When the First Language Becomes the Second Language

No, this is not a post about how I am afraid that Alex is starting to forget English now that he is immersed in Spanish at school three days a week. It is a post about how children subconsciously alter the way they speak their first language when they are in their second language environment.

All the kids at Hansei learn English as a foreign language, starting in pre-K. (I believe Korean is also an option when they get older.) Today, we attended an English open house at Hansei. All the kids participated — the younger grades sang songs, while the older grades put on plays and did poetry readings. Alex’s Kindergarten class sang several songs, like “There Was a Farmer Had a Dog,” “The Wheels on the Bus,” and “The Hokey Pokey,” complete with actions and motions. At first, Rusty and I noticed that the other kids were looking to Alex, rather than their teacher, to know what to do. Which I guess is probably normal, as he is not only a full year older, but also a native English speaker.

But then, we realized that he had adopted a very Latino accent in the way he was pronouncing certain words like “little” (LEE-tell), and “goodbye” (GUDE-bai). I was thoroughly amused by this, and it reminded me of a similar time in my own life when I spoke English with a perfect Kenyan accent…

When I was in first grade, I was chosen to recite a poem for an end-of-the-year program at my school, Victoria Primary School, in Kisumu, Kenya. I practiced my poem at home for weeks in my normal accent (and to this day, I still remember the first verse of it by heart), but when the time came for me to stand up and recite, I did it like a Kenyan. My mom says if she had closed her eyes, she would never have known it was her own daughter standing up there. Of course, my parents were in fits of laughter, and trying to hide their faces behind the people in front of them so I wouldn’t see and become flustered. I was blissfully unaware of all of this. I finished reciting my poem and left the stage.

Later, on the way home, my mom asked me to recite my poem again. I obliged, of course in my American accent. She said, “No, I want you to recite it like you did at the school.”

I was confused. “That is how I recited it at the school,” I said. I had absolutely NO IDEA what I had done or why the fact that I had used a Kenyan accent in a situation that OBVIOUSLY called for it was so very funny to my parents. Years later, of course, I can see the humor in it, and that is partly what made hearing Alex do a similar thing so funny today.

One of the great benefits of growing up a TCK is the exposure to other languages. And, additionally, the exposure to other ways of speaking a language (other accents, different words for the same thing, etc.). I find that I am a sort of chameleon when it comes to accents. Leave me in a certain place long enough, and I will start to adopt the local accent. In the South, I start to drawl and say words like “ya’ll,” and up North, I order “pop” and speak through my nose. But I do find that I can more readily understand different accents than a person who has spent their entire life in one geographic location. And I’m better able to understand ESL speakers with heavy accents.

It seems that Alex, for his part, is well on his way to becoming an “accent chameleon” like his mother!

photo(3)

Answers to the ADHD Question

It is always nice to have your opinions about your child validated by an objective professional. I was happy to comply with Hansei’s request that we have Alex tested, but I seriously doubted that he really did have ADHD. He is distractible and full of energy and hard to handle sometimes, but ADHD? At the same time, though, I wondered — did his behavior just seem normal to me because I’m his mother and that’s how he’s always been? So I am grateful to have a definitive answer to the ADHD question.

And the answer is that while he does exhibit some tendencies of ADHD, they are mild, and do not require medication. The possibility that behavior-altering medication would be recommended or prescribed was probably my main concern. I would have been willing to try almost anything else, including a strict diet, before going there. I am not against medication, and I do believe that ADHD is a true disorder and there are instances where medication is necessary and helpful. I guess what I have a problem with is the suggestion that I should medicate my child just because it makes life easier for his teachers.

We spent some time discussing possible “accommodations” to make learning easier for Alex — things like sitting in front of the class where there are less distractions, giving his hands something to do while he is listening (squishy balls), and allowing him to move around to expel energy. I have the results in both English (for my own records) and Spanish (to give to the school), which is nice.

Alex also took the WISC intelligence test, and came out on the “high average” end. He actually scored higher on the 2 components that are more inborn, and lower on the 2 components that are learned skills, which the counselor said is totally normal for a kid his age. In her words, “He’s very smart, and he’s only going to get smarter.” I wonder if this might explain some of his behavioral problems? Kids do tend to act out more when they are bored.

