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)

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.

Unrooted Childhoods: Sara Mansfield Taber

The first section in the book Unrooted Childhoods contains essays from people who would describe their global upbringing as mostly enriching. They have positive memories of growing up abroad. Sara Mansfield Taber’s essay “Rain Light” recounts the 5 years of her childhood she spent in Holland as the daughter of an American diplomat. I loved her rich descriptions of the Dutch countryside. It was obvious from reading her essay that she became very attached to Holland, the Dutch culture, and the Dutch language. Her love for the traditional wooden shoes and her determination to become good at wearing them became a sort of symbol of her attachment to and affection for her new home. I can relate well to being very attached to a specific place, as this is how I feel about Kenya, having spent my entire childhood there. However, it is not something I give myself permission to dwell on too often or too long as it can lead to a profound sense of loss.

Sara describes how, in the first few weeks after moving to Holland, she had trouble falling asleep at night until her parents had checked her room (sometimes several times) for kidnappers. She writes, “It was as though my body remembered, even if my mind did not, that change, though rhythmic and regular, is still a ransacking and a threat (p.31).” This is probably one of the most accurate descriptions of change, at least for someone of my temperament, I have ever read!

She also tells about her first few difficult weeks at a new school, how she “stood at the edge of the blacktop, pretending to be interested in my fingers and swallowing tears. Then, and many times thereafter, it seemed to me that my whole life had consisted just of this: standing at the edge of the blacktop, swallowing tears (p. 31-32).” My heart just sort of hurt when I read this because — I get it. I so get it. I get the wanting to fit in, but being hesitant to take the initiative for the paralyzing fear of saying or doing the wrong thing. I get the acting aloof and pretending indifference, and all the while aching to just belong. I’ve been there, many times, and it is so not easy.

Sara took Dutch classes in her first year of school in Holland and developed a real affinity for the language. However, the following year, despite her desire to continue with Dutch, she switched to taking the school’s required French classes. She writes, “With that… I was left with a little lump of feeling, which has remained in my belly ever since, that, somehow, an important chapter of my life had gone unfinished, a self left off, half-begun.” Um, yeah. I can relate to this on so many levels… on learning Portuguese only to not use it or remember it… on working towards Angola for 4 years only to not go at the last minute. I feel like these “unfinished chapters” have left me in a state of arrested development. Like everything that’s happening right now is just a sort of interlude. I know in my head that it’s not, and I’ll never be able to go back and finish those chapters now, but getting my heart to recognize that is another matter entirely.

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!

Two Weeks Later

I’m back. I think. Honestly, I suppose only time will tell.

The last two weeks have been busy. We had a field trip with our homeschool group. Alex had a school festival. We had overnight guests for nearly a week and spent several days taking them to see the sights. We had a group of folks from church over for dinner one night. We had Date Night. We went to my niece’s birthday party. In addition to all that, we have been continuing with our Spanish studies. We committed the months of April and May to focus on formal study (3 hours per day, 4 days per week) because once summer hits with all the short-term groups coming, we will not be able to devote as much time to that. And I have been focused on research curriculum and planning for our next year of homeschooling, so much of my computer time in the evenings has been given over to that, leaving me little in the way of time or functioning brain cells for writing.

This blog is never far from my thoughts, though. I “think” things to write all the time. If only there was a way to actually translate that thinking into a blog post while I was thinking it! On the other hand, maybe that wouldn’t be very pretty! Writing helps me take my muddled thoughts, organize them, and then present them in a way that is (hopefully) clear and understandable to others. And in the process, I come to a better understanding of myself as well.

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.