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 I might have to bail. It was important to me not to feel like I’d failed before I’d even started.
In the beginning, there were days that my head hurt in the same way it had those first few weeks of studying abroad, hit with total Spanish immersion. It was a struggle. I didn’t know how to say “diaper” or “wipe” or “crib” or a ton of other baby-related vocabulary. I still have days where I end up with a long list of words I need to look up. While raising a baby in another language was new territory for me, language exploration with children wasn’t new to me at all.
When I was in high school living with a Spanish family, my host sister, Helena, was just five years old. We were immersed in a world of dress-up, make-believe, bedtime books, and Disney movies. I lived with her and her mother for a year, and Helena was one of my best language teachers. Some of the songs I learned from her over fifteen years ago have even come back to me, and I now sing them to 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. I invented games and songs about brushing teeth or marching down the stairs or cleaning up to try and insert as much of my native language into their lives as possible. But sometimes I broke down and spoke to them in French when they needed to really hear from me: “Your mother is at work, and she’ll be home when you wake up from your nap.” That’s a thing a kid needs to hear sometimes so they 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 a lot of what I wrote about was 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. Being in a college town, these jobs weren’t as hard to find as you’d think. The first family (sociology professors) moved to Argentina for a year. The other family (a writer and a psychologist) moved to Costa Rica for six months. In the months leading up to their takeoff dates, 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. I traveled around to different schools all around town to sing and lead games and crafts in Spanish.
So this is not foreign 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.