One thing the counselor asked Alex to do during the testing was draw a picture of his family. These drawings are then analyzed (kind of like dream analysis, which I have never put much stock in). Anyway, here is what Alex drew:

alex family

 

And the first thing you notice about the picture is that all the legs are super long — actually, Alex and Stephen are more proportional, but Rusty and I have unnaturally long legs. Anyway, according to the experts, children who draw really long legs are trying to tell you they need more stability in their lives.

Interesting, no? I like to think that Alex is saying, in his limited, 7-year old way, “Enough already!” If you know anything about our journey the past 7 years, since Alex was born, you know that we have basically been through one transition after another. It always seemed to me that Alex took it all in stride, but I have also wondered often over the past several years if there would be emotional and behavioral repercussions to all our moving around and changing course mid-stream. This drawing gives me at least an inkling of the answer to that question and helps me recognize that providing stability and security is of utmost importance to our children’s health and development over the next few years.

Recap of the Past 2 Weeks

It feels like a million years since I last wrote. But it’s really been only two weeks. Here are a few of the highlights:

  • We finally got to meet with the counselor at Alliance to go over the results of the ADHD and intelligence tests that Alex took. This is really worth a post in and of itself, but in summary, while he does have mild tendencies toward ADHD, it was not anything the counselor felt warranted further testing or medication.
  • We went to see “Star Trek Into Darkness,” and it totally rocked! Best movie I have seen in a long time — I absolutely love what they have done with the series reboot! We had to settle for the 3D version, which I usually try to avoid because it makes me sick to my stomach; however, this time, I barely noticed after awhile. The technology must be getting better.
  • Neill and Julie stayed with us for over a week, and we thoroughly enjoyed their company. We took them up to Papallacta one day to soak in the hot springs, and Neill helped Rusty do some work on our Land Rover. They headed off to Columbia, their next stop on their round-the world venture, last Monday.
  • We had our friends the Yorks over for one last meal and round of Dominion before they headed back to the U.S. and their new life there. We will sure miss them!
  • We celebrated our 14th anniversary with a two-night stay at the Black Sheep Inn, in a truly lovely part of Ecuador near the stunning Quilotoa Crater Lake. Also worth it’s own blog post. The kids stayed with Josh and Julie and had so much fun they didn’t want to leave! Stephen actually started crying when we pulled up to the house to pick them up, and it wasn’t because he missed us.

Okay, so that was all just the first week. Last week, we finished a 2-month stint of focused language classes. After all the craziness of the past several weeks, I am honestly looking forward to taking a break from Spanish studies for awhile. It was all I could do to get through that last week, and now that it’s over, I want nothing more than to just curl up in my bed and hibernate away from the world for at least a week with my Robert Jordan book (now on #3, with 11 to go). But, well, I’ve got these 3 kids that need to be fed and clothed and educated. And Rusty left on Sunday for the jungle and the first medical mission of the summer, so it’s all on me for the next few days.

I’m hopeful that as life slows down some over the next several weeks, I’ll have more time to devote to writing and some other projects. I’m actually going to be guest-posting on 2 other blogs in the next couple of months! I’ll be sure to link those up here once they go live.

És Así Cómo… (My First Post in Spanish)

One thing our language teacher has asked me to start doing is writing blog posts in Spanish. I balked at this at first because I just don’t feel very articulate in Spanish yet. At the same time, when I read or write in another language, I usually feel at least a little smarter than when I am trying to listen or speak. And when you’re learning another language, you need all the confidence boosters you can get! So, I’ve decided to give it a try, and you can expect to see me posting in Spanish every so often. Don’t worry, Mom — I’ll provide the English translation as well!

This first post is an adaptation of something I wrote 3 years ago for Portuguese class. It’s , kind of fun to compare it to the original, so click here if you would like to read it (you have to scroll down to the third section).

