Tag Archives: bilingual children

Wild Child Conversations

28 Feb

“I want to be a hippo when I grow up. What about you, Mommy?” The almost-three-year-old asks me the other day. After I tell him my options, he gleefully scoffs at me. “You’re gonna still be a people. I’m going to be an animal in the zoo!” His tone of voice is mocking me, and his smile is so big it’s its own celebratory dance. These are the kinds of conversations we have. This is how my kid with severe Apraxia can express himself now, glorious sense of humor and all.

The child who worked so hard to talk is now a verbal fountain overflowing with delightful observations, fascinating questions, and creative ideas about the world. A year ago I couldn’t have imagined this explosion of expressive language. Considering that he only had four vowel sounds when he started his speech therapy, all of this is total magic, which I am grateful for daily. We were in the right place at the right time with a lot of support and the perfect speech therapist- a specialist in Apraxia, no less- and all of this talk is the mother-load payoff. So I even try really hard to feel gratitude when he is lying in bed incessantly discussing dinosaurs or construction sites with himself, after I refuse to answer more of his questions because it’s past bedtime.


These are the kinds of questions and comments that are the new norm from this kid:
-What can baby giraffes do when they are born?
-Why does the Earth only have one moon? Mommy, I want to go to Jupiter! Can I go on a spaceship tomorrow?
-Elephants have trunks. Elephants love to drink water with their big trunks!
-How does a dump truck work? How does a snow plow work? How does (x,y,z, ad infinitum) work?
-(In the car) Mommy, go fast! Red means go! (Followed by maniacal laughter because he knows it’s not true.)
-I have my dress on. Now I can go dig!
-There’s a fire somewhere! I have to go put it out with my firetruck and ladder!

Granted, he can’t pronounce a few consonant sounds. He substitutes other sounds instead of a G, K, L, or R. But he’s at age level and folks besides me can understand him most of the time.


Yeah, he almost never wears shoes.

Mostly his grammar is at a good level, but of course I correct some things. “No, baby, we say ‘give it to her,’ not ‘give it to she.’” He looks at me like he can’t believe he got something wrong. “Is that in English or in Spanish?” he asks suspiciously.

His Spanish is coming along, slowly and awkwardly, but it’s coming. His priority words in Spanish are: más (more); leche (milk); basura (trash); and adios (bye), which is followed nevertheless by an extra, “Bye! Have fun!” in English. His accent sounds foreign, and not like he was born in Mexico. But there are words coming out!

He often asks, “How do we say that in Spanish?” The other day he asks, “How do we say melón in Spanish, Mommy?” He’s flummoxed when I tell him that the word is already in Spanish. He only misses half a beat, though. “Mommy, how do we say melón in English?” my determined little language learner asks instead.

Often he just goes around speaking English to everyone, perhaps mixed with a word or two in Spanish, and leaving the onus on the rest of the world to understand or not. “Jayden, give me my chanclas,” he says, and his classmate kindly hands him his flip flops. I suppose he suffered too long in his limited world of a few sounds and lots of miming to be shamed into silence just because he’s speaking the wrong language.


He definitely uses his lexicon to get what he wants, as almost-three-year-olds are apt to do. “Mommy, can I have coffee? Give me coffee. Can I have some coffee? How about now?” Because we drink strong, highly-caffeinated coffee at my house, I don’t usually hand out coffee to my kids, despite it being a Mexican custom. I have let my kids taste my strong, bitter, black coffee, in the hopes that they’ll hate it and quit asking for it. They both loved it for some bizarre reason. So he continues to beg for coffee, especially milky sweet espresso drinks that we sometimes make or buy. I remind him again that at my house, coffee is for grown ups. So finally he says, “Mommy, I’m a grown up! Gimme coffee, Mommy!” He’s so incredibly pleased with himself, with such a wide dirt-eating grin, that I give in. “One drink of coffee for being so funny,” I tell him. That’s right, you get rewarded for a sense of humor in my house. Even with espresso. We’re a wild and crazy bunch.

