Journey to Bi-lingual Land

Are you bi-lingual? If you are not did you know you are a minority in the world?

Here is some perspective:

What do you call it when one is fluent three languages? Tri-lingual.

What do you call it when one is fluent in two languages? Bi-lingual.

What do you call it when one is fluent in only one language? American.

(The term “American” is just as telling as it’s multi-culturally challenged inhabitants, seeing as there are three geographical regions bearing America in their names spanning over dozens of countries. That is for a different blog post seeing as pretty much the whole world allows the rash, young, nation to call itself such a thing.)

Leaving the joking aside and moving on…

A frequent conversation I have with people is in reference to the fact that I speak two languages. Personally, I do not consider myself bi-lingual. Bi-lingual suggests fluency that allows one to be considered “an insider” in both languages. Me, not so much. Sure, a few close friends consider me an insider. For the most part, though, I am still a gringa. It’s ok with me.

My kids are actually bi-lingual. My two youngest are still in the language learning age and well on their way to joining their older siblings in bi-lingual land.

It is fascinating watching how natural it is for toddlers to pick up a language like it is one of their playthings strewn on the bedroom floor. I am so grateful that I can offer my children the riches that come from a multi-cultural existence and awareness.

A bit of a Kaitlynn update in the language area:

  • Length of time exposed to English: 12 weeks.
  • Age: 2 and a half years
  • Spanish dominance: sentences up to 5 words long, 200+ word vocabulary (I stopped writing them down when I got to 200), understands but does not yet speak about 5x her vocabulary.
  • English dominance: 21 words, understands but does not yet speak 11 words / phrases.

Note: These numbers are increasing daily.

I believe strongly that each person has their own journey to walk when they decide to venture to bi-lingual land. I share these numbers not to boast or compare. NO! I share them to help me take a breath and rejoice in the accomplishments we have reached in such a quick time.

Her newest word is: obey. She knows 100% what that word means. So cute to watch her tell her baby dolls to obey.

Another new sound that is not used frequently at the beginning of Spanish words is: s. Her ‘s’ at the beginning of words is usually a ‘sh’ sound. Lately we have been working on not standing on chairs by saying to her: sit. She tries to repeat the word and I about crack up every time! (Yes, you’ll, wake up at about 2 AM and be like… Oh! I get it! Ha!!!)

I am grateful that:

  • We all speak Spanish to make the transition smoother
  • That Tyler is learning Spanish
  • Kaitlynn is a verbal child and excited about learning new things

If you are bi-lingual I would live to hear some about your journey. Feel free to share!

20 thoughts on “Journey to Bi-lingual Land

  1. Angie, I enjoyed the post.

    I am not in the category of an insider yet, but am well on my way. I have lived in Israel now for a year and am currently enrolled in Level Dalet of the Modern Hebrew program, which is the first level after the intermediate class. As I’ve reflected upon the study of another language that is living ;), I have found that there are the five categories of language acquisition: Reading, Writing, Hearing, Speaking, and Thinking.

    It did not take long for me to notice how dependent I had become with my eyes. Learning a language in an Academic institution, more often than not, requires that the individual focus upon the grammatical structure and syntax of a language via the myriad of “sight-sounds” expressed through the particular symbols used by the language. Thus, I might be able to read a sentence on a board with clear understanding and correct pronunciation at a normal speed of speech, but take my eyes away and all of sudden that same sentence may become difficult to understand, if not impossible to repeat. As is noted in the linguistic world, written language and spoken language have absolutely no connection. I know that seems absurd, but I have been told by one of the world’s best linguists that it is so :) It is possible to read a language you don’t speak and also possible to speak a language that you cannot read.

    They say toddlers first understand, then speak. I have found that to be true with myself. I can’t speak unless I have understood, that is, the sounds of another. Yet the more I speak, the more the sounds of others become clear. And to top it all off, I have found it very difficult to let go of English and let Hebrew rule on the inside. It’s like Christianity all the way. You must deny yourself, everything you know to be sure and true, struggling every step of the way to put on a new man, so to speak. You have to learn a new way to live and you can’t rely on what you already know. More often than not, you fight against what you know. But through discipline and a lot of faith, with many mistakes, you can prevail. In English, for example, we have 26 letters, but make about 42 different sounds, that of course depending on dialects. Thus, memorizing the sound of a word and hearing it in a sentence is an immense task, one that toddlers enjoy and succeed in.

