I mean)

  18. Thanks jen and my castle for your kind comments.

    Greetings from London.

  19. sometimes i just wanna play, too.

    well, most of the time actually. :-)

    being a scorpio myself, i know exactly where you're coming from with the tendency to want to dominate. sometimes we've gotta just pull back some. oh, but how hard that can be!

    nonetheless, i agree with high desert diva.

  20. I can definitely feel the pain of learning a new language. I am currently attempting to learn Swahili. It gets crazy because just when you think you have it, here comes some rule that doesn't have an exact reason, but just is.


    Good luck with the future lessons. I think as long as learning the language is fun then I am sure your little ones will pick it up just fine.

  21. Thanks, fly and ms bar for your kind comments.

    Greetings from London.

  22. This post made me very nostalgic! My parents and I went through this struggle when I started kindergarten here in the states.


  23. Greetings from Australia then.
    Great post. Quite cute at the end really.
    Hah, I'm not bilingual (except for a spot of Italian), but I do go through those movie phases. At the moment I sound a bit like Bill Bailey (I have his stand-up on my I-pod).
    And no, you can't trust word. It tried to correct Shakespeare the other day, and I was like, no. Just no, mr computer man-lady thing it creature.

  24. Thanks, weed and docta.

    Greetings from London.

  25. Very very nice that you finally gave in, looked into your son's eyes and gave him the meanings. The bonding is good.

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