He comes up with totally random stuff that appears to be important to him for unfathomable reasons. “Mommy, I want a sheep,” he tells me one morning. I ask him about seven times what he’s saying before I understand, because sheep just isn’t on my ear’s radar as something to complete the sentence ‘I want a.’ “A sheep? Like that says ‘baaah’?” I ask to confirm. Indeed. “I’m not bringing any sheep into my house,” I tell him resolutely. “Mommy, I’m going to sleep outside with the sheep then.” There, Mommy, problem solved. He lies down on the floor to demonstrate how he’ll be sleeping outside. “Can we get the sheep today?” He asks. No. “How about tomorrow?” Nope. “Can we get the sheep on Friday?” (Not that he knows when Friday is.) No. “How about for my birthday? Can we get the sheep on my birthday? I’m going to sleep outside with it. Like the other boy.” I have no idea what other boy he is talking about. Someone from a book? From a video? An actual person we’ve seen around? Not a clue, but apparently that boy made a major impression. The answer is still no. Talking can’t get you everything, kid.

He also uses his language to try to internalize our family rules and values, or sometimes just to prove to his sister that he’s in the right and she’s in the wrong. Thus at any given moment he’s walking around firmly touting things like, “We don’t bite people. We bite food.” In a register only slightly quieter than a yell, he suddenly says, “Yes means yes! And no means NO!” I have high hopes for him to be giving workshops on consent someday.

If he’s not too busy being a firefighter or a heavy machinery engineer or a trash collector or a hippo in a zoo, anyway.

Disability, Different-ability, Difference, and Determination, Oh My!

14 Aug

Despite everyone’s reassurances to the contrary, I’d had my suspicions that something was “wrong” with my kid for a few months by the time I was able to get him properly evaluated. Nobody likes to think that their kid is different in a way that’s going to make their child’s life more difficult or hurt them, in the present and/or the future, so your self-denial can work against you. Sometimes other folks even spend lots of energy to convince you that your kid is “normal,” either because they don’t want you to feel bad, or they don’t believe someone could have a problem that they can’t see themselves, or because people just love comparisons as much as they love giving advice. “Well, look at Tomas’s son! He can barely talk and he’s four.” Which is less than ideal, thanks. “My grandmother gave him parrot crumbs, and after that he started talking.” Ummm, I guess I could try that? Not holding my breath for results, though.

My two year old had been able to understand everything for quite a while, and had started talking, but he wasn’t really making progress. He was adding a new word maybe every couple of weeks or every month instead of every day. He wasn’t even putting two words together. All of that is potentially fine. And in Mexico, especially, nobody worries about kids who are slow to talk; it’s practically the norm. “Boys are slower,” people said, or, “Bilingual kids take longer to talk.” Even I sometimes thought, “It’s because he doesn’t need to talk yet; he makes his needs understood just fine with his few words, gesticulations and sounds.” I would try to motivate him to talk, but he absolutely wouldn’t even try to say anything that wasn’t something he could already say. He would suddenly pop up with a new word or new animal noise, and then that would be all his verbal progress for an extended amount of time. The whole, “He’ll talk when he’s ready” theory had started to not make sense to me, because I could see that he wanted to talk. He would try to tell big, complex stories about something that happened, using only sounds and motions. He was starting to get really frustrated with not being able to express himself enough, despite the great lengths he’d go to in order to get his point across. So I worried a bit and then set my worry aside, because there was nothing I could do about in in my small town in Oaxaca.  (I wrote this in January of this year about him, still trying not to worry about his speech: Bilingual Baby Speak, Take Two)

Less than a week after arriving to the US, though, I consulted the blessed (easy to access) internet and found a place for him to get his hearing checked for free. The screening was every Thursday and I found the info on a Wednesday; it couldn’t have been more convenient. The internet also informed me that the same place did speech screenings for free a different Thursday of the month. Truly, the universe has smiled upon us in this whole process. Let me tell you.

His hearing, as I suspected, was fine. That was just something to rule that out as being the cause of any potential speech problem. I asked about the speech screenings and the receptionist informed me that I needed to schedule an appointment for that. And then she actually scheduled me an appointment for twenty minutes later! I was elated. I was going to know something about Khalil’s speech in that very same day.

Needless to say, once I had access to these kinds of services, I was hoping that the speech therapist here in Savannah, Georgia, would tell me to just be patient; that maybe he just prefers animal sounds to words and he’ll grow out of it eventually. Or that I should go ahead and give him parrot crumbs and relax. That is not what the speech therapist told me, however.

