The “J” of Spanish

Only two more days before Diego returns to school at his Spanish immersion program. During the winter break we’ve kept busy with holiday festivities, and we’ve had fun playing card games, board games and video games. We’ve also continued to practice his Spanish vocabulary whenever we can.

Diego’s Spanish has improved so much since he started the immersion program last year in kindergarten. He is so proud of himself and continues to remind us how, during a Spanish vocabulary drill on a family car ride,  he came up with the word for “pillows” before his 15 year-old sister, Olivia. Olivia,  who is in a high school Spanish II honors class, does not like to be reminded of that moment she was stumped by her 6 year-old brother.

This morning Diego tried to stump me with his own Spanish challenge.

D: “Mommy, what is the word for pencil?”

Me: Lápiz.

D: “Mommy, what is the word for paper?”

Me: Papel.

D: “How do you say “desk?’

Me: “Escritorio.”

D: “Noooo…It’s PUPITRE!!”

Me: “WHAT? Well, there are two ways to say “desk” in Spanish!”

An argument ensued, where I tried to redeem my Spanish fluency  in front of my little linguist. I lost. Diego offered some words of sympathy and encouragement.

“That’s okay Mommy. You can be the “J” of Spanish.”

What is the “J” of Spanish? I thought of all the Spanish vocabulary words which begin with “J” and could possibly mean, “Beginner,” “Novice,” “Loser.” Diego reminded me that we had been playing War with a deck of cards the other day, and he explained:

Daddy is the King. I am his Bodyguard and you are “J.”

“J?” I am only the Jack? Doesn’t a King need a Queen?

Diego tried to offer me more encouragement, “When you learn more Spanish you can be the Queen.”

Hmmp! I only hope that my Spanish will improve and I will be made Queen.  In the meantime, I may just stick to challenging Diego to games of War instead of Spanish vocab challenges.

Spelling Test and a History Lesson

I mentioned before that Diego is in first grade in a Spanish dual immersion program.  There are several different models for dual language immersion education, but in Diego’s school  the students begin in kindergarten with 90%  of the  curriculum taught in Spanish and 10% in English. The ideal student composition is 50% Spanish dominant speakers, and 50% English dominant speakers.  Every year the ratio of  instruction in Spanish to English is reduced. This year Diego is receiving 80% instruction in Spanish and 20% in English.  By 5th grade, with a 50/50 ratio,  the  students should be fully bilingual and biliterate.  

This is the goal, and that is my hope for Diego.  Over the years I have struggled to become bilingual, to no avail. At best, I am conversant.  On the other hand, my husband Juan’s first language was Spanish.  He learned a lot of English watching Sesame Street.  As Diego becomes more fluent, he and Juan have begun speaking more Spanish around the house.  I try to speak Spanish to Diego too, but my accent is terrible.  Juan sometimes will make fun of my Spanish, saying I speak like a spaniard, with a Castillian lisp.  Hmmm.

This morning, I was drilling Diego on his spelling words, in preparation for his weekly spelling test.  I did this by saying the Spanish spelling word, using  it in a Spanish sentence and Diego then would spell it out loud, using the Spanish alphabet.  I took care to speak each word distinctly so he would hear all the syllables of each word.  Sounding the words out this way should have given him a good spelling hint, since Spanish words sound like they are written, unlike the English language, with its words that sound nothing  like they are spelled.  Words like right, neighbor, enough or receive. 

So, as I drilled Diego for his spelling test, I asked him to spell the word sed. It means thirst. He spelled it correctly aloud in Spanish.  Then I got to the word, hacer. It means do or make.  Diego spelled hacer, h-a-s-e-d.  I told him it was wrong and repeated HACER.  I was very careful to speak distinctly, trying to roll my r’s.  Hacerrrrr. Diego started laughing. Then he told me I was saying the word incorrectly. He began mocking me, speaking like a Spaniard with a Castilian lisp, saying hased, hased, making great fun of his mami!  Hmm.

Later, I told Juan about this and he started cracking up. He told me it reminded him of his own childhood, trying to spell in English.  He recalled when he was 6 years-old and was thrown into english-speaking kindergarten even though Spanish was his dominant language.  He remembered his Spanish-speaking mother quizzing him on spelling words, speaking the words aloud in heavily accented English. Juan remembers becoming  so frustrated trying to decipher the English spelling word that he told his mother, “Shakespeare couldn’t teach you English!” Ouch.

Thankfully, Juan has become fully literate in English, however he still relies heavily on spellcheck.  Nevertheless, from now on, Juan will be doing all the spelling drills for Diego, in Spanish.

Monolingual Mommy/Bilingual Baby

 If I could change something about my childhood, it would be that I did not grow up learning Spanish. My grandparents all spoke Spanish.  My father grew up speaking Spanish and is fluent in both English and Spanish. My parents made a conscious decision not to raise me and my siblings speaking Spanish. I believe this was because they wanted us to have a good command of the English language, and my father remembered the stigma that was associated with speaking Spanish in his youth.  I understand their decision and I appreciate them for wanting my  siblings and I to become strong in our English reading and writing skills.

 Still, I wish I was fully bilingual. Not that I haven’t tried to become fluent in Spanish. I took 3 years of high school Spanish, one semester in college, and post-college I attended 2 more years of Spanish evening classes at a community college. In law school I spent a summer living with a Mexican family, studying law in Mexico, and taking Spanish language classes. It’s my great frustration that despite all my efforts I can still only say that I am “conversant” in Spanish.

So, last year when Juan and I learned of a new program launching in our local public school district that would fully immerse the kindergarten through 5th grade students in Spanish, I was very interested. Diego was about to start kindergarten and on track to enroll in the same private catholic school that Nico and Erica attend. Juan and I had to make a decision to send him there or invest in our public school and put faith in this new program. We were on the fence because, honestly, our public school system does not have the best academic reputation, and we liked the small, family community and spiritual development our other kids were getting at their school

The day that we had to make the decision to send our seat deposit in for Diego at the private school, I was in San Francisco, attending a conference about the transitioning Mexican legal system. Prominent Mexican judges and attorneys were lecturing about their legal system, in Spanish. I was only one of a few attorneys who needed the aid of simultaneous translation.  That moment helped me to make the decision that Diego would attend the public school Spanish immersion program.

I have not regretted that decision. He is becoming bilingual and bi-literate. Soon he and Juan, who is a fluent Spanish speaker, will be able to talk about me without me fully comprehending what they are saying. Tonight, I am attending a special screening of the movie “Speaking in Tongues” at Diego’s school.  This film shows the benefits of dual language programs. It’s such an exciting concept.  I encourage anyone who is in the Pasadena area to attend this event.  And if you’re into “Twittering” please give this post a “tweet.”