És Así Cómo Se Pierde Lentamente la Chaveta (This is How One Slowly Loses Her Mind)

  1. Se casa, y después de dos meses, se muda a Japon trabajar. (Get married, and after 2 months, move to Japan to work.)
  2. Se regresa a su propio país, y se trabaja mucho para ayudar a que su esposo termine sus estudios de posgrado. (Return to your own country and work a lot to help your husband finish his master’s degree.)
  3. Se pasa un año cuidando a su suegra moribunda, y después de su muerte, limpiando su desastre de casa. (Spend one year taking care of your dying mother-in-law, and after her death, cleaning her disaster of a house.)
  4. Se es pobre y desempleado ye sin casa y sin seguro de salud por muchos meses. (Be poor and unemployed and homeless and without health insurance for many months.)
  5. Se tiene tres niños en tres continentes diferentes. (Have 3 children on 3 different continents.)
  6. Se pasa cuatro años preparandose con un equipo para ser misionera en África. (Spend 4 years preparing yourself with a team to be a missionary in Africa.)
  7. Se muda a otro país (otra vez) y se estudia otra lengua por casi dos años, en preparación para la vida y el ministério en África. (Move to another country (once again) and study another language for almost 2 years, in preparation for life and ministry in Africa.)
  8. Al último minuto, se cambia de opinión; no se va a África. En vez de África, se va a América del Sur. (At the last minute, change your mind; don’t go to Africa. Instead of Africa, go to South America.)
  9. Se trata de aprender otra lengua, porque claro la última no se habla en el nuevo país. (Try to learn another language, because of course the last one isn’t spoken in the new country.)
  10. Finalmente, se ingresa al hospicio! (Finally, check yourself into the nut-house!)

And now you know why I’ve got issues!

What I Like Best

Today, Alex and I met with the school counselor at Alliance Academy International, the Christian missionary school here in Quito. When Hansei first asked us to consider having Alex tested for ADD/ADHD, the main challenge was finding somewhere that would do the testing in English. My sister (who works part-time at Alliance) made some inquiries, and they graciously agreed to allow him to be tested there, even though he is not one of their students. We were there about 2 hours, but I was not in the room while the counselor was administering the tests, so until we have our follow-up appointment in two weeks, I won’t really have any answers. But my initial impression, just from the few words I exchanged with her after the tests, is that he performed well, but had a hard time concentrating and staying focused. Which is fairly consistent with what I have observed and experienced as his mother/teacher.

While Alex was doing his tests, I was given a bunch of forms to fill out in the lobby. Forms that ask questions about your child’s behavior, academic performance, social skills, etc. Most were answered simply by circling a number, but there was one that had a few open-ended questions with lines for writing your response. About halfway into this form, I encountered the question, “What concerns you most about your child?” followed by, “What do you like best about your child?” That second question brought me up short because I wasn’t expecting it, given the context. I mean, wasn’t I there because of my child’s problems, whatever those are perceived or determined to be? I wasn’t there to talk about his good characteristics or skills; I was there to get some answers for how to deal with those things society deems unacceptable!

And then I realized, I have been so focused on problematic behaviors over the last several weeks — ever since he started attending Hansei — that I have failed to recognize all the things about Alex that are wonderful and special and endearing. I have allowed the notes being sent home by his teachers describing the ways he is acting out to stress me out to the point where I am struggling to see and praise him for the things he is doing well. Several hours later, as I sit here reflecting on the events of the day, I am so grateful for that question! I’m grateful because it forced me to stop thinking about all the things that are “wrong” with my child and look, really look, for all that’s right and good, unique and precious. I’m a perfectionist, as I’ve mentioned before, and I think I’ve realized that I need to be careful not to let my perfectionism extend to my children, holding them to an unattainable standard and causing them endless frustration in the process.

Here, then, is my answer to the question of “what I like best about my child.” I tried to remember everything I wrote down on the questionnaire. I have also added a few additional thoughts and explanations:

