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Bilingual Language Development

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A travelogue entry about the bilingual language development of a one year and three month old traveling child born to English speaking parents who has so far lived most of her life in Spanish speaking countries.

SAN CRISTOBAL DE LAS CASAS, Mexico- My daughter, Petra, has begun the long journey of language acquisition. She has now been communicating with words for the past three months, but what is coming out of her mouth is not English.

My daughter has seemingly chosen the native language of the people whose countries she has been traveling in for the bulk of her young life than that of her parents. She goes and makes friends and plays with the local kids at every stop that we have made. These kids speak Spanish. Petra does too. Friends are often the best teacher of language, and Petra is learning the lessons that her little friends and people in the street are giving her. Spanish is clearly Petra’s language of choice.

My wife and I have complied: we speak to our daughter in Spanish, too.

Petra learning Spanish with Mexican kids

I have always wondered how a young child learns two languages naively at the same time. Now I have the privilege of watching it happen. Although my daughter understands and speaks more Spanish words, she is also learning English. Some words for things Petra says in Spanish, for others she uses English. Both languages seem to be a part of the same spring of verbal communication for her, and she seems to make little differentiation between the two.

Though Petra is still young — one year and three months — and her language usage is reserved for one word commands for telling us what she wants, greetings, jokes (yes, when my daughter slaps me on the head and says “calvo” it is clear that kids come with a built in sense of humor), or one word repetitions of what she hears other people saying. The process of concurrent bilingual language development is taking place for Petra right now, she is saying new words each day, and learning new word meanings in torrents.

Petra can pick individual, choice, words out of native spoken sentences in both English and Spanish and react accordingly. If someone says something about agua Petra starts yelling for a glass of water: “Agua! Agua!” If someone speaks the name of someone Petra knows, she starts calling out for that person (if she likes them).

Petra speaking Spanish words to Carlos

The other day, I was talking to someone who seemed to doubt the fact that Petra was more efficiently learning Spanish than her parent’s native tongue. So I put my daughter to the test, and I was surprised:

I told Petra in Spanish to make a dinosaur sound, and she growled; I requested her to squeak like a dolphin, and she squeaked; I ask her what a bunny rabbit does, and she scrunched up her nose and sniffed; for a horse, she made a clicking sound with her tongue; for a dog, she said, “woof, woof.” I then asked Petra where her various body parts were in Spanish, and she pointed to her nose, eyes, head, legs, feet, and belly button as requested. I then did the same with her clothing, and I was surprised that she picked up the names of things that were never directly taught to her.

I have been doing these little tests with her with frequency now, as I want to measure her amount of comprehension in each language. I tell her to come to me in Spanish and English, and she comes. She often returns the favor and yells “ven!” back to me and does the Latino hand motion for “come here.” I ask, “Como te llamas?” and she says, “Pitra.”

“Tira la bolsa a mama,” I told may daughter in the middle of a game of catch with a bag full of clothes. Petra then ran to another room and threw the clothes at Chaya. I was not expecting such obedience.

She is listening, she is learning, and she also responds in kind when native Spanish speakers asked her the same simple questions as I have been doing. This is an important point to add, as I speak Spanish like an American, and, although my wife is nearly fluent in the language, she still speaks with a heavy USA English accent. Petra seems to understand simple native Spanish, gringo Spanish, and English as though they were all one and the same language.

Video of Petra following commands in Spanish

Children are equipped to learn, imitate, test new things. I have always found it funny when parents think that their children are superior to all others because they do what they are programed to do. It is never more annoying when someone tries to convince you that they are the worthy possessor of a super kid because their bonehead runt is successfully completing the tasks that have been assigned to them by a million years of evolution. Parents treat their children as extensions of their own egos, and seem to feel as though boasting about their kid will earn them some sort of social regard.

Yes, Dick, your kid throws that ball well with the best of them, maybe he will be a pitcher some day.

Though I must admit that it is amazing to watch a baby go from not being able to do much of anything to following verbal prompts and speaking words in two languages. I have unwittingly found myself sitting upon the throne of a proud parent, I show my daughter off whenever the opportunity arises. I laugh, it is funny shit when a baby is squeaking like a dolphin in the streets, or when she mischievously yelling a cuss word, whose meaning she cannot understand, over and over because it makes her father chuckle. I am especially proud that she is learning how to do this all in Spanish — a language that I have had to put an extreme amount of time and effort into learning for many years.

