Her Mother’s Tongue

9 May


“Más milk!” Lucia tells us first thing in the morning. “Más dump trucks!” She yells when we’ve just seen a dump truck and she wants to see more. She usually says “more kisses” as you’re walking out the door, but mostly she prefers the Spanish when it comes to more. For a while she’d get it all mixed up and say “mos” instead of “more” or “más.”

Image<“Cheers!” She says. “Ice cream!” She yells with her mouth full. Oh the joy!>

With a lot of words she tends to prefer one language or the other. For example, she always says “agua” and never “water.” She usually says “este” and rarely “this.” For a while I thought maybe she could only learn/remember one word or the other, despite the research that says babies and young children can learn multiple languages at once with no real problems.* But just when I think she doesn’t know a word in the other language, she’ll suddenly say it to somebody else. Like when she went to go get eggs with her Abuela, she said “huevo” repeatedly, although she always says “egg” to her Papi and me.

It is fun to watch language and understanding unfold in any child, but it is extra fun for me to watch her in these two languages- the way she mixes them up, when and where and how she uses them. “Esto es for poopies,” she told me yesterday, bringing me a diaper. “Ewie poopies,” she added, grinning. More and more she says both words. “Córrele” she says, like her Abuela says all the time while Lucia’s running. “It’s running,” she says as well, in case.

At almost-two years old, she’s started to learn the words to songs, too, in both languages. I love the way she says “oh my goodness!” and “aquí está!” I love that Lili taught her to say “este no sirve, este sí sirve”. I love that she asks us to sing “Sunshine” (You Are My Sunshine) and she tries to sing along. I love that she uses all of our invented words, like “feetsies” and “currito” (her Papi’s invented word- a very cute burrito, when she’s all wrapped up in her towel). I am so happy to watch her world unfold in words; it’s an exciting and never-ending adventure. 

We’ve wondered if she realizes yet that there are two distinct languages in her mind, in her world. Especially since they don’t come out so distinctly, so separately, it’s hard to imagine how conscious she could be about it. I don’t think she realizes yet that the other kids don’t understand her when she says, “It’s ball,” for example. She definitely copies what other kids do and say, so she speaks some Spanish around kids here, but there are some words she still doesn’t use (or know?) in Spanish, so it’s interesting to see the other kids navigate that. “What is she saying to me?” the older kids ask me sometimes. The younger ones, however, just go with the flow, communicate through context, don’t stress when they don’t understand a word she says. The younger kids remind me that if we’re open to learning, to communicating, we can do it despite any barriers.

While I was busy wondering if Lucia knows she speaks two languages, her Papi just told her one day, “You know you speak two languages.” They were out observing a digger truck, one of the big machines that Lucia loves. “That’s why in Spanish we say máquina, and in English we say machine,” he told her.

He didn’t tell me about their conversation, but suddenly Lucia started saying two words at a time for many things. We went to look at a digger truck down the road, and she started telling me, “maquina. machine. maquina. machine.” Her rubber ducks in the bathtub drink coffee and café now. She plays a game where she falls down, and sometimes she says “cayó” and sometimes she says “fall down”- the grammar perfect in neither language- just general learning-how-to-talk baby speak, but in two different languages.

She’s still at the age, too, where sometimes she speaks entire paragraphs in some unknown baby tongue. But it’s funny when she does it with somebody who only speaks English or only speaks Spanish. “What’d she say?” they ask, impressed with how much she presumably speaks the other language.

“Won’t she be confused?” People sometimes wonder. Luckily I know plenty of bilingual and even trilingual kids in the U.S. who do just fine. I’ve been much more concerned that perhaps she won’t have enough exposure to English. So I was really pleased when Conan decided that he would speak English to her, even though some people here might think it’s rude, like he’s just trying to show off that he speaks English. Extra kudos to Conan as well because it is difficult to speak your not-native language to your child; it is a little less comfortable, a little less natural. As a (U.S.-born) Spanish professor explained once about why her kids weren’t fluent in Spanish, it’s hard to not use all the songs and little sweet nothings and special sayings you’ve learned for babies and kids all of your life in your native tongue. Imagine, for example, your child gets a boo-boo. But you don’t call it a boo-boo and maybe you don’t even tell her you’ll kiss it to make it better because it doesn’t translate the same in the other language. Difficult, huh? So it’s a big deal that Conan decided he would speak English to her.

Because I am a professional worryer, however, I also worried briefly that she won’t learn perfect English grammar, since her Papi’s grammar isn’t always perfect. But then I remembered that my Dad’s grammar isn’t perfect either, nor is the grammar of most native speakers in the U.S. (only us crazy women on my mom’s side of the family are grammar fanatics).