“He has Apraxia of Speech,” she told me matter-of-factly, gently but to the point. I took out my pen and notebook and started scribbling, but she quickly handed me her notepad instead, and assured me she’d also give me a bunch of printed information in a moment. She explained that it’s a neurological problem where people can’t connect the word in their brain with the movements in their mouth in order to say the word. The brain has problems planning and coordinating that movement, but it’s not because of a weakness in the muscles. Some people have apraxia due to a severe accident, but in most cases the cause is not known. Most importantly, it is not something that kids just grow out of on their own. It requires frequent, one-on-one speech therapy specifically designed for apraxia.

“But it’s treatable?” I wanted to confirm. “Yes. It’s very treatable. But don’t Google it. I’ve even seen college professors say, ‘There’s nothing we can do for these kids,’ and that’s absolutely not true. I know because I’ve worked with these cases for years, and they do progress. It’s amazing, but they do.This is actually my passion. I am always careful not to over diagnose apraxia, because it is my specialty.”

So of course after the formal evaluation the next day, in which he was diagnosed with severe apraxia of speech, I questioned how sure she was about her diagnosis. “Well,” she started, “I’m very sure, since we can pretty much rule out everything else.” He’s not autistic. There are no other cognitive problems. There’s no muscle weakness, since he’s eating fine. It’s not a lack of wanting to speak. She listed off some other things that most certainly don’t fit the bill for my kid. OK. Convinced. And regardless, I figured, having a special type of speech therapy is surely not going to hurt him. If it doesn’t help then we can reevaluate.

She also recommended that we start signing with him, and she gave me a giant laminated foldout with a bunch of basic American Sign Language (ASL) signs for kids. I’d already learned a few signs before this and thought about learning more before the diagnosis, so her recommendation seemed like another positive.

The best part, though, was that she told me that it could be treated right there, by her, a specialist and passionate teacher. She was taken aback when I told her we’d only be in town a month, but said that at least we could try to do twice a week for that month. Not only was she accommodating and positive, but also the administrative staff was FABULOUS to us. They figured out a way to get around needing an official referral from a US doctor, and then they made sure that we received a major scholarship for his treatment and formal evaluation. Everyone in that building has been so welcoming and helpful to us from the moment that we walked in the door. I feel like the universe put us in exactly the right place at the right time to do what needs to be done for my family.

We headed up to my hometown for a two week visit after that, even though that meant delaying the start of my son’s speech therapy. It was a trip that had been long planned, and something I really needed to recharge my spirit’s batteries. So I got started learning ASL with the kids, and we all started having a good time with that. ASL is a fascinating and very intuitive language. The coolest part was realizing that two of my son’s self-invented signs were actually the official ASL signs for that word. (His sign for little and his sign for eat, in case you’re wondering).

Not only did he like being able to express more things with ASL, he also started trying to produce more words verbally. It was a really cool and unexpected (to me) effect. When he signs “help,” for example, he says something that sounds like “houp”; not very clear to others, but at least he’s trying to produce words beyond his small verbal vocabulary. Signing also helped me worry less and treat him more like I do my other kid; armed with ASL, he, too, has to “say” please and thank you. He has to show me his “yes” rather than say “ha.” He can tell me what color cup he wants without me having to show him every single one in the cupboard. And as much as he feels he can, he tries to say the word, too- like his second favorite color, “boo.”

How do I know it’s his second favorite color if he can barely talk and barely sign, you may wonder? For one, apraxia doesn’t necessarily mean you have any other cognitive problems, although that happens in some cases. It also doesn’t mean you have fewer words than other kids; his receptive language is impressive, and he has the word in his head, he just can’t make his mouth do what it needs to do to pronounce it. On top of that all, my kid just loves to communicate. With the color situation, I knew he recognized all the colors since a while back, even though he couldn’t say them. He knew everyone in the family’s favorite color. When he saw that color, he would say the person’s name. His favorite color is green (“mah” he says when he sees green, palm on chest). But lately he started saying “mah” and pointing to blue, too. So I asked, “Ok, which one is your favorite color?” And he said, “Two! Two!” showing me two fingers in case I was still confused. (Two is one of his newer words- before this he always said “doh” for “dos”.) He can answer any questions as long as I can make I a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ question, or he can show his answer or use one of his words or signs to answer. There is lots and lots of communication going on, despite his apraxia.

