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Spanish and English Bilingual Development

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Petra’s bilingual development at one year, 10 months

Please watch this video of Petra’s Spanish and English bilingual abilities before reading the remainder of this entry


Seven months ago, I published a video and travelogue entry about Petra’s initial foray into simultaneous bilingualism. Now, at the age of one year and 10 months, I’ve again sat Petra down and made a video to test where she stands with both her Spanish and English after being out of Latin America for around three months.

Development of language increases pace

It is now clear that the little thing that I use to pack up like a wad of dirty laundry and tote around the world now talks — expressing not only what she needs and wants but also how she feels and what she is thinking about. Phrases such as “Mouse fall down and ate it” and “Wade, show underpants” are now coming out of that little thing. She thinks it is funny to call me Wade, rather than dada, and she is very clear about letting everyone know that they are big and she is little. Petra also uses vocabulary now to prevent being left behind, rather than just screaming: if you leave her in the back seat of the car for even a moment after you exit she begins to yell, “Out, out, out, get Petra!” as though she would be forgotten otherwise.

But her verbal expression is now 70% English, 30% Spanish, which is almost the exact inverse from where she was at when we left Mexico in March. Though natural large verbal changes have happened since then — Petra entered into her “prime” as far as initial language acquisition is concerned — and I see her current great strides into English not solely as a preference but simply because is the language she is surrounded by while going through this hyper stage of language learning.

She is now learning words at a rapid fire pace, picking the ones she doesn’t know out of conversations and repeating them while reconfirming the meanings she does know. She now speaks in sentences, whereas in Mexico she was just speaking in one or two word starts.

I know that this stay in the USA has stunted Petra’s Spanish language acquisition, but it has not stifled what she has already learned. I can say with assurance that she still knows and can use just about every Spanish word and phrase as when she was in Latin America, but the rate at which she acquires new words in this language has slowed drastically. For around an hour or two each day, as well as in intermittent bursts, Petra is still exposed to Spanish, and is encouraged to use it. Television watching is a 100% Spanish language lesson, but it is clear that the language she now prefers is English.

“English, yes!” Petra made her choice of language known as her mother tries speaking to her in Spanish.

Bilingual child chooses word that is easier to pronounce

Petra Shepard in Maine

It is widely stated that English words are often easier for a child who is just learning language to pronounce, and if presented with a choice between English and Spanish most children will defer towards the Anglo tongue. Petra proved to keep with this pattern as she began substituting her Spanish vocabulary for an English one upon her return to the USA. It happened fast — Vrooom — one day in Mexico Petra was speaking Spanish and the next in New York it was English.

Though she still has choice words that she says in Spanish. Not surprisingly, these just happen to be the ones that seem easier to pronounce than their English cousins. So whatever word in either language is easier to pronounce, that will be the word that Petra will try to use. So instead of “table” she will say “mesa,” rather than “carne” she will say “meat.”

Bilingual child understands both languages

Though whatever language Petra chooses to speak in she clearly understands both. In the video above I try to demonstrate how Petra is starting to code shift between languages. I asked her a question in Spanish and try to elicit a response in the same language, and then try the same in English. She has not yet mastered responding in the same tongue in which she is addressed, but she does seem to understand the meaning of both commands. This goes for a large percentage of the verbal meanings that Petra understands: if she knows it in English she tends to also know it in Spanish.

Bilingual child mixes both languages

As can be seen in the above video, Petra mixes Spanish and English together fluidly. She will start a sentence in English and then end with a Spanish word, or she starts out with Spanish and then ends in English. In this way, it is the meaning that matters, not the means of communication. If she can get her point across, she will do so using any vocabulary set she has available to her (she also mixes in Yiddish words on occasion as well, but nowhere near the same extent as the other two languages).

Lo hicimos, I did it!” Petra sometimes exclaims. This is straight out of Dora the Explorer, but it is a good example. The phrase starts out in Spanish, and then moves to English. Another example of Petra mixing both languages is when my wife mentioned that she broke the zipper on her purse within earshot of Petra. “Tape, tape,” Petra exclaimed, “try it.” Petra was trying to tell us how to fix the purse like she saw her grandfather repair a book a few days before. “Tape . . . tape, try it, bolsa.” At the end of an almost purely English dialogue, Petra used the word bolsa instead of purse (a word she also knows).

Bilingual grammar

There is a marked difference in Petra’s use of proper grammar between English and Spanish. In English, she is actually getting it down pretty well for her age and verbal proficiency, but, in Spanish, the conjugations trip her up. In the Dora example above, she mixed first person plural Spanish in the same sentence as first person singular English. This is not a big deal, as it is my impression that this is happens to everyone when learning Romance languages — native speakers not exempt. But, for oft used phrases, she generally gets it right. For example, she says “Petra voy!” (Petra is coming) and “Mama ven” (Mama come), to conjugations of the same verb, in their proper context.

Bilingual child senses differences between languages

While Petra often mixes English and Spanish together when speaking, she still seems to have a sense that there is, in fact, something different about them. As is evident, to various degrees of success, in the video above, when asked to respond in either English or Spanish she will eventually do so. It is not my impression that she does this as a rote response, but that she has a sensitivity to the fact that one set of words go under the title “espanol,” while others are called, “English.” As has been demonstrated above, Petra will sometimes request English when her mother speaks to her in Spanish. Although she combines the languages when speaking, she seems to have a wavering sense of where one language ends and the other begins.

While out on the playground in the USA, or at other times when she is around uni-lingual English speaking kids, Petra sometimes becomes confused when they do not understand her Spanish. This seems to further ingrain the fact that the two vocabulary sets are, in fact, somehow different from each other. What we do not want, as parents who encourage bilingualism, is for Petra to view English as “speaking” and Spanish as something that is known but also somewhat abstract for her. We want her fully functioning and thinking in both languages, to be balanced bilingual — equally strong in both tongues, referring to both as native languages.

The advantages of bilingualism and conclusion

Petra asked for an “helado” at the preschool where her mother works. Another worker asked, “Petra, what’s helado?” Petra responded in English without being prompted, “Ice cream.”

Now knowing that Petra also speaks Spanish, the same worker later on asked Petra how to say flower in Spanish, and Petra responded, “Flor.”

These two examples show the future benefits that befall the bilingual child. It is a confidence builder to be referred to as an authority on a topic or skill, especially when young and being asked for help by adults. Petra still seems to be way too young to take away confidence from her bilingualism, but she does enjoy the attention it gets her. If we continue cultivating her practice knowledge bases, she will have a skill that will set her above many of her peers all around the world. But the true benefits of bilingualism is that more of the world will be open to my daughter. She will be able to communicate with more people, in more situations, in more places. This is perhaps the most sought out ability for the traveler.

Like all parents should, I am cultivating my daughter to excel in the life that we live. I am training my daughter to be a traveler, to have the skills and knowledge to seamlessly move through the places and cultures of the planet. Hopefully, we will devise a plan for language learning which will lead Petra off into adulthood not just bilingual, but trilingual, quadrilingual, or even pentalingual: a true polyglot. Being able to speak many languages is one of the best skills a traveler can have. I do not possess any special attributes when it comes to foreign languages acquisition — it is something that I must work at very hard for very long periods of time — but, again like any parent, I want my daughter to have more opportunity in this world than I.

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

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 3053 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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