On bilingual babies

Though the story is that I was a bilingual child, more accurately I was a unilingual Spanish speaker until the age of four when I learned English in a month in preparation for preschool. Thirty-ish years later, I understand Spanish pretty well and don’t struggle to conjugate verbs (the bane of any Spanish learner) but my vocabulary is very limited.

My husband and I have talked about making sure that Javi learns Spanish as a child, but we haven’t done much about it other than spend a few mornings speaking only Spanish to each other – certainly not enough.

Last week I read this in the New York Times:

But in recent years, scientists have begun to show that the advantages of bilingualism are even more fundamental than being able to converse with a wider range of people. Being bilingual, it turns out, makes you smarter. It can have a profound effect on your brain, improving cognitive skills not related to language and even shielding against dementia in old age.

The article goes on to say that although a second language does present some “interference,” a benefit is created as the brain learns to negotiate multiple language systems.

I’m not sure I’ve made this clear before, but I’m very hesitant to embrace anything claiming to help make my child smarter. I think intelligence is a combination of good genes and an environment that fosters interaction, problem-solving, and an exposure to/ love of learning, none of which can be bought for a low, low price. I also think so-called educational toys and systems allow parents to feel like they’re doing their part without taking the time to really interact with and teach their kids; the temptation to have a break while your child “teaches himself” to read/ talk/ whatever is too great. It’s hard to disconnect and really pay attention to a child – and an infant! – but I’ve noticed the immediate reduction in fussiness and whining in my son when I put all the electronics down and just play.

Okay, soapbox aside (and for the record, it was directed at the products, not the parents), I try not to do things with the goal of a smarter child. In this case, though, we’ve wanted our son to learn Spanish to save him from the frustration of learning Spanish via classes and memorized rules. Like me, we want him to grasp the concepts from practice and exposure.

So, I guess it’s time to stop chickening out and figure out how to make this a reality. I’m hesitant to embrace One Parent One Language since Spanish would obviously be mine and I’m far, far less articulate in Spanish than English. Is my son better off hearing more words and more complicated sentence structures in one language or both more simply in two? Should we try to embrace an all-Spanish-all-the-time household? With our local extended and day care family not knowing Spanish, is that realistic?

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