One of the coolest moments in the short time since this diagnosis was at the library. The librarians had found us several cool books about trucks (one of his current obsessions), and once it was time to go, I told him, “Let’s go ask how many we can check out at a time.” He said “mah, mah” and “mama no” and walked confidently up to the librarian. I held my breath, wondering how in the world he was going to ask. (We have not yet learned a sign for “how many,” and even if we had, what are the chances that the librarian would know ASL?) He walked up and stood there for a minute, I’m sure thinking the words in his head, and finally made a noise that sounded like that way your voice goes up at the end of the question. Luckily, the librarian had heard me tell him what we were going to ask, so she answered him, which made him proud and confident, as you can imagine.

At this point he’s only had 4 short sessions of speech therapy, but already he is stringing together 2 and 3 words at a time. “Moh apple juice,” he says. He wants to use his “new boo bowl,” making the sign for blue at the same time. The most interesting thing about apraxia to me is the way that sounds don’t automatically transfer when put in different combinations. Even though he can make the sound “oo” and the “t” or the “d” sound, he couldn’t put them together until now. So he could say “moo” and he could say “gato,” but he couldn’t say “two” and he can’t seem to say any other word that starts with that “g” sound. When he was a baby, he babbled the “goo” sound, but he can’t/doesn’t say it now. Funny, right? So apraxia requires lots and lots of practice with different sound combinations, in a structured way, often with visual and physical cues. I won’t try to go into any more detail on methods because I am still essentially clueless, although of course I’m investigating and observing as best as I can. If you’re interested, I recommend you check out this site in English or este sitio en español for more information.

He is adding new sound combinations on the daily now. It brings smiles of rapture to him and to me when he comes out with a new word now. Among the most important that he’s learned: dump, although he still can’t say truck. It is sure to be a whole new level of joy once he gets the word truck. And he wants to add other words to it, so now every dump truck we see on the street is a new dump. We’re practicing a specific set of nursery rhymes to focus on certain sounds, and suddenly he can say shoe. He can say home, which is huge. Tonight at bedtime he went through his list of who was at home and who wasn’t. “Papa no. Mama home. La (meaning Lucia, with the L sounding closish to a W) home. Nonna home. Hmm (makes sign for Dee) home.” He is getting closer to pronouncing this and that, although other folks probably wouldn’t understand him yet. He recognizes stop signs now in the street and if I give him the cue for the s sound or model it in an exaggerated way then he can say stop. If I don’t cue him or model it he just says top, but it’s still amazing progress. We both started jumping around in ecstasy and pride when a couple mornings ago he busted out with “shut da door.” Ok, so the r at the end isn’t very pronounced. But he went and said it to other people and they could understand what he was saying. So much learning! So much excitement, every single day!

He saw a riding lawnmower the other day and was so fascinated we had to follow it around the apartment complex for half an hour. He can say mow, so he says hmm-mow to mean lawnmower. He asks about it several times a day, pointing out the window, inquiring when it will arrive. (I just learned the sign for when, so we’re working on that.)

“If anybody was ever trying, he is,” our brilliant and wondrous speech therapist said. We call her his maestra. My son goes to his class that’s just for him, and he’s very proud about it. “Mama no,” he says, shaking his head emphatically, when I tell him we’re off to his class. “Nonna no,” “Hmm (signs for Uncle Greg) no,” “Hmm (signs for Dee) no,” “La no,” etc. “Mah,” he asserts. His class. He’s got this. I’m just following his lead- his and his teacher’s. She assures me that his brain is primed for this right now. That if we can keep this momentum going- his excitement and motivation, his brain’s elasticity- well, who knows where we’ll end up, if we just had some more time.

Hence our radical change in plans. We were supposed to be heading home to Papi and to our sweet little coast of Oaxaca at the end of this month, to our kids’ radical school, and instead we’re going back in January. Because my child will have no access to adequate services down there. I inquired and investigated and the only thing I found was a speech therapist who can only do group therapy, who’s an hour and a half away, who comes to my town every two weeks for group work, dealing with kids with a wide range of speech difficulties. There might be someone in Oaxaca City, which is seven hours away. I didn’t even inquire, because how could we pull that off?