Sometimes I feel silly that Conan and I speak Spanish together all the time; I feel like we’re wasting an opportunity to expose her to more English. But Spanish is the language of our relationship and our love, and language habits are hard to break. I try to remember that my Mom and my Aunt Julia managed to learn Italian even though my Nonna (my Italian grandmother) only spoke it to them some of the time. Granted, I hope Lucia’s English will be stronger than my Mom’s Italian. But my Nonna managed to teach them enough so that they could talk to older family members, get by in Italy, and inherent some of the cultural things that can only come along with the language. Probably Lucia will learn more than that, but if that’s all, it’ll be enough.

Some days it seems that maybe Spanish will take up all the room in her brain and she won’t have any space for or interest in her mother’s native tongue. But then I remember that it’s not a contest, and that favoring Spanish doesn’t mean she won’t learn English. And furthermore, me worrying about it won’t make a bit of difference in the matter, so I might just do what I can do and let go of the rest. Conan and I will keep talking to her in English. Sometimes we might even speak English to each other in front of her. We’ll keep reading books to her and singing to her in English. We’ll teach her to read and write in English, when the time is right. We’ll try to give her other opportunities and contexts in which to use English. And the rest will be up to her.

At the end of the day, her two languages are no different from the way we learn culture and habits from all the different influences in our lives. Lucia is learning language from a variety of sources and influences, like the way she loves to eat pasta and vegetables (from her Italian-American grandparents and her ex-vegetarian mama) and corn tortillas and sweet bread (thanks to her Papi and her Mexican relatives). One’s not more delicious than the other; they all just have their time and place. Her language will have it’s momentary preferences, just like in the moment maybe she wants a hug more from her Gamma (my stepmom) or a story more from her Nonna (my mama) or an outing more with her Abuela (Conan’s mom), but she doesn’t love one more than the other. They all come together to cherish and teach and nurture her in their own ways.

This year my mother’s day gift to myself is letting go of my language worries. It’s appreciating all the different language and love being shared with my baby by so many people. It’s enjoying the fact that my little girl talks up a storm, in her special Lucia native tongue. And that is just perfect.

*Here are a couple of links to some interesting research on multilingual kids, but there’s tons and tons of great info out there beyond this too:
And how babies learn and develop language:

5 Responses to “Her Mother’s Tongue”

  1. lee1978 May 9, 2014 at 8:15 pm #

    I laughed out loud over parts of this post. Partly because I rant every time the Taco Bell ad comes on and their tag line “Live mas.” I rant about why don’t they just have the whole quote in Spanish. Would it be SO very hard to say it correctly? okay I need to ease up, clearly. Our KC’s day care person for the first 6 or 9 months of his life was a lovely friend who only spoke Spanish to him. He still has an ear for Spanish and loves Spanish music. I speak Spanish also, and *all* my kids know enough Spanish to know when I am reaming them when we are out in public. I always thought it gave us a bit of privacy for the dressing down till someone asked me if I was Argentinian. Presumably my dirty blonde hair led to that? We need more bilingual people in the states. I think we would understand one anothers cultures so much better. There are things that just don’t translate (as i know from my efforts in my housing job) But when you know the language the feelings behind the words translate and lives and experiences are much more in context.

    • exiletomexico May 10, 2014 at 12:32 pm #

      Yes! Language is so intimate and so contextual. That’s why it’s so hard for me to speak English with Conan, that’s why some things just can’t translate….
      As for speaking Spanish in public in the U.S., you never know who’s going to understand you!
      And kids really do have a better ear for the language when they’re exposed to it early! It’s crazy what a difference it makes!
      How did you learn Spanish? It’s your second language? How old were you when you learned? How easy or hard was it for you? Just curious.

  2. Julia Inman May 10, 2014 at 8:34 pm #


  3. Kirsty Erikson May 11, 2014 at 9:38 am #

    and then there’s me, the other half of the Lee1978 wifehood. 😀 I only speak english. I had a smattering of spanish when I worked in housing, but years without it left me with just a wee bit. My brain is not facile with language (at all!!). And while I’m sure I could learn, I just don’t have the energy to attempt it. (We homeschool our kids…just “finished” kiddo #2, with two more to go.)

    Julia, you have *such* an amazing grasp of things…are you sure you’re not 80!?! Those are some big things to have learned already to “let go” of…it seriously took me all this time , and a 3rd generation of little kids to teach some of these “letting go” things. (Our oldest kiddo is half-way to 29, high-functioning austistic, still lives with us) our youngest of the 4 that live at home just turned 7 before Christmas.

    I really enjoy reading your blogposts. Not only do you have a gift for writing, your life-adventure is pretty fascinating to this northern states gringo!

    Happy Mothers Day!


  4. fml221 May 14, 2014 at 5:41 am #

    I loved this – of course, anything about language is pretty much going to fascinate me, but this is super interesting. Plus, I can totally see/hear Conan casually pointing out to Lucia that she’s learning two languages. Very cool – and how neat that she immediately put that information to use!

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