Thursday 10 December 2009

Living in a Bilingual World (The One About the Linguistic Ruse)

- ¡Quiero que mi hermana salga de mi cuarto ahora mismo! I want my sister to leave my room right now!

I was more surprised by Son's correct use of the subjunctive mood of the verb 'salir' (to leave) than by the actual message he was conveying. After all, even though he and Daughter get on very well, they have been known to have the odd squabble now and then. But what was happening now and has been, in fact, occurring in the last couple of years is worth seeing as an exercise in parental control... by the children.

Whereas both Daughter and Son's Spanish accents are as neutral as they can be due to the lack of surrounding Hispanic speech patterns, that has never affected their fluency. Grammar is still wanting sometimes but overall their linguistic skills are excellent. A plus, or drawback - whichever way you choose to see it - is that they are not exposed to insults in my mother tongue. And I mean the benign ones, the equivalent to 'Damn!' in English. This brings a mix of comfort and displeasure at the same time as, on the one hand I will be very unlikely to ever become the object of their adolescent linguistic wrath (I will leave that to Wife), but on the other hand I will probably miss a '¡Coño!' or '¡Carajo!' said with vim (by the way there's a bar called 'Carajo' in Vitoria, in the Basque Country, needless to say it cracked me up the first time I heard of it). I know that those parents who already have problems with their teenage children will tell me that I will come to rue that fantasy but when you live in a foreign land even the sound of a 'palabra fea' ('ugly word', as my late Gran used to called them) in your native tongue coming out of your children's mouths is enough to make your day.

There are promising signs on the horizon, though, that this situation will change soon. As I explained at the beginning of this post I have noticed a tendency in the last two years, especially in Son, to tailor his Spanish in a way that it will attract my attention. His arguments with his sister still take place in English, but when I step in to calm down the storm, and demand both versions of the story, his replies are grammatically correct and semantically sound. This has led to his younger sibling raising her game and now Daughter has the most amazing rows with me using language that I'm sure she has been discovering on her own (visions of her with a torch on in her bedrooom at 2am raiding her English-Spanish dictionary for 'unusual' terms she could bring up in an altercation with me look very plausible).

When we go to Cuba or Spain both Son and Daughter speak in English to each other. But the other day I was downstairs sorting out the clothes to iron when I heard Son utter a word in Spanish to his sister. I stopped what I was doing and yes, they were having a conversation, if somewhat basic (something to do with school) in Spanish. And would you believe it? Neither a squabble, nor an 'ugly word' in sight. Marvellous.

Copyright 2009

Next Post: 'Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music', to be published on Sunday 13th December at 10am (GMT)


  1. bilingualism is truly a fascinating subject...

  2. That's the age to learn another language. Our children became fluent in French at a very young age and often didn't realize what language they were speaking, they were so fluent in both. While all our offspring are bilingual, one now speaks four languages fluently and uses them all professionally.
    Start young folks - kids are wired to learn whatever you present to them.

    Important post Cuban....too many North Americans are unilingual.

  3. My brother and I never spoke German as children, although I had more interest in it and could understand a bit. I studied it later in high school and university and am glad I did. There is something about knowing the language of your elders that makes you understand more about where you come from. I sometimes wonder whether my brother feels cut off from his ancestry, only speaking English.

  4. I agree with PurestGreen. Beautiful post; glad to hear the children are talking well to each other in Spanish. I'll have to check out that bar someday.

  5. My grandson speaks in English to his Australian born mother, who's also fluent in German and German to his German born father. Now he's just past two our grandson uses both languages and comes out with the oddest mixtures.

    It's wonderful to hear.

    Sadly in a bid to assimilate, both my parents stopped speaking in Dutch to one another and to us their children when I was still very small. As a consequence I can understand Dutch when it's spoken slowly, I can even decipher the written words if I say them out loud, but I cannot speak very much Dutch at all.

    I'd love to be bilingual. I consider it one of the greatest gifts imaginable and I admire anyone who can master more than one language.

    Your children, Cuban, are truly fortunate.

  6. Yes, your children are really fortunate in that you foster their facility with both languages. I grew up fully bilingual, and even though it resulted from "forced" circumstances, i.e. my mother never learned English, I have been forever grateful that I know both languages. I imagine your children will be grateful too.

  7. Many thanks for your lovely feedback. I have to admit that Daughter (I only refer to my family with initial capital and not possessive pronoun in my Living in a Bilingual World columns, by the way) is already attempting to translate anything and everything from English to Spanish, so Michael Jackson has become MichaEL JackSON (that 'j' by the way, is pronounced like the English 'h'). :-)

    Greetings from London.

  8. Cuban your children would have to much respect for you and their Mom to use an offensive word to either of you in either language.

    They are so lucky to speak a second language. In a way to have two chances in the world.

    I respect you very much.

    Love Renee xoxoxo

  9. My hat is off to you, Cuban. This is a huge accomplishment. Your unflagging dedication to language is leaving a legacy. Congratulations!

  10. I'm sure special dictionaries of rude words in all languages are available...probably online! They can use those when needed...

  11. That is so cute! I have an bilingual family too and it's very strange to my friends to see me speaking to my mother is half English and have Gujarati. But it's perfectly normal to me. I don't even think of it.

