Coming to parenthood I knew that I'd be stretching myself in ways
well beyond the leftover physical changes of pregnancy and
childbirth. I knew that I'd be pulled out of my comfort zone in a
very public way. I could pick any stage, from breastfeeding infant,
to rambunctious toddler, to inquisitive preschooler, and imagine a
bounty of anxiety-inducing situations that would challenge me in
ways yet unknown.
Why would any parent willingly add to
that lot? Yet, I've seen other moms do this every week when they
come to a parent-tot class. We pretend to be airplanes or cars or a
fierce wolf. We sing songs about elephants, spiders and ducks with
plenty of oomph and conviction. We answer questions about body
parts and clothing items. Snack time arrives soon enough-these are
toddlers after all-and we finally get a chance to talk and share
stories. But this is no standard parent-tot class. Every word in
this class is spoken in Spanish.
I'm one of those native Spanish
speakers who eagerly anticipates the weekly class in Spanish. But I
know that the English speakers look forward to it as well. I admire
them for that. I know why they stretch beyond their comfort zones
and take the risk of speaking unknown words in front of their
children, and why they're not afraid of what they sound like, or
worse, being mute and having their child wonder what caught mom's
It is because in the midst of all the
singing about Don Pepito and Don José-or about whatever else they
may not fully understand-magic happens. A sense of community
develops when one is the outsider. Its pull is so strong that
risk-taking becomes possible and even enjoyable.
Nowadays, many parents have come to
believe that learning a second language is a good thing for their
children. I feel fortunate to be in good company. For those of us
who let two or more languages mingle from the very beginning, the
results are magical.
As the son of a Puerto Rican mother and
an American father, Stefan has been hearing Spanish and English
since birth. In our household, Stefan's first two words, "Dadda"
and "Mami," ruled single-handedly for many months. Then came a word
that filled him with greater joy. At night I could hear Stefan
serenade himself to sleep with the building crescendo of "no" in
all sorts of tonalities. Eagerly, Dadda and I anticipated the
arrival of the counterbalance to no, and after several weeks, it
came. "Sííí!" What a relief.
More words continued to trickle in. Of
the ones that Stefan most often repeated, there seemed to be no
rhyme or reason why he would stick with "bye" and not use "adiós,"
or say "vaca" instead of "cow," even though he was equally familiar
with either alternative. The mechanics of that selection process
remained a complete mystery to us.
At 26 months, it happened. Dadda asked
Stefan a question and he answered with a resounding "yes," whereas
before he had only known to use "sí." Then, to make sure we
understood what had just happened, I asked him the same question in
Spanish. He replied in the affirmative with "sí." Still in shock,
we tried other questions. The same happened. Stefan had learned to
differentiate languages, even if he didn't know that one word was
English and the other Spanish. He knew when he was expected to use
one versus another. This was a milestone not covered by any baby
book, but one that we had looked forward to privately. It was a
moment of intense joy.
Nowadays, Stefan can flip the language
switch with amazing ease. Would that also happen to the toddlers in
our class who don't have a parent speaking Spanish at home?
There, the teacher asks questions in
her Argentinian-accented Spanish. Some toddlers reply in English,
so the teacher repeats the answers in Spanish. But this is only
just beginning to happen. These toddlers' limbs are still more
active than their tongues. Undeterred, the teacher tries again and
again. In Spanish, she asks, "What color is your dress?"
Suddenly, one of the English-speaking
girls stands up and replies "blanco" in perfectly accented
The room fills with cheers and moms turn to look at each other
in amazement. The girl smiles. Her eyes are full of pride.
Nadya Sustache is a freelance writer and mom living in
Evanston with her husband Dean 'Dadda' Lippod, son Stefan and Gato
What to do with your weekend, delivered every Thursday.
Great deals and chances to win prizes, delivered every Monday.
Exclusive offers from our partners,usually delivered twice a week.
Resources for parents of children with special needs,delivered the second Tuesday each month.