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.

The Stay Awake Challenge: Week 13

Week 13 is about minding your words. Read the challenge here.

Being mindful and intentional about the words we speak, especially to our children, is so very important, and also so very difficult. At least for me. I’ve had this challenge tucked away in the back of my head for awhile now, but even though I’ve been trying to make more of an effort to “mind my words,” I still find myself slipping up so often.

If you read the challenge (click the link above), you’ll notice that Shawn asks, “When was the last time you said something you wish you hadn’t?” Um… how about tonight at dinner when Stephen spilled an entire cup of milk all over the table and the just-cleaned floor because he was trying to take a drink while we were praying? I won’t lie — I yelled. I was harsh, much too harsh. He cried. I grumbled while mopping up the spilled milk that my soup would be cold by the time I got to eat it.

I yell a lot as a parent. More than I thought I would. More than I want to. I don’t like being a yelling mom, but all serious efforts to kick this habit have been met with epic failure. I’ll commit to not yelling, and I’ll do really well for a day or two, and then all of a sudden, BAM! Something will happen and I’ll lose control and start yelling. Like tonight.

Several months ago, I discovered a blog called The Orange Rhino. The blogger is a mom who challenged herself to go 365 days without yelling at her kids. She is currently on day 482. Wow! I am simultaneously impressed, inspired, and incredulous. Is it really possible to not yell at one’s children AT ALL? Apparently so — this woman at least has done it for well over a year now! And her website is chock-full of helpful advice and tips on curbing yelling — from a real mom with real children (4 boys!), not just some “expert” with a lot of letters after his name.

week13Shifting gears slightly, but still in the vein of minding your words… one of the things I did for Rusty this year for his 40th birthday was compile a “Rusty in 40 Words” list. I tried to use words that really captured the essence of Rusty — who he is, not what he does. It seems a simple exercise, and it is, but it was actually harder to come up with the list than I thought it would be when I began. I had to be selective and mindful (there’s that word again) since I was only allowed 40 words! I’m sharing a photo of the list here as a positive example of what “minding your words” can mean.

The Stay Awake Challenge: Week 12

Week 12 is about making connections. Read the challenge here.

We have had a lot of opportunities for making connections over the last couple of weeks. Two new friends graced our home with their presence for several days at the beginning of May. It was such a pleasure to get to know Trent, who was in Ecuador on a medical campaign, and Shanaal, who is teaching at a university in Guayaquil. This past week, it seems like we have had people into our home practically every night. A group of Christians who wanted to talk about starting a new church plant in the neighborhood on the hill behind our house… one of the Kumanii evangelists and his lovely family… a German missionary friend from southern Ecuador and her two adopted Ecuadorian children. And on Sunday, we are hosting the Operation Ecuador monthly Praise and Potluck, which will include a 40th birthday celebration for Rusty — and hosting more overnight guests!

It’s been fun. But it’s also been exhausting, especially for an introvert like me, who finds being around people all the time to be draining rather than energizing. I may or may not have told Rusty today that if he invited anyone over tomorrow, I would shoot him in the head! I really am thankful for all these connections, these opportunities for deeper friendships, these possibilities for future ministry. But I do need times of silence and solitude in order to process it all and to see these connections as meaningful and important rather than just burdens to be endured.

It struck me today as I was thinking about this week’s Stay Awake Challenge and what I was going to write, that I could learn a lot about making connections from my children. The pictures that I chose to use for this challenge (below) reflect this. My kids make connections so easily and with so few inhibitions. When new people come over, it isn’t long before they are playing and chatting as if they’ve been friends forever. The other night, when Guillermo (the Kumanii evangelist) and his family were here, I watched Alex happily chattering away in Spanish with their two boys and was amazed at how completely open and unselfconscious he was. I so wish I could be more this way. What is it about growing up and becoming an adult that makes us want to put up walls and pull on masks and keep people at arms’ length? Or am I the only one who does this?

week12(3)

Bedtime stories with new friends Shanaal and Trent

week12(2)

New playmates

week12(1)

More playmates

The Stay Awake Challenge: Week 11

Week 11 is about savoring. Read the challenge here.

Savoring the moment is something I try to be fairly intentional about. I am well aware that my life is but a series of fleeting moments that will never come again. My children are growing up before my eyes. Just the other day, Ben decided to give up the bottle; in a few months, it will be time to pack away the cloth diapers and start potty training. The “baby years” may well be behind me soon, and so I have been trying to savor the moments that remain. If I were to be perfectly honest here, I would say that I sometimes feel that our transient life these past seven years robbed me of true enjoyment of my kids’ early years. I mean, it’s hard to “savor the moment” when you’re packing boxes, cleaning, and taking care of the myriad of logistical details that moving around the world requires.