  • He is smart and inquisitive. He knew all the capital letters of the alphabet by the time he was 2; he’s learned not one but 2 foreign languages well enough to communicate with other kids his age (and he’s only 7!); he has an amazing memory and vocabulary; and he soaks up knowledge and information like a sponge. He figures things out so quickly, sometimes it is hard to keep one step ahead of him!
  • He is tender-hearted and compassionate — when he wants to be. He generally plays well and is careful with children who are younger and smaller than him (he has been used to being “bigger” and “older” most of his life). He loves giving gifts, and he is very affectionate. Already, at 7 years old, he understands that there are many poor and disadvantaged people in the world and that he has a responsibility as a person of privilege, to do what he can to help them.  For his sixth birthday, he agreed to collect money for needy children instead of receive presents of his own, and every time he goes out to Kumanii, he takes a backpack filled with little toys to give away to the children he meets on the river.
  • He is outgoing, friendly, and social. He makes new friends easily and loves to be around people. (He gets all this from his father, I know, because this is not my way AT ALL!)
  • He leaps into new situations with confidence and enthusiasm. He is not usually fearful or timid — in fact, sometimes, I wish he was just slightly more cautious so he wasn’t getting hurt so often! He tries new foods without complaining and has a pretty varied palate for a 7-year old (he likes snails, green tea, and Indian curry, for example). We have traveled the world with him since he was a tiny baby, moved many times, enrolled him in school in 2 foreign countries now, and he just takes it all in stride. He handles change better than many adults I know, including myself!

Perspective is so important, and I’m thankful to have regained a little of it today. No matter what happens in 2 weeks, no matter what the results show, no matter how we decide to proceed, I want my son to know that he is “fearfully and wonderfully made” (Psalm 139:14), and that I am so very proud of him, so grateful that he is a part of our family, and so blessed to be his mama!

Discouraged

Ever have one of those days where everything just seems to hit you all at once? That’s what Thursday was for me.

First, I was stressed over what was happening with Alex at his new school. Apparently, he made life pretty miserable for his teacher last week, leading the school to question if the class they had put him in was the best one for him. He came home on Wednesday with two notes written in his school notebook, one from the 2nd grade teacher, explaining some of his behaviors and why he wasn’t going to be in her class anymore… and the other from his new teacher, the Kindergarten teacher. Ummm, okay, so 2nd grade wasn’t working out, so they decided to move him back two grades? As it turns out, when Rusty went in to talk to them, they told him they felt like 1st grade was too full, and there were already 4 kids in 1st grade with special needs or learning problems or something, so they didn’t want to add Alex into that mix.

I’m really fine with Alex being in the Kindergarten class. As I said before, I’m more in favor of holding kids back than pushing them ahead, especially in the beginning. I just wish the school had explained to us the situation from the beginning (the correct class for his age was full) and let us decide whether we wanted him to be a grade ahead or behind so we could have avoided this mess. To me, it’s not really important what grade he is in — he is there to learn Spanish and for the social interaction. Academically, he is way ahead of the other students in Kindergarten, so I will probably have to send stuff from home for him to do so he doesn’t finish early, get bored, and cause problems for the teacher and the other students.

I’m mostly frustrated because I feel like Alex has already earned himself the reputation there as being a problem child. The school has asked us to have a neurological and psychological evaluation done on him. They suggested he might have ADD or ADHD. I’m not denying that might be a possibility (although I do think that high-energy boys are often falsely labeled such), but I do feel like they are being awfully quick to start requesting testing when he hasn’t even had a chance to adjust to this new environment. After all, he hasn’t been in a formal school environment for a year and a half, he’s immersed in a new language that he can’t yet communicate well in, and he was put in the grade ahead of where he should be. And they’re surprised when he has trouble adapting?! I’m not excusing some of his behavior (much of it was totally unacceptable, whether or not he can communicate well, and we had some pretty serious talks about it on Wednesday night), but I do think that once he adjusts and knows the routine, the expectations, the rules, and above all how to communicate his needs and problems, the acting out will diminish.

So, I was feeling anxious about all that, and then Rusty started telling me about the meeting he had with Kent and Josh the day before where apparently it came out that there had been some criticism as to his performance leveled at him by some folks on the medical campaign. I think it is interesting how people can come on these week-long campaigns, people who don’t even know you or have a vested interest in you or your ministry (i.e. they are not personal supporters or from a supporting church), see one aspect of what you do, and then feel like that somehow gives them the knowledge and the authority to critique you personally or how you are doing your job! Are missionaries the only ones who deal with this, or does this happen in other professions? I am sincerely asking — this is not a rhetorical question! I have been thinking about it all day, wondering if this happens to other people in other jobs. We don’t claim to be perfect, we still have much to learn (we haven’t even been here a year for goodness’ sake!), we make mistakes and bungle things up daily and probably will continue to do so for years to come! I guess it would just be nice if people would take the time to know us and understand our unique situation and the team dynamics we are working with here in Ecuador before being so free to offer up their criticisms.

