My 5-year-old son Mauro is a vibrant, joyful, and active child. Did I mention he is also bilingual? Absolutely. I am often amazed at how he has adopted Spanish as his primary language. It is the language of his mind, the language of his mouth, and the language of his heart. Certainly much more than his 8-year old sister, Martha, who I often find myself telling: “En Español! Si no me hablas en Español, no te entiendo (Speak Spanish, if you don’t speak Spanish, I can’t understand you).” But to Mauro, Spanish comes effortlessly.
Both children attended English-language pre-school. Both have grown up in an all-Spanish household. The problem is that Mauro’s teachers have brought to our attention a number of classroom challenges he is facing: difficulty memorizing letters and numbers, frustration, and most recently, behavior issues. I don’t remember kindergarten being as academically intense as it is today when I attended. Obviously times have changed. The fact is these challenges are putting him behind.
Now my husband and I wonder, is it possible that raising Mauro in an all-Spanish household has affected him adversely? Should we have spoken to him at least partially in English? As immigrant parents of American children, my husband and I decided long ago on a “Spanish at home” policy. We made this decision not only because we value and celebrate bi-culturalism, but as my husband says “Te imaginas que no pudieran comunicarse con sus primos o abuelos? (Can you imagine if they couldn’t speak to their grandparents?)” In fact, we have no doubt that being bilingual will be an advantage to Mauro and his sister in the long run. But for now we wonder, did we hurt more than we helped Mauro’s early academic development?
“Spanish being his primary language is definitely a factor,” his teacher said. “But Mauro’s language is not broken,” she reassured me as we pondered if his inability to retain certain concepts stemmed from language, behavior or downright, unwillingness to grow up. Having watched plenty of medical dramas, I pictured parts of Mauro’s brain in a scanner being lit up when he switched from English to Spanish. Yet, one thing is the imagination of a mother, another one is fact.
A recent study titled “Bilingual Effects in the Brain” by the National Institutes of Health indicates “bilingual children tend to learn English words and grammar more slowly than those who speak only English.” But according to Ellen Bialystok, a Canadian psychologist and Distinguished Research Professor of Psychology at YorkUniversity, bilingual children have the ability to hold in their brain the knowledge of two languages and switch between one and the other at will. In fact, her research indicates that being bilingual is a kind of very active gym exercise for the brain.
So, could it be that, since his brain is fluttering with activity, Mauro is taking more time to digest academic concepts? We don’t know for sure. But we do know two things: That we will put our all to find the right doctors who can help him and that, unless we are doing homework, we will not stop speaking Spanish at home. “A ver, ahora dimelo en Español…? (Okay, now say it in Spanish..)”
Former journalist, NBC Latino Contributor and current CEO and President of Deschamps Communications, a public relations and media consulting firm in Texas, Claudia Deschamps is also the mother of two small children.