Savoring helps me more fully enjoy and be present in the moment as I’m living it… but it also helps me cement the moment in my memory. It’s a lot like a mental picture of the moment, except it employs all the senses, not just sight.

Two weekends ago, we took some friends who were visiting to Mindo for the day. And what a lovely, enjoyable day it was. There were so many moments to savor throughout the day… the view of the gorgeous countryside out the car window… watching colorful hummingbirds at their feeders just inches away from where I stood and marveling at their delicate beauty and thrumming wings… the taste of a rich, chocolatey brownie and the feel of a warm cup of coffee in my hands… the rush of wind in my face as the cable car raced out over the cloud forest.

But probably my favorite moment was the one that found me perched on a boulder beside a stream, listening to the sound it made as it rushed over its rocky bed, and holding my baby, who was content for once just to nestle into my arms. He is always on the move these days it seems, but for that one moment, he was still. And so was I.

IMG_0143

Hummingbirds

IMG_0153

La Tarabita

IMG_0160

The cloud forest

IMG_0169

Contentment

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!

Four Years Ago Yesterday…

With all the birthday party hullabaloo yesterday, I barely had time to reflect on the fact that it was also Stephen’s fourth birthday. It’s hard to believe he’s 4 now, the same age Alex was when we first moved to Portugal.

If I ever get around to writing my kids’ birth stories, Stephen’s will be short and sweet, very unlike my first labor and delivery experience. 4 hours from when the first contractions woke me in the early morning hours of April 6th to when I was pushing him out on a hospital bed with no one but Rusty and 2 L&D nurses in attendance. We barely made it to the hospital, checking in a mere 12 minutes before Stephen was born; my doctor wasn’t there yet, and the doctor on call didn’t make it to the room in time. She showed up later and gave the nurses a little bit of grief for delivering a baby without her. Whatever, lady. Like they could have stopped me?

And the difference in their birth stories is just the beginning of the differences between Alex and Stephen. Stephen is so different from his older brother in so many ways. Before he was born, I think I understood intellectually that all children are different, have different personalities, different needs, different aptitudes, different interests, but now I understand it based on my experiences these last four years. And yet, despite their differences, there is a bond forming between these two that is precious to see. I love watching them play together, interact together, imagine together, create together. Of course, it’s not rosy all the time — we have plenty of moments when they annoy each other, pester each other, or are downright mean to each other. I hold onto hope as they grow, those moments will decrease, to be replaced by a genuine friendship, like the one I share with my siblings.

My mom reminded me when we Skyped yesterday evening that Stephen was born in the middle of an April snow-storm, a Michigan winter’s last hurrah. We drove to the hospital through slushy streets that had yet to see the plows, and later, I nursed my newborn baby while watching the flakes softly fall outside the window. I’ve been reflecting on that moment today, as I look at my now 4-year old. How he’s changed and grown in the last 4 years! How many changes our family has seen these last 4 years. And how thankful I am that Stephen has been a part of it all.

A Joint Birthday Bash

Whew! It’s been a busy few days. I feel like all I’ve done for the past couple of days is get ready for Alex and Stephen’s birthday party this afternoon. I’m not much of an “event planner.” I love having people over for dinner or a few of the kids’ friends for playdates, but being responsible for a full-blown party with decorations and activities and special food stresses me out. And because Alex and Stephen have birthdays so close together (a little over a month apart), I find myself stressing out around this time of year as I start thinking about planning two birthday parties back to back.

Back in February, I wrote about creative ways to reduce both the stress and the consumerism that seems to accompany kids’ birthday parties. One thing I had never considered at the time was the idea of a joint birthday party. But a few weeks ago, a light bulb sort of went off in my head… and I thought, why not? I can throw myself into it, plan a big shindig, kill two birds with one stone (if you’ll pardon the expression), and then sit back and put my feet up and not worry about it until next year. And at this point in my kids’ young lives, a joint birthday party really does make a lot of sense. They have the same friends; they like the same things. I remember having joint birthday parties with my sister when we were younger. It wasn’t until we were older and going to a bigger school where we had different groups of friends (I was in middle school; she was still in elementary school) that we started asking for separate birthday parties.

So I asked the boys what they thought, and they got really excited about it. Alex had already decided he wanted a Mario Kart party, and Stephen was happy to go along with that, as he has really gotten into Mario Kart lately too. There isn’t a lot available here in Ecuador as far as store-bought decorations and such for a Mario Kart party, but thanks to the Internet and other moms with a lot more creativity than me, I was able to cobble together some ideas for homemade decorations, simple activities and games, and a race-track cake that worked very well for 2. (I will probably post pictures on our family blog at some point, so I won’t repeat all that here.) We invited the cousins, as well as a few families with young kids from our homeschooling group — 10 kids in all, a very manageable group!