    My brother and sisters and I normally speak English to each other but, would you believe, when we argue we do speak Gujarati. It's almost like we reserve speaking Gujarati for when we're really serious.

    We speak Gujarati to our mother and English to our father. I don't know why, it just worked out that way.


  12. This is so fascinating to read. I've *studied* bilingualism but, as I don't have that experience in my own life, it's always interesting to hear others' thoughts.

    Incidentally, which part of Cuba are you from? We had two weeks driving around in 2007, it's a beautiful country with so many different regions, and I'd like to be able to place you on my mental map ;)

  13. you are very lucky, Cuban. When I brought my children to this country I was told to speak only English with them as they would otherwise not catch up with the level the other children in their local infants' school had reached. Within 8 months my son had overtaken all the other kids in his class (in English and other subjects), but by then he and his sister (too young for school) spoke almost only English and they never went back to German properly.

    Do you know if that would be the policy today?

  14. Truly fascinating post, Cuban, and I love the idea of the children using expertise in your language as a nuclear weapon for your attention, with them both engaging in a covert arms race.
    I am English, bringing up two small Scottish boys. I still do a double-take when I hear them speaking Scottish (distinct words and usages) as their mother-tongue, and secretly yearn for a little Essex to peek through. Know what I mean?

  15. I think I can relate to this entirely. My family is bilingual and we do the little bits and pieces of English and Arabic, and sometimes even French - whatever word comes up in whatever language first works. We understand one another, but others look at us like we're crazy.

    The very good news is that your children's world, as colorful as it is now, will become even more colorful as they develop an awareness for other cultures and a desire to learn about them and experiment with life in this big/small world. Our world becomes so much more of an experience when we're able to communicate and understand in more ways. Excellent post, Cuban, as usual!


  16. interesting, as kids usually are
    but apart from that, I wish I was bilingual
    I guess its still possible...

  17. What an interesting post. I loved it. It is so wonderful when children can learn their parents' mother tongue(s) despite the lack of Hispanic surroundings. It shows the parents' dedication. Wish I could take pride in the same sense of dedication.

    Can I share a short story with you? Oddly enough, our kitindamimba son (last born) has decided to teach himself German. It all happened in the last couple weeks, while Husband was away. He picked it up on Youtube and actually convinced me to buy him a German language book a couple of days later. After I got over some initial hurt feelings, because Kiswahili is my mother tongue and Ibo is his father's first language, I was very impressed with his diligence and determination. But if I catch him with a torch in the wee hours of the morning, I'm not sure how I will react. He just turned eleven recently. He also promised that he would focus on Kiswahili some time next summer. I think it is time for another extended trip back home. :-)

    Lovely post, thanks!

    Mama Shujaa

  18. Many thanks for your lovely feedback.

    Greetings from London.

  19. Such clever children! I so wish that both my Russian parents, who arrived quite separately in the USA as teenagers, would have wanted to retain their mother tongue. Maybe it was the Russian revolution that shifted their allegiance. Instead they both embraced their new language, to the exclusion of my having any bilingual opportunity. I'm still sorry for that!

  20. To be bilingual is a gift and in the future
    it will be a necessity. Ahh...teenagers,
    children are endlessly enlightening and

    Cuban in London, please come by and leave
    your opinion on my dialogue with the poet
    Michele Battiste - Thank you.

  21. Delightful post. Pity the poor children of South Africa. We have eleven (just in case you missed that, let me repeat it) 11, official languages. The majority of people in South Africa speak three or four or more languages. Unfortunately, I'm not one of them.

    (Win one of five unique prizes from South Africa in the Christmas Contest on my blog)

  22. PS Mama Shujaa - loved your story! I think it's great that a (nearly) eleven year old has such a strong mind that he is determined to learn an international language. And how I wish I could speak Kiswahili! Or even isiZulu or isiXhosa, but (despite having an Afrikaans ouma, or grandmother) the only language I can speak is my mother tongue, English, with a smattering of greetings in the other languages. My parents and sister speak three local languages, but somehow I missed the linguistics boat.

    (Win one of five unique gifts from South Africa in the Christmas Contest on my blog)

  23. Thank you very much for your kind comments.

    Greetings from London.

  24. Hello London,
    Your post brought back memories of trying to raise my (our) children to be fully bilingual in French and English, something that would have worked had we remained in France, but which fell apart once in Canada.
    They went to schools in Canada where the language of instruction was French, but surrounded by English and with a perfectly bilingual father who opted to speak to them in his second language, French just could not keep up.
    I can well understand your pleasure at hearing your children use Spanish spontaneously, and they are far better off socially, culturally and neuologically for being able to speak more than one language.
    The Scandinavian countries do this so very well, by not dubbing English-language movies or television shows, for one. They also have the incentive that comes from the dominance of English as a global language, something French, Spanish and others cannot quite compete with. I'm a firm believer that the acquisition of a second language should be mandatory in every school.
    Very enjoyable post as always, Cuban. It doesn't matter what you write about; the quality of your writing is a big part of what draws me in.

  25. Genial!! poquito a poco!

    Un abrazo!

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