I probably just need to grow a thicker skin. There will always be critics. I know this.

Also, Rusty left on Thursday for a weekend trip to Kumanii. We went to the bank to take out some money before we left — he needed cash for the trip, and I needed to pay the ladies who help me around the house. And none of our cards would work in the ATM — we tried his bank card and mine, as well as a credit card from a different bank and could not get money out with any of them. Which probably signifies a problem on the Ecuadorian bank’s end, or a problem with all international cards. Still, it was frustrating. And on the way out of town, Rusty called to inform me that he’d been pulled over for “speeding” (going 2 km. per hour above the speed limit) and given a $90 ticket. Really, Ecuador? Really?!

Sometimes, it’s the compilation of little daily annoyances on top of all the major stresses of living in a foreign country (learning to speak a new language and adapting to a new culture for instance) that just make that first year or two abroad so difficult. And sometimes, it just seems to come at you all at once, like waves relentlessly crashing over you, making it hard to catch your breath. After Thursday, I was grateful for a peaceful weekend at home, for crackling fires in the fireplace each night, for “Downton Abbey” with my sister last night, for a long nap this afternoon.

And I’m looking forward to our family vacation at the beach next week!

The First Day

This morning, Rusty took Alex to Hansei for his first day of school. (Going forward, he will ride a “bus,” really a van, that will come to our house to pick him up, but they asked us to bring him ourselves this first day.) He was sooooo excited. He was up at 6:30 — he got dressed and made his bed without being asked and without waking his brother up, then came downstairs and got his own bowl of cereal. I could get used to this — wonder how long it will continue?

When they got to school, the director wanted to do a basic evaluation of Alex to verify that they were placing him in the correct grade level. We had told them yesterday that he should be in “segundo de basico,” which is the equivalent of 1st grade in the Sates, and they agreed that based on his age, that is where he should be. However, after the evaluation, they informed Rusty that they were going to put him in “tercero de basico,” (2nd grade)!

Honestly, I was a bit perturbed when Rusty called later in the day and told me about it. Of course, every mother thinks her child is smart and gifted, and it’s nice to have your opinions verified by an objective professional… but really? 2nd grade? He’s only turning 7 next week! Age-wise, he’s a year or more younger than most of the other kids in his class. Because he’s so tall, he looks like he belongs, but is he ready academically for 2nd-grade level stuff? Especially in another language?

The director assured Rusty that Alex will be fine, but I really think their decision had more to do with the fact that the first grade class was already very full, whereas the second grade class has only 6 other students (all boys). So, in some ways, I can see the wisdom of the decision — Alex will be much more likely to receive personal attention and individualized instruction in a class with fewer students.

However, I’ve always been of the opinion that it’s better to hold kids (especially boys) back in the beginning rather than push them ahead. Then again, Alex is not really at Hansei so much for the academics as he is to learn Spanish. I do wonder what the results would be if we had him tested in the States. Would he test at a 2nd-grade level? I’m not a professional teacher, but I’m pretty sure he’s not yet reading at a 2nd-grade level, although he is improving rapidly.

We’ll give it a few weeks and see how it goes. In the meantime, is it safe for me to say I’m the mother of a gifted child?

A New School for Alex

Sometimes, change is a long time in coming, giving you lots of time to prepare. But other times, it happens so fast and with so little warning that it leaves your head spinning. This is one of those times. I can hardly believe it myself, but Alex is going to be attending Hansei International Christian Academy for three days a week, starting tomorrow!

Here’s the short version of how it all happened: Last Friday afternoon, we attended a Valentine’s Party for the kids in our homeschooling group. While there, I was talking to a couple of the other moms who have recently enrolled their kids at Hansei part-time. Today, Rusty called the school; we went in and met with the director; and tomorrow will be Alex’s first day! If you know much about me, you probably know that I typically don’t deal with change all that well. I wanted to wait until at least next week to start, to give myself time to adjust mentally to this. But Alex practically begged to start the very next day — he has no fear and leaps into new situations with enthusiasm (he gets that from his father!). So tomorrow it is!