Anyway, it was a great party, and the kids had a lot of fun. I, however, am worn out and very glad that I don’t have to turn around and start planning another party. For me, to put on my “event planner” hat is truly a labor of love for my children. Don’t get me wrong — I am happy to do it because I want them to know how special and important they are to me — but since I don’t feel like I am naturally gifted in this area, doing things like this will always create more stress than enjoyment for me.

The Stay Awake Challenge: Week 8

Week 8 is about saying yes. Read the entire post here.

It sure seems like I say “no” an awful lot these days. That probably has to do with the fact that I have an 18-month old who is both insatiably curious about everything around him and a tad aggressive when playing with others. (In his defense, he does have 2 older brothers, so maybe he learned aggression in order to protect himself?) In any case, it seems as though I am constantly saying “no.” It’s wearying.

I would like to say “yes” more. In fact, I would really like it if my kids would just get along with each other all the time, behave like perfect angels, and never do anything they know they shouldn’t, so then I wouldn’t have to say “no.” But that ain’t never gonna happen, so “no” will remain an oft-used and necessary word in my vocabulary! I think most good parents live in the tension of wanting to say “yes” more often, while at the same time recognizing that rules and boundaries (a.k.a. “no’s”) are good for kids and also an expression of our love (although they may not interpret it as such at the time). We want to allow our kids a certain amount of freedom and the ability to make their own choices, without being lax and permissive. Striking that balance is what is so, so difficult.

And then there are the times when I could say “yes,” but don’t because — well, because I’m lazy. I say “no” because I don’t want to be inconvenienced. I don’t want to deal with clean-up, so I say “no” to getting out the play-do or the craft supplies. I don’t want to get myself and 3 kids ready to go out the door, so I say “no” to going to the park. I’m busy with some project of my own, so I say “no” to playing a game. These are the kinds of things I need to say “yes” to more often.

Trying to be more of a “yes mom” is one of my survival strategies for coping with my seasons of single parenting. It really does make things go so much more smoothly. Maybe it’s because I’m more focused on my kids and their needs and wants. I’m not just saying “no” automatically or because it’s the easy thing to do.

The picture I chose for this post is one I took of Alex and Rusty playing some Mario Kart a week ago Friday. It was the morning after Rusty had come home after being gone for a week. Normally, since Friday is a homeschool day, screen time would not be allowed until after he finishes all his school work. But on this morning, he asked so sweetly if he and Stephen could play Mario Kart with Daddy after breakfast, and I said “yes.”

And I was glad I did because I captured this sweet picture while they were playing!

882138_10152685706310553_1131711712_o

The Stay Awake Challenge: Week 6

Week 6 is about embracing the moment. Read the entire post here.

I tucked the words “embrace the moment” into my head before we left for the beach. I was determined to enjoy our time away, determined not to let all the things I was worried and stressed about spoil our few days of vacation. And I really was able to put it all out of my mind for the most part and just enjoy my family.

There were so many little moments to embrace… from boogie boarding with Alex, to splashing in the waves with Stephen to digging in the sand with Benjamin. There were moments of beautiful sunsets, cool ocean breezes, the warm sun on my back, soaking in the hot tub. There was falling asleep to the sound of the surf and reading for hours on end in the afternoons and evenings.

Of course, it’s easy to embrace the moment when you’re on vacation, removed from your daily routine with all its stresses, both major and minor. It’s much more difficult to do this in the midst of problems, annoyances, busy-ness, to-do lists, schedules, and responsibilities. We are back from vacation, back to our routine. I am back to being a single mom for another week while Rusty is off to Kumanii with all the students from the Bible college.

I think what I am starting to realize is that it’s just as important to embrace these daily moments. I’ve gone back and forth on the whole Instagram thing (as if I need one more thing to do), but last night, I decided I was going to give it a go for awhile. I think it will help me start to notice some of the beauty in the ordinary and capture it with a camera phone. I’m going to wait to sign up until after I have my new iPhone set up and activated — hopefully, that will be soon!

Last night, I made cookies with the boys, and when we were done, I let them lick the bowl. They were so excited — to them, that was the best part of making cookies! Ever notice how good kids are at embracing the moment? They sat on the floor with the mixing bowl between them and worked away at it with their spoons, enjoying one of the simple pleasures of childhood. Meanwhile, I embraced a few moments of peace and quiet!

601468_10152671156725553_382407475_n