Word magic – stretching the comfort zone

READER essay

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 tongue.

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 Spanish.

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 the cat.

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