All the research indicates that apraxia needs frequent, one-on-one, apraxia-specific therapy in order to produce the most chance of success. And the earlier these little ones start treatment, the better the long-term outcome. So here we are. Living with my very generous and helpful family, but living without my kids’ father for much longer than we planned. A father who wants to be and has been involved every day, but who can’t come here yet, because of our immigration process. How do you decide between your kids having access to their dad or one of your kids possibly being able to talk well someday? If it turns out he needs years of speech therapy (which seems likely but not definite) then what are we supposed to do after January? Leave him in Puerto for a couple years without speech therapy until our immigration case goes through? There are many more difficult decisions for our family in the coming weeks, but for now my husband and I have just made this one decision: keeping our little one in speech for as long as we can in one pass, despite all the hardship and inconvenience on all other levels. No one can know where his progress will be in January, I just know that this way we’re giving him a bit more time without completely destroying our family and the life we’ve already built in our town. Their wonderful school is holding their spots for January, and the principal (a dear friend to boot) already promised me they’d learn some signs for him, too. We have to go back for so many reasons, most of all for Papi, but we also have to make our son’s needs a priority, because he so desperately wants to talk. Staying here longer, unexpectedly, is hurting all of us in some ways, but this is what life looks like- full of difficult and complex decisions. I try to chose to feel pleased to be alive and making decisions every day. Some days it’s harder than others.

(For more about our family immigration situation, you can read The Compass at our Crossroads and Ending our Exile )


“Comparisons are odious,” my mom used to say, quoting Shakespeare, I believe. My son’s mind doesn’t work the same as my daughter’s: they are radically different in some ways. My daughter was speaking in full and complex sentences early on. She is shy and introverted and loves to live in her story-world. My son, though, is outgoing through and through. He can Skype for ages with my family, while my daughter barely wants to say hi. He has to work so hard to express himself, but because of that he forces himself, and he has different skills. He is an expert in his semi-verbal version of circumlocution. He makes connections that other people might not. Like when we were talking about somebody’s name, Johnson, and my semi-verbal kiddo said, “Papa, hahaha,” which is a line from a dumb song they listen to on Bob the Train videos. I was like, “What is he talking about?” I started my guessing game. “Something funny with Papi?” No. “Something about Papi?” No. He keeps repeating “Papa, hahaha” until finally it clicks for me: Ah, Johnson and Johnny! “Like Johnny and Johnson? They’re similar?” I ask him. “Ha,” he says in place of yes. He’s probably thinking, “My slow Mommy finally got it! When will these people learn?” Discovering the complexities of his different mind is a major parenting joy that I am grateful to have everyday.

It can be really hard to think that your kid is different in some kind of scary, lifelong, will-never-have-a-good-life kind of way, whatever that may mean for you. To me, the idea of not being able to speak your mind sounded pretty awful to me- enough to keep me up crying a couple times since the diagnosis. Knowledge is power, though, and knowing what is going on with your kid, acknowledging differences and working with that is the name of the game, for me at least. While I’ve felt some panic and some despair, more than anything I’ve felt relief at knowing what the problem is, and hope that my baby will get what he needs. I have every hope that he will indeed be one of the cases who can speak effectively and understandably most of the time, at some point. But I also am coming to terms with the idea that he might be “different” forever, and that doesn’t actually scare me at all. I have friends who are deaf, and they’re awesome. I have friends and family who need wheelchairs, and they’re awesome. Life is not ruined just by having different abilities. It can be more difficult, or difficult in ways that aren’t the same as other people’s difficulties. I am going to do my damnedest to help my kid talk, and to try to do it in circumstances that don’t destroy our family. But I also know that if he never gets completely “cured” then that’s far from the end of the world. My kid could already talk complexly with just six words; I’m pretty sure he’s unstoppable. I know that in many ways this “disability” is just that: a difference, which is its own type of gift.


My determined child with a brilliant sense of humor. What else could I ask for?

Thanks, Universe!

P.S. We are still raising money for our immigration process, which is now more necessary than before. If you’re able to and so inclined, you can donate at this site.  Thanks for reading! Hugs!



Bilingual Baby Speak, Take Two

26 Jan

Supposedly it’s common for kids growing up in multilingual environments to take more time to talk. Whether that’s the reason or not, my littler little one is definitely a case study in resisting the grown-ups’ languages. Rapidly approaching age 2, young Khalil still only has about a 6 word vocabulary. But he sure can get all his relevant points across with his limited lexicon.

