There are lots of answers to that question. You can read some on my father’s influence in my decision to speak Spanish to Jojo in the About section. But the truest answer is simply that I can’t help it, and I think that’s what makes it easy for me. I didn’t fully commit to speaking Spanish to Jo until a few months after she was born, and I didn’t tell too many people about my plans. I knew there was a chance that it would be too much or wouldn’t feel right, and it was important to me not to feel like I’d failed before I’d even started. But I went with it, and it felt right, and now I can’t help but speak Spanish to her.
There were some days in the beginning that my head hurt in the same way it did those first few weeks of studying abroad, hit with total Spanish immersion. And there are still some days where I end up with a long list of words I need to look up. I didn’t know how to say “diaper” or “wipey” or “crib” or a million other baby-related vocabulary that I’d never needed to know. But speaking to kids in a foreign language did come naturally to me.
When I was in high school living with a Spanish family my host sister, Helena, was just five years old. That’s still young enough for lots of dress-up, make-believe, bedtime books and Disney movies. I lived with her and her mother for a year and learned a lot from her. There are a handful of songs that have even come back to me over fifteen years later that we used to sing together and that I now sing to my Bilingual Baby.
In college I spent a summer as an au pair in Brussels caring for two little boys (a two-year-old and a four-year-old). They spoke French and my job was to speak as much English to them as possible, but we ended up doing a mixture. I invented games and songs in English about brushing teeth or marching down the stairs or cleaning up to try and drive home as much of my native language as possible. But I also had to communicate real things sometimes like, “Your mother is at work and she’ll be home when you wake up from your nap.” That’s a thing kids needs to hear sometimes because it’s comforting and makes them feel safe and listened to. I understood a lot of their French and was able to say a lot back to them, and it was a complicated, fascinating year. I wrote my honor’s thesis in college all about that summer—the progress we made in English and the methods I came up with to teach them. But it was also about that balance between language teacher and loving caregiver.
After college I taught Spanish to kids from different families in Massachusetts that were preparing to move to a foreign country. The first family moved to Argentina for a year. The other family moved to Costa Rica for six months. In the months leading up to their takeoff date I came by their homes twice a week armed with games and activities to begin introducing the kids, who were between six and twelve years old, to Spanish.
My first job when my husband Lyon and I moved back to Austin (my home town) was teaching Spanish to preschoolers.
So this is not forgeign to me. I have always been fascinated by language acquisition in general, but in particular, in small children. And here I had the tiniest of humans growing inside me—a perfect blank slate of a human who, from the time of her very first breath, would begin absorbing language sounds. It would have been strange of me not to give this a try.