    Then to think. This is the best part. It is possible to speak another language using the “mother tongue.” But at this point, you’re not actually speaking the other language, but the mother tongue hidden underneath. I’m still at this stage. But I find more and more that the mother tongue is slowly being pushed into the back and Hebrew is taking root in the mind. This is what we should strive for and I think is precisely what you meant when you talked about being an insider. You think as they think. Here it is merely up to the brain which is constantly seeking for order in the chaos. Our brains search for the patterns of the language in order to project the right idea and meaning. “I like to read” and “I love to read” have two different/similar meanings, but several different sounds. But you would have to be an insider and know how the natives use the words in order to understand it. Once those patterns are solidified, there is freedom to use the language because the meaning is derived from the patterns in the sounds and not necessarily from individual words. Not the freedom that comes with the native tongue (that only belongs to those who are native speakers), but a freedom that makes you an insider. For example, I know what a potato is in English, but in Hebrew it is an “apple of the earth.” It is still that thing many eat and we all know it when we see it, but I never would have thought of a potato as an apple that comes from the earth. I use this example because it is highly insignificant. However, apply that same principle to the greater use of language and you will find quickly that languages really do differ one from the other. The word “like” in the phrase, “You know, like, for sure.” This is a prime example. Linguists have no idea what it is. They can’t identify it, they can’t put a label on it. They’re not sure what it is doing. Nevertheless, american speakers understand it completely and use it without knowing what it really does or what it is :)

    So, although I’m not an insider, I have thrown myself into the possibility of it and am loving every moment. It’s a shaky process and you have to learn to not quit and keep on keeping on, but I’m sure the fruits in the end are worth it. I also have learned to love being unsure when speaking and hearing. It’s a good lesson in humility ;) For it takes humility to truly learn the language of another and in the process, hopefully, in the end, humility is part of the fruit.

    Thanks for posting, I enjoyed it!

    1. Hi Nathan. :) Thanks so much for telling me about your learning adventures. I can identify with what you said about the lesson in humility. I am thinking of a blunder I made in a mix up with a horse and hair. Congratulations in reaching the next level above intermediate! I pray your passion and drive stays strong.

      1. @Angie Thanks Angie! I’ve been enjoying the updates on the orphanage. Give my best to the family.

        שלום@Maureen I am a student at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. Indeed, it is a small world. You are at Tel Aviv University? What are you studying? How long have you been in Israel? I enjoy Jerusalem, but to study in Tel Aviv and/or Haifa, now that is a wise decision.

  2. Well, I feel a bit like you, Angie. I am only partially bi-lingual even after 14 years here. I don’t feel fluent, but I speak and think in my limited Turkana. I can hear about 50-70% of what I hear on a good day and less on a bad day. My friends call me a Turkanaite, but most Kenyans still see me as a Wazungu (white foreigner). I read and speak Turkana quite well according to my Turkana friends. I have only a slight accent, but again, my understanding is about 50-70% :).

    I speak and understand bits and peices of Swahili as well. That is really limited – less than 100 words or so. I took a year of German in High School and would love to be able to speak that language. Alas, when I was learning Turkana all my little bits of German came out and I don’t think they ever went back in :). After I was in Kenya for 4 years a man asked me in German if I spoke German. (Not sure why he did this – I must look a little German) I answered him in Turkana – oops! :) I guess it is good that at least I understood the question since it was spoken in German.

    I didn’t learn Turkana in a language school. So, my use of verb forms and other grammar points is atrocious. I lived in a very remote, rural village for 9 months and had a language helper who had completed the 6th grade – so he had a little english. I had to direct my own learning and feel like I didn’t do such a great job at it :). Even so, God is good and I think people understand most of what I try to say and I understand most of what they try to say unless they speak really fast. I see language learning as an ongoing process and it is grace filled on both sides of the language divide!

    They way your kids are learning is the best. I am always amazed at how quickly kids pick up languages. They can’t break it down and tell you word for word what something means, but they can get the meaning across. I think their brains are still wired for learning language until they reach 12 or 13 and they just absorb it through play and interaction with others.

    Thanks for posting and asking the question!

    1. Hi, Lynn! That is awesome that your friends call you a Turkanaite. :-) A language helper came to my house five days a week for about 6 months. It was great! I, too, am often mistaken for a German / French / Swiss or any other European flavor. Thanks for sharing about your language fun. Keep up the good work Turkanaite!

  3. I could say a lot about my life with languages – I majored in Russian and at one point was fluent. I also was functionally fluent in Creole for a short period. But I’d rather focus on my daughter, who has transitioned from Creole to English in the last year. My husband I debated whether we would attempt to help her preserve her Creole after she moved to the U.S. We decided we would rather focus on developing her emotional attachment to our family than language acquisition/retention. We would speak in whatever language was needed to get our point across. Vivine would learn English from her environment when she was ready. If she kept her Creole, fine, but we wouldn’t push it. In the end, we decided that she had enough stress in her life from transitioning to a new country and family, and she didn’t need additional pressure to speak in one language or another.