“M” words are at the top of his list, since they include all the things necessary for his survival: more (duh- more everything, please), ma (meaning both “my” and “mine,” always accompanied by pointing to or beating on his chest), and mum (mama, but apparently he’s part Irish like his Papi* and prefers mum).

For instance, when I caught him drinking honey out of the jar this morning, he didn’t even look guilty; instead he blithely asked for more, since the jar was now empty.

When he heard me talking on the other side of the door at his preschool, he B-lined for the door, which I deduced because I heard a clear and steady stream of “Mum…. Mum…. Mum…. Mum…” Then I heard his teacher ask, “Where are you going, Khalil?” to which he replied, of course, “Mum.” When he sees something that he knows is only for Mommy and Papi to touch, he goes “Mum,” and then shakes his head and points to himself. When he sees a beer can? “Mum.” That’s right, kiddo, that’s right. When Papi comes home? Also “Mum.” Until Khalil makes it to the P sound, Papi gets to be the other Mommy.


These are ma delicious fingers, thank you, says Khalil

The only word that he says in Spanish so far is “uno.” He uses it to count, of course. When we do his asthma inhaler, I count and he also counts, except his counting sounds like this: “uno, uno, uno, uno, uno….” He also uses the word uno to indicate a garafon (big water jug) truck, or anything else he finds interesting that there is one of. A dump truck? UNO!! A bird? UNO! A piece of candy? UNO! (accompanied by ma! and chest beating) Conan has invented his own game for this, which goes something like this: “Khalil, how many Mommys are there?” Khalil: “Uno!” “How many cats in the house?” (Etc.) Khalil has a good concept of mathematics, too. If there are two dump trucks he’ll say “uno” and “more.” And when a whole flock of birds flies into the sky? Latalatalatalata (which we interpret as a lot of a lots: alotalotalotalot)



He’s working on the b sound, since that also contains some favorites. He attempts to say bread and bird and book, although none of them are clear out of context. He makes a grunting noise that starts when the b sound to mean big, which is one of my favorite semi-words of his.

He added two words in one week recently, and for a second there, I thought we must be headed for rapid progress in language development. Turns out, though, he was just really inspired by these two things, because no further words have been added in the weeks since. One of the inspirations is the word Elmo, although I didn’t even realize that he had a clue who Elmo was, since Khalil has zero attention span for videos (I’m not complaining, don’t worry). But he found a pair of Lucia’s old Elmo underwear and was ecstatic, and emphatic about the word Elmo. Now even the Cookie Monster towel is Elmo and it is his exclusive property, thank you.

Equally as emphatic and clear, he also added the word “vulva” to his vocabulary that week. And in case you thought it might have been a mistake, don’t fool yourself. He started using it at bath time, one night that the three of us were bathing at the same time (them in a tub, me in the shower). He pointed at mine and said, “vulva.” He pointed at Lucia’s and said, “vulva.” And finally, he pointed at his own genitals and said, “vulva.” I tried to tell him that his had a different name, but he is pretty determined to also call his a vulva, so I’ve decided it’s best just to go with it for now. Of course it’s become a torture technique for Lucia, to taunt Khalil, singing, “You don’t have a vulva! You have a penis!” And Khalil grabs his and goes, “Vulva!” And Lucia repeats her taunt, ad nauseam until I break up the fight. Leave it to my kid to be a 6 word wonder who uses the word vulva on the daily. So fitting.

And really Elmo and vulva are basically the same in both languages, so perhaps I can count that as four words, as a Spanish part  and an English part of his bilingual lexicon.

If you count animal sounds as words, then we can double his toddler terminology. He’s particularly fond of owls, apparently, because two of his cloth diapers have owls on them and just about every time I change his diaper he goes, “whoowhoo.” He can also howl at the moon to indicate a wolf. Oh and I forgot he can say “moon”- another m word not as obviously imperative as his mum, but pretty darned important (particularly for howling purposes). Because he can say moon, obviously he can moo like a cow just as well as Elsie herself. He makes a sad little whiney meow when he’s imitating a cat- possibly because he’s always abusing our cat- pulling her tail or petting her so forcefully it’s essentially hitting. “Baa” is a classic of his, since we have goats and sheep around our neighborhood. “Baa” is his go-to phone conversation, so much so that Lucia coaches him when he’s talking to one of the grandparents. “Say ‘ba,’ Khalil,” she suggests, and he does. I can sense his building up to the rooster sound, because he bangs on the door in the morning till I open it up so he can observe our neighbor’s rooster come pecking around and crowing. He can’t say “neigh” yet either, but he gallops on the broom really well.