Here’s a little more background: For some time now, we have been thinking that it would be a good idea to enroll Alex in a local Ecuadorian school. We had a very positive experience with both the schools he attended in Portugal, and it really helped with his language acquisition. We knew we needed something similar here if he is going to learn Spanish well (and our window for him to learn a new language quickly and naturally is quickly closing). However, we were only interested in part-time because we intend to continue home-schooling as well. And we were growing very discouraged, because the more we talked to people, the more we realized that most Ecuadorian schools would probably not let us send him only part-time. (Home-schooling is practically unheard of here, therefore, most schools are not very “home-school friendly.”)

However, Hansei happens to have a director who lived and worked in Canada for many years, knows all about home-schooling, and is very amenable to the idea of Alex attending Hansei part-time in order to learn Spanish, and continuing with his English studies at home! How awesome is that? Additionally, the school is a Christian (not Catholic) school — actually founded by Korean missionaries (hence the name). It is fairly close to our house. And Alex already has a couple of friends who are going there, which should make his transition a little easier.

So, even though this all happened so fast, we can really see the hand of God at work in all the details. Praise Him! Alex will attend Hansei Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays, and continue homeschooling activities with me on Mondays and Fridays. Please say a prayer for him as he sets off on this new adventure tomorrow!

Back to the (Language Learning) Grind

Today was my first Spanish class since before Christmas. Our teacher normally comes four days a week, for two-hour lessons. We have some class time together, and some individually. Obviously, Rusty can’t participate right now, and probably won’t be able to until at least mid-February, but I asked her to come two days a week just for me right now.

Language learning for me has been a long, sometimes agonizingly slow process, with lots of ups and downs. I feel like I am at the point now with Spanish where I have achieved a sort of “false fluency.” In other words, it’s easy for me to fool others who don’t speak Spanish at all into thinking that I speak very well. I can also, so long as I don’t speak too much, pass myself off to Ecuadorians as someone who has a good handle on their language. (But if I open my mouth too wide or too long, well, that’s a different story!)

I suppose, in comparison to a person who can’t have even the most basic of conversations, I am fluent. I can make my needs known, understand most of what is said to me and respond appropriately, even translate for non-Spanish speakers if required. But I still have so far to go to achieve the level of fluency I would like to have, the kind that allows me to engage in discussions beyond the weather and one’s family, to make jokes and understand humor, to speak “off the cuff,” to teach others the things of God. Basically, to use the Spanish language in the way I use English, articulately and gracefully, not like the bumbling idiot I feel like I always make myself out to be every time I open my mouth!

I know this kind of fluency takes time. If I ever get there at all, it will take years. It’s a process, and it really can’t be rushed, no matter how badly I want it right now! Survival Spanish can be learned in a two-week crash course, but to master the language in the way I want? Years of study, practice, slow progress, practice, lots of mistakes, oh, and practice, practice, practice.

Pondering Homeschooling

This week, I have made an attempt to get back into the school routine with Alex after a 3-week break over Christmas and New Year’s. Finding our rhythm with school is something I’m still working on. Having the two little boys around makes it especially challenging. Alex isn’t quite old enough to work independently (and stay focused) for longer than a few minutes at a time, and I can’t exactly leave Stephen and Benjamin unsupervised while I’m teaching.

Yesterday, things worked pretty well and went pretty smoothly, and today — well, today was a total bust.

Most of the time, I really enjoy homeschooling. I do believe it’s the best choice for Alex and for our entire family right now. I love the flexibility that it provides. Next week, all of us will be going out to Kumanii with Rusty. We’ll be gone Tuesday through Friday. A trip like this just wouldn’t be possible if we were locked into a traditional school schedule and calendar. But we can make it work since we homeschool.

Then, there are other times when I wonder just what the heck I’m doing. I worry that my kids aren’t going to get the education that they need because of our decision to homeschool. I wonder if I’m depriving them of important opportunities by not sending them to the Christian school here in Quito. I think that I’m not patient enough, smart enough, organized enough, disciplined enough to make this work.

I’m thankful to be connected to a pretty awesome group of homeschooling families here in Quito who offer advice and encouragement, support and friendship, as we navigate these new waters. Most of them have been successfully teaching their kids at home for many years now, and that gives me hope for myself and my kids. I’m inspired to keep trying, to find what works and what doesn’t, and above all to trust myself and have confidence in my own ability to teach my children.