    Vivine was fluent in English in six months – much more quickly than I expected. At the same time, she gradually stopped using Creole and now only remembers about 25 – 50 Creole words (I haven’t counted). Sometimes people act disappointed when I tell them that Vivine no longer speaks Creole. I remind them that Haitian Creole is only spoken in one country in the world. It’s not a language like Spanish that would help her travel the globe, advance in her career or relate to others around the world when she is older. If she wants to communicate with someone in Creole, her one of our Haitian friends, her father or I can translate for her. Also, Vivine has a mind that is “wired” for languages since she has already changed from one language to another. I am sure that she could quickly re-learn Creole if she so desired.

    One thing I have learned about my child: she will do what she has to do to get her point across! I think that is why she learned English so quickly. I don’t ever worry about her being able to communicate what she needs.

    1. Bonjou Lynde! Round about my Jr. high years my parents went to Haiti five times. Some of the adult Haitians from the orphanage they were connected with were able to move to the States. They gave Haitian Creole lessons to whomever wanted to learn. Our family took the classes. Seeing as a small Haitian boy, Jedrique, stayed in our home for quite a few months while receiving burn treatments it was helpful for us all to have a working knowledge of the language. He, too, started to speak English very quickly.

      It is true that Vivine is now “wired” for languages. If and when she would choose to incorporate fluency in another language it will not be taxing.

      You probably have heard this, but I have been told that children learning two languages at a young age (before 6 years old) will choose a dominant language and basically reject the other one. Though they can understand it they choose not to Speak it. Gabrielle was 10 wks old when we came to Bolivia. She chose Spanish as her primary language. Tyler, who was born here, has chosen English thus far. He has been more interested in Spanish since Kaitlynn came. These two might even start some twin talk; we’ll see.

      Thanks for sharing about your language experiences with Vivine. Good luck!

  4. I love this post. Language learning is amazing and children pick it up so fast… Emma is still confuse with 3 languages but she understand everything very well. Such a blessing!

    1. Ana your little E-P is such a doll. :) She seams to have a pensive streak in her… at least that is what I gather from the pictures and stories. She is such a blessing!

  5. It is great to read how well your children are doing at learning a language they were not born into. Also how much fun you seem to be having helping them.

    I am only fluent in English, and there is some question about that.

    I know a few words in Spanish, through friends, French, took one year in high school, Japanese and Vietnamese, I was stationed in both countries while in the Army.

    While in Japan, for 18 months from 1964 to 65, I did spend a lot of time in the local culture. Living in a culture different from your own is a great learning experience, the best way to become better at communication. I will admit unisex restrooms did take some time to get use to.

    The biggest difference was the importance of fitting in with the group, as oppose to my more individualistic American nature. In Eastern cultural, at least back in 1964, you had to knowledge the authority of the boss, while at the same time individuals had a fair degree of discretion in how to perform their job, and solve problems. “Face” was very important. You didn’t just say someone was wrong, but suggested there might be a better way.

    Japanese cultural was both more formal, on the surface, but at least as open as Western Culture, once you got to know people, and they became more comfortable with you. The most important social rule was to show people you where making an effort to fit in.

    I also learned to appreciate the beauty in nature more. I think Eastern culture was more about seeking a balance with nature, more than trying to control it, as in American.

    A negative is that they were more prone to just accepting of a problem, instead of being more proactive to correct it.

    I think everyone should live in another cultural for an extend period, one year (?). The more different it is from our own the better. Perhaps the best lesson is how similar we all are. We all have the same hopes and dreams for the future.

    1. Ed, hi! :) I agree that spending an extended time in a culture foreign to your home culture is an ideal way to have a global approach to life. Asia… I find the thought of life there so intriguing! I would love to pay a visit someday.

  6. i have really enjoyed reading everyones comments on this post. everyone leads such interesting lives.
    the only onther language i really speak besides english is “toddler”. i can understand most of what my children and other small kids are saying. a helpful skill in my line of business. (stay at home mom with three small kids :)

    1. Shawn, I have enjoyed the convo happening here too! I am glad you came by and added your thoughts. Toddler speak is truly a language in and of itself. It still puts a smile on my face when I remember the chatter that Sasha regaled of with when she and Tyler were still babes. She really thought she was talking! And she was. :) It is one of my favorite niece memories.

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