Despite his rather meager vocabulary, this is one communicative child. Uninterested in television, he can video-chat play with my mom for like 30 minutes, while my four year old is only interested for about 5 minutes.  He tells me about the things that have happened in his day, between sounds and demonstrations. He reenacts falls and other mishaps like a natural thespian. When he wants food, he says, “yum” and pretends to put something in his mouth, or else he goes and bangs on the fridge door until you open it and he shows you exactly what he wants.

He shakes his head and/or wags his finger at everything that’s a no. This “no” technique is especially useful in letting you know what’s not for you or to make comparisons. Like he’ll point to his Elmo underwear and say, “Elmo. Ma.” Then he’ll point to your underwear region and shake his head no and say, “Elmo,” until you confirm that indeed, his underwear has Elmo and yours does not. His shirt has a shark and yours does not. He even jokes with his “no” game. That’s his potty and not yours. No, Mommy, that’s his sweet big belly, not yours. Those are his 7 bananas and none are for you. That coffee is his and… No? He’ll smile slyly when he knows it’s not his. The kid can even joke without using real words!

What more could any kid really need to say? Language is for the birds! And wolves and goats, too.



*Sorry, inside joke. I’ll leave you wondering whether he’s really Irish or not. Bwahahaha.


The Quest for the Perfect Bilingual Baby Name

11 Jan

It’s hard to agree on baby names, period. But when the name has to work in 2 different languages, plus be okay with all the cultural connotations that go with it in 2 different cultures, naming your kid starts to feel like an impossible task. It’s added (self-imposed) difficulty, too, because we stubbornly refuse, again, to find out the baby’s sex. Thus we’re looking for not one but two perfectly apt and bilingual names (I repeat: this is due to not knowing the sex. I am not having twins, thank you very much.)

A close-up of my giant belly. Nope, really not twins. Don't even ask.

A close-up of my giant belly. Nope, really not twins. Don’t even ask.

Part of me wonders if I shouldn’t just give up on my attempt at making it work in both places. I mean, when we named our daughter, we were sure that Lucia was utterly perfect, spelled and pronounced the same in both languages. I must have gotten that impression from my Italian roots or something (although it’s pronounced Lu-chia in Italian), because we discovered at her first doctor’s appointment in the U.S. that other people from the U.S. believe this name to be pronounced Lu-sha. Seriously. I was shocked. Lu-see-uh isn’t the English pronunciation of Lucia??? How could this be? I consoled myself with the fact that we’d be living in another country, a country where they’d pronounce her name the way we’d intended, at least long enough for her to be old enough to correct people.

For baby number two, we’re looking for basically the same things as before. Criteria number one is a name that’s not so common that there’ll be 3 just the same in his or her classroom, but that’s not so outlandishly original that nobody knows what to make of it. We’ve ruled out Jasmine/Jasmin/Jazmin/Yasmin based on this; it’s way too common down here, and getting more common up there, too.

We are also not sadists enough to give our child a name that they are likely to be ruthlessly teased for forever. For example, I love the name Penelope, and it’s similar and pretty in both languages. But Conan keeps nixing it because the first four letters spell penis in Spanish, and he says we’re bound to be giving her a difficult childhood if we name her that. I questioned one of my students, who happens to be named Penelope, about it the other day, though, and she says that as long as you don’t let people give you a nickname, it’s fine. She says she really likes her name and has no malice towards her parents about it, so I refuse to cross it off of my list, although I do see Conan’s point.

Then we have a “no Brian” rule. Brian has become a popular name down here (bless globalization), but spelled like that, people would pronounce it “Bree-an.” So instead people spell it “Brayan” or some such variation that, in Spanish pronunciation, makes it sound like the English Brian. But of course, in the U.S., Brayan would definitely not be assumed to be Brian when our kid goes to the U.S. Thus, any name where the pronunciation and spelling can’t more or less work together in both languages and countries is out of the question; I don’t want people in one country or the other to never get it.

