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!

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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!