At bedtime he picks out a bilingual book and tells me: “Mamá, I want you to read it in inglés.” Other times he surprises me by picking out un libro de español for bedtime. Sometimes we read three in a row. Last week he selected and read aloud to me: Mis primeras palabras en español. He told me all the números, colores, animales y cosas que se mueven that he knew, and then he asked me to say the ones he didn’t know, and he repeated the words after me.
He went through a phase where when I spoke to him in Spanish in public, he would put his chubby little hand up towards my mouth and say earnestly “¡Mamá! Don’t say those words!” When we are in the car, if I am driving and the radio is off, he begins to sing to himself canciones infantiles or sometimes the chorus of a favorite salsa song. When he was a baby just beginning to speak, the only word he had for H2O was “awa” (agua), and if he wanted more of something, he pointed his right index finger to the empty palm of his left hand and said “mash” (más). He calls our friend Antonio “San Antonio” and doesn’t realize his words are elevating him to saint status. He calls our friend Hugo “Google.”
When he is sad, I comfort him in Spanish. When he needs to laugh, I tickle his barriga. Overtime it has become our language, not English, not Spanish, but the language we speak between us. He understands there are many languages in the world, and he knows that not everyone speaks all of them, for example: mama speaks Spanish and daddy doesn’t. He is aware of the existence of multiple world languages, but his understanding of where these distinctions are drawn within our communication is still developing. When he speaks to me, he does not register “I am speaking in English o estoy hablando en español,” only that I comprehend the message he is trying to convey. He understands and will use the word “pie” as an acceptable substitute for “foot” when putting on his shoes for example and responds instinctively, demonstrating comprehension of the imperative form when I ask him to ponte la chaqueta, esperame, parate, dame eso o aquello, ecetera, but he mostly stares blankly if another person addresses him in Spanish or he looks up at me and points, indicating that I should respond for him.
Recently, he asked me “How do you say ‘grande’ en español?” This took me by surprise because if you ask him “Enseñame cuál camión es más grande” he will point to the truck that is bigger. Randomly you may find him discussing whether something is grande o pequeño as he moves his index finger and thumb closer together, saying “pequeño,” and then moves the same fingers apart, stretching them to their limits, saying “grande.” Clearly he understands what grande represents, but what he doesn’t understand is that it belongs to a particular language (i.e. Spanish). Grande in his world is not a word but rather a concept. If we accept language as a symbolic representation of our thoughts and ideas, then perhaps he and other bilingual/multilingual children actually understand this symbolism better than those of us who can tell you which words belong to cuál lengua. After all, if you live in a culture where more than one language is spoken, knowing which language the words you are using belong to only matters if your listener doesn’t understand your message.