Granted, the pronunciation doesn’t have to be exactly the same. Conan, for instance, was really intended to be Conán, stress on the an (sorry, Conan, I think I’ve just outed you to the world that you’re not really Irish). But Conan’s not bothered by either pronunciation. The pronunciation of my name is considerably different between the two languages, thanks to the lovely letter J, but it’s recognizable in both, and more importantly, I like it either way.

Liking it in both pronunciations is another must, and thus I ruled out some of my favorites due to a dislike of one sound. Like Leo, which I adore the sound of in English (Lee-oh), but which sounds much duller in Spanish (Lay-oh). I could change the name Leo to Lio, so that people here pronounce it the way I like better (I have already seen this with the name Leah turning into Lia), but then people in the U.S. will be trying to call him lie-oh or something like that (I’d be violating the “no Brian” rule). Plus a lio means a big mess in Spanish- probably not a nice thing to throw on my kid.

We could, of course, just go with a distinctly Spanish or English name and make people deal with it. Brian is not the only popular U.S.-style name around, by any stretch. I was laughing with my friend’s sister here the other day, whose six month old is named Margaret. We were joking about how we both did things backwards because I named my kid a nice Spanish name and she named her kid a nice English name, instead of the other way around. She named her kid after her grandmother, who was named Margarita, but they wanted to change it slightly, hence the Margaret (although people call her Maggie anyway, which I’m sure is spelled Magi or Magy, for the record). So people here would surely adapt nicely to many English-sounding names, as long as the spelling can work with the pronunciation. That leaves us a decent amount of options.

Likewise, people in the U.S. can deal pretty well with some Spanish/Italian/Latin-based names these days. Maybe they can’t yet say Horacio (pronounced Or-ass-ee-oh) instead of Horatio, but I wasn’t going to go with Horacio anyway. Most people can even handle “difficult” Italian names, like, say, Guido or something (also not on my list, however). At least I have the impression that this is true. Part of me wonders if perhaps I think that’s true just because my family can pronounce it, so I’m not ready to totally blow off my thoughtful consideration on this part (which, as we saw with the whole Lucia/Lusha thing, is not an unfounded concern).  But I was running with this borrowing-from-Italian thing, and I got an idea from one of my students the other day- for the name Lorenzo. To me it sounds like an Italian name, which (like my idea of Lucia) qualifies it as “American”ish enough in my universe. It’s pronounced and spelled the same in both Spanish and English, plus I think it’s really pretty and strong. But just when you I was sure I found the perfect name, Conan announced that he hates it, and refuses to be convinced. Just my luck.

Another exciting possibility full of potential are Arabic-based names. They’re a good pick because they mostly work with Spanish spelling and pronunciation (and did you know that Arabic had a giant influence on the Spanish language anyway? Fascinating history there). Common names down here, like Miriam and Fatima, are good examples of the Arab influence. And their pronunciation is the same in English. Plus they’re often really pretty names, especially for boys. But Conan also ruled out my #1 boy name, Khalil. He said Ali was okay if we’re going to pick an Arabic-based name. It would be fun because we could also reference Mohammed Ali the boxer from my city (whose birth name was Cassius Clay, not a name we’re enthralled with, unfortunately).  But I’m not in love with Ali as my kid’s name. It’s a great name, but you can’t really substitute it for Khalil. I mean, Ali the boxer is awesome, but Khalil Gibran the writer is way cooler in my book. So we can’t agree on that one, either.

I’ve run out of ideas, especially if we end up having a boy. I’ve got my favorite girl name picked out, which I think I can talk Conan into (at least he hasn’t said no to it). But we’ve got zilch that we agree on for a boy. I’m getting nervous about having this baby and not being able to name him (if it’s a boy). Luckily, here in Mexico you don’t have to name your kid right away just to take him or her home, so I’m the only one pressuring myself on the name thing. But I’ve seen the nicknames that kids end up with when their parents don’t name them for weeks or months (Caramelo, Panfilo, for example), and I don’t want to go there. Plus I feel like babies already look enough like strange alien creatures when they first come out, and somehow naming them ASAP makes them much more human and real. So please help! We are taking suggestions on this second mission impossible!

This face is a plea for help! We need baby boy name ideas! Or convince Conan to let me use Lorenzo! Or cross your fingers that we have a girl!

This face is a plea for help! We need baby boy name ideas! Or convince Conan to let me use Lorenzo! Or cross your fingers that we have a girl!

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: