My son has learned three languages in his short lifetime. Now seven and half, Amir was born in Spain, but was instantly privy to a world where three different languages were regularly spoken in his home environment. His father—who speaks Arabic with his family members—and I communicate to one another in Spanish, and my native tongue is English. As his primary caregiver, I felt it was important to speak to Amir in English, and it became the language he was mostly surrounded with in those early years, especially after we moved to the United States when he was only six months old.
Two and a half years later, however, we moved back to Spain. This time, Amir was introduced to Catalan in public school. In the classroom, both instruction and teacher/student interaction is in Catalan, but the children speak Spanish with each other. School at that age is still a lot of play, as it should be, and no homework. Even so, Amir didn´t fully comprehend Spanish—and Catalan not at all—but luckily he had a patient, understanding teacher and we made it through that first year.
Over the summer, I tried my best to expose him to Spanish naturally by taking him to parks and playgroups where Spanish was spoken. He was always nervous and shy to approach the other children so I would start talking to the kids, introduce Amir and ask if he could join them. They would play and I stayed on the sidelines acting as a translator when needed.
Despite my efforts, the following year Amir was nervous to begin school. He still had a hard time communicating with his peers and didn’t understand the teacher very well. He had homework every day and although the assignments weren’t difficult, they were written in Catalan. To help, we dedicated an hour and half each night to homework, with the first step of translating everything into Spanish and then English if he didn’t know the words in Spanish, and then persuading a six year-old to actually do the work.
Halfway through the school year I realized we needed help. My little boy was so frustrated. He seemed sad and depressed. He would get upset easily and didn’t want to go to school at all some days. He told me that he felt lonely and wished we could move back to America where everyone speaks English.
Even small things like talking to his classmates proved difficult. We found a private tutor and started taking him to Spanish classes three times a week. Immediately we saw an improvement. He was much more confident speaking and understanding Spanish; his teacher confirmed that his Catalan had improved as well. Now that he was able to understand Spanish he could begin to follow along in Catalan. (Instruction is given in Catalan but when a student doesn’t understand the teacher can explain in Spanish. Now that Amir was able to grasp Spanish better he could comprehend Catalan better.)
It seemed as if all along, he had just needed someone to sort out all that jumble of Spanish in his head. He started making friends and was happy to feel more included. His teacher commented that he participated more in class and homework became easier because we didn’t have to spend so much time translating. He ended the school year with good grades and appeared more relaxed and happy. It felt good to see him understanding his world better.
Over the summer we continued the Spanish lessons, but at one point reached a new obstacle: he didn’t want to go anymore. Every day became a struggle to get him to class, and eventually I stopped trying. Instead, we began to have our own Spanish class at home for an hour a day.
Last summer, we read, completed grammar and vocabulary worksheets and played games—all in Spanish. I could tell Amir was improving and that he enjoyed our study time more than the structured tutoring sessions. In order to make sure he returned to school with confidence, I kept up the daily sessions and purchased the textbooks he would be using during the school year—one of each in Catalan, Spanish and English. We started school eight months ago and despite my anxiety, Amir is doing really well. He has a few good friends that he plays with outside of school and reads and understands everyday Spanish. We still speak mainly in English but sometimes when he wants to tell me about something that happened at school he explains it in Spanish.
People who know us, of course, have opinions about our situation. There have been those who chastise me for speaking in English to Amir and Salma, my two-and-a-half-year-old, who already is more comfortable than her brother speaking in Spanish and Arabic because she has had an almost equal exposure to all these languages.
There were even those who declared I wasted my time taking Amir to Spanish class. Others say kids are sponges and will easily pick up a language, but I disagree. Yes, they do absorb a lot, but that doesn’t always make it easy to actually understand and speak the language. I needed to have structured learning time in Spanish for Amir to be successful in that language.
While I do feel it´s my job to teach my children English, outsourcing Spanish classes for a time was exactly what Amir needed. I know eventually he’ll speak Spanish better than me, and without this pesky American accent I can´t seem to shed. Meanwhile, I’m doing my best to help him learn and understand better. I knew from a young age I wanted Spanish to always be a part of my life, and also that I wanted my children to speak the language. They were lucky too in that along the way a few other languages were thrown in. I’m excited for my children to grow up with so many opportunities this multicultural life offers them, even if at times it can be a challenge.