Thursday, January 22, 2015

A Linguistic Immigrant In My Own Home

“I bet people just shake their heads when they look at us.”

This is what my wife Christy tossed out at me this morning as we were getting ready to go to work. She was talking about the normal morning chaos. In our case this chaos ripples back and forth in English, Spanish and Haitian Creole. English and Spanish with the kids, and occasional Creole between the two of us. We’ve been raising our kids bilingually as non-native speakers, and we’ve been doing this for a decade and a half.

l blame Raúl and Ondine.

We met Raúl and Ondine in Texas. Raúl was from Mexico and Ondine hailed from Switzerland, and they were raising their kids in a house full of flurries of French, Spanish and English. As new parents, we thought this was pretty awesome. I had learned Spanish in high school/university. My wife spoke Haitian Creole and understood quite a bit of French. What about us? Could we provide a linguistically rich environment as well for our kids?

So we grilled R & O on how they managed it. We wanted details! The nuts and bolts. Their advice? Have each parent speak exclusively in one language. In other words, have one parent only use one language with the kids, and have the other parent only use the other language. Raul spoke to his kids in Spanish, Ondine spoke to them in French, and the good ‘ole USA taught ‘em English.

Our twin boys were 3 months old when we decided our house would be an English/Spanish household. All I can say is that it made sense at the time. We lived in Texas, many of our close friends were Spanish-speaking and we wanted our kids to be able to see culture from multiple perspectives. Christy would handle the English side of things and I would only speak to them in Spanish. We both thought I knew Spanish “well enough”.

Let me just say that new parents rarely ever understand what they're signing up for.

I had a yeoman’s knowledge of Spanish at the time. I could talk with just about any Spanish speaker I met, regardless of area or accent, and have superficial discussions about the things you do when you bump into somebody. I should be able to just use Spanish at home, right? Wrong. I quickly found out that raising kids in L2 is not AT ALL like having a polite, no-worries conversation in the street with someone you just met.

Babies and kids require jargon I hadn't learned from textbooks, news articles or pop songs. How do you talk about the five-second rule for a dropped binkie, whose onesie it is, not taking off nasty diapers, about eating food and not painting walls with it, about tantrums and timeouts and petting cats, all in a language never learned at your mother’s knee? My Spanish-speaking friends gave us lots of help with the “right” things to say, but I had to commit to buckling down to stay ahead of the kids, which was tough when it would have have been SOOOO easy to slip back into English.

I also went through a period of linguistic mourning. Our kids would experience something for the first time and something I’d heard my parents say would leap to my lips...and stop. I swallowed every rich linguistic tidbit absorbed from my parents simply because it was in English. All the corny, colloquial English that I loved from my family I held in and didn't pass on. And as I mourned, I learned to trust that my wife would pass her beautiful English on to our kids, while I stumbled around trying to show all my love to my own flesh and blood in a language not my own. I felt like a linguistic immigrant in my own home.

There were many times I asked myself if it was worth it. Christy assured me it was. Was the richness our kids gained living in a multilingual household worth the effort it took? Were the cross-cultural friendships and connections worth the dedication?

I'll leave the countless experiences, friendships and growth our kids have had because of their multilingual upbringing for another blog.

I can report that the mourning is over. That language once "not our own" is one that shares the same dignity and pride of place in our home as does English. The flurries of language that flow through our household are interspersed with and punctuated by all the giggles, outbursts, exclamations and expressions of love that we could have ever hoped for.

Sometimes, I look at us and shake my head too.