I guess “Amigo” has been around a little more than a year now. It started one day as a game when I drew some eyes and a mouth on my hand and gave the little guy a name and a voice. At first, Bilingual Baby spoke English to him, and Amigo turned to look at me, puzzled. I had to whisper to Bilingual Baby that Amigo didn’t understand English, only Spanish. They talked and laughed that day and I thought that would be it. But the next day she asked for Amigo again. And then the next day, and the next.
He’s been the kind of friend that has come in and out of her life. Some weeks she asks for him every day, and sometimes she goes so long without him I think for sure she’s forgotten him, until something reminds her. I rarely bring him out on my own because he’s kind of annoying. We joke, in fact, that sometimes he’s not available because, as we all know, Amigo is attached to mama’s arm and has to help her drive, or cook, or put away groceries, or hold her book while she’s reading.
But I am grateful for Amigo because Bilingual Baby speaks her very best Spanish to him. With me she breaks in and out of English, but with Amigo she doesn’t have that luxury —he truly doesn’t understand English. If she can’t say something, she will talk around it in clever ways; sometimes she turns away from her pretend friend and asks me to translate a word for her. I try to tolerate Amigo for as long as I can when he comes to visit because his conversations with Bilingual Baby are so valuable. They are just so good for her Spanish, for reinforcing her active bilingualism and speaking fluency.
These clips are from about nine months ago, when Amigo was newer. Bilingual Baby was a little over three and a half.
In this short clip, extracted from a conversation, she’s explaining to Amigo how libraries work (he’s sorta dense):
This is the full, seven-minute clip from that conversation for anyone who has the time and interest (hello grandmas):
This summer, after a hiatus, she rediscovered Amigo on a long, boring train ride in Spain. And his presence has been requested nearly every day since. But lately, as my husband describes it, this imaginary play has gotten “meta.” It’s true, the current layers of imaginary play that Amigo and Bilingual Baby are involved in go deep.
Let me explain: Her favorite thing to play right now is “big sister.” When she’s Big Sister she’s eighteen, goes to high school and speaks English. I’m the mom (Yes!), and often her dad is the baby (Haha, loser). Obviously I don’t really enjoy this game because it’s in English, and my husband doesn’t enjoy the game because, well, he has to be the baby. Eventually, Bilingual Baby got tired of us sighing heavily whenever she asked us to play, so she finally asked Amigo if he wanted to pretend to be the baby brother.
And just like that, the game is in Spanish and Daddy doesn’t have to play at all. Big Sister is now Hermana Grande, and my hand, who is imaginary Amigo, also takes on the roll of imaginary Bebé. So now I have two voices and personalities that sometimes break character, like when Amigo himself gets tired of always having to be the baby and feels like Bilingual Baby never wants to play with him any more.
The other day Bilingual Baby said abruptly, “Para el juego (Stop the game).” OK, game paused. I thought she was going to ask me to help her out with a word in Spanish or ask me when dinner was going to be ready. But when I said, “¿Qué pasa?” she gave me a stern look and replied, “Estaba hablando con Amigo (I was talking to Amigo).” Jeez. She was asking Amigo to stop pretending to be Bebé for just a second so she could talk to him.
“Amigo?” she said, looking at my hand.
“¿Si?” replied Amigo in the Amigo voice.
“¿Puedes hacer que Bebé no sabe decir ‘hermana grande’? Que diga ‘hemana gande.’ Asi, ¿OK?
She was asking Amigo to do better at pretending to be a baby, instructing him on how to mispronounce “big sister,” exactly the way Bebé would say it.
“Ah, OK. Claro, porque Bebé es un bebé y no sabe hablar bien.”
And then everyone went back to their roles. As directed, Bebé was trying to say “hermana” but not quite getting it, so Hermana Grande began sounding out the word for him, letter by letter, the way she had learned in school: “Eh-rr-m-ah-n-ah.” It took three tries, but Bebé finally got it. And Hermana Grande was so proud of Bebé (and of herself for being such a good teacher). It was real pride. She knows it’s all play, but the feelings and love are real.
More and more, this is the dynamic between Hermana Grande and Bebé. Bebé will do or say something infantile, and Bilingual Baby as Hermana Grande will help her see that if she doesn’t take a nap, she’ll be grumpy. Or, if she doesn’t eat her dinner, she won’t grow.
In this clip we check in with Amigo to make sure he likes pretending to be Bebé. Also, Bebé accidentally says something in English, and we talk about the importance of speaking Spanish:
In this clip Hermana Grande teaches Bebé how to say the word “Casa” sound by sound. Sorry in advance for the annoying Amigo voice:
Finally, Hermana Grande breaks the news to Bebé that it’s time for her to go to her dance class. Bebé isn’t happy, but Hermana Grande comforts her:
I hear myself in my daughter when she’s patiently explaining to Bebé why she sometimes has to do things she doesn’t want to do, like share. “Nadie va querer jugar contigo si nunca quieres compartir tus jugeutes, Bebé (Nobody will want to play with you if you don’t share your toys, Baby).” It’s sort of fascinating to hear the messages I’ve been telling her for so many years synthesized and reproduced from her little mouth as she takes on this big-girl role.
And another thought, of course, comes through my mind as she plays with this role day in and day out. I hope that it’s in the cards for her to be a big sister for real one day. We clearly won’t have to do it all by ourselves: we would have help from “Hermana Grande” with both Spanish and life lessons.
For now, Amigo tolerates Bebé because it keeps Bilingual Baby from forgetting about him, and I tolerate Amigo because it keeps Bilingual Baby from forgetting her Spanish.