Petra is sucking up Spanish as her mother tongue, it seems to be coming easy for her. This past week she has really put an added effort into verbal communication. she practices words and repeats them over and over. Good thing that we are in a town where we have a lot of friends who offer Petra encouragement, laughs, and help with her language acquisition. My friend, Cihan from Istanbul, also delights in teaching Petra a Turkish word or two.

Petra makes friends and learns language

The largest obstacle to learning a foreign language is overcoming the sound barrier, the biggest challenge is hearing words within waves of sound. The second largest obstacle in learning a foreign language is overcoming the translation barrier, the habit of translating everything that is said in a foreign language into your native tongue as a prerequisite for understanding. Petra is learning English and Spanish naturally and natively — there is none but the primary sound barrier for her in both languages, she does not have a language base to translate from — and I am doing everything that I can to encourage this development.

Language is one thing that I can give my daughter from this life of traveling.

Bilingual language development

There are two types of bilingualism in children: simultaneous bilingualism and sequential bilingualism. The former means that a child learn two “first” languages concurrently, generally before the age of three. The later means that one language is learned first and others are taken on subsequently, using the first as a base. The age of three generally separates the two forms of language acquisition, as this is the age that a kid is said to have solidified their learning of their mother tongues. Whatever languages a child takes on after three years will be a secondary, or sequential, language. Petra is making advances towards simultaneous bilingualism.

The term balanced bilingualism is used to describe individuals who possess about the same fluency in two languages, while semilingualism refers to those who have deficiencies in both languages compared with monolinguals. –Article on bilingual children

The above quote shows a common conception about simultaneous bilingual language development:

That the child may be verbally delayed by learning two languages at once. At first, we felt that this may have been the case with Petra, as she went through a lull period of verbal acquisition between the “babbling” and the “first words” stages. We met other children in Guatemala and El Salvador the same age as Petra who were more verbally advanced, and we blamed this on the fact that she was hearing and learning two languages rather than a single one.

We should have just blamed it on the fact that children learn at their own pace. Watching Petra learn new skills is like climbing a multi-tiered mountain: you rapidly ascend until you reach a false summit just to walk flat on a ridge for a while until arriving at your next ascent. Like this, children seem to acquire new skills rapidly just to plateau at various stages. From reading the below chart of language development stages, it seems as if Petra is has sped ahead and is now, as the experts will say, on target.

Age Ranges of Language Developmental Stages

Cooing stage 0 – 2 mos.
Babbling stage 2 – 6 mos.
First words (usually imitated) 12 – 18 mos.
Rapid vocabulary acquisition 18 mos. – 3 yrs.
Steady word acquisition 3 – 5 yrs.
Multiword sentences
Basic mastery of language
Progressively complex sentences 6 – [11.sup. ] yrs.
Use of pronouns, proper nouns,
prepositions
Basic grammatic mastery

-from Bilingual child development

It is my impression that far too much microscopism is applied to child development in countries like the USA. Doctors and other experts seemingly make fancy charts such as the one above to keep parents interested in their services. How much business could a doctor or child development psychologist get if parents realized that their kids are fine? How can they take the role of a parental advisor if they just shrug and proclaim that children develop at their own pace.

We sat back and watched Petra develop in terms of language acquisition, without force, without much will. We moved into a hotel where a little Mexican girl around the same age as Petra spends a lot of time, and the two play together all day, and Petra now speaks and understands as much as any other kid her age — in two languages.

I remember a story an old friend of mine told me once about how, in the 1970’s when travelers first began making a base in Goa, India, there were all of these little kids from all over the world running around with each other on the beaches. The kids would teach each other their languages, show each other what they knew, and, essentially, formed a little community irregardless of culture. “We were making a super race of children,” she told me.

I do not know what happened to this race of super kids, but I do know that children are made to learn — to learn language, to learn customs, to learn how to see and function in the world around them. Their eyes and ears are always open, and they seem preprogrammed to try to impress the people around them by showing off what they have learned. I have a front row seat as I watch a child who has lived her entire life on the road learn multiple languages, how to function in multiple cultures, and explore her world.

This is a good show.

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Filed under: Language, Mexico, North America, Petra Hendele Adara Shepard, Travel With Family

About the Author:

Wade Shepard is the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. He has been traveling the world since 1999, through 76 countries. He is the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China, and contributes to Forbes, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3048 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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