Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Oil, Owls, Spanish And Stella

Looks like a muggy afternoon here, with a big likelihood of a storm. Ah, summer in the city. Upstairs Stella is having her nap, at least for now, and Randi just got back from the gym. I have been writing an op-ed that I am unsure about, and will take a day to sleep on. It's better to take a moment or two, and let something sit for a day, than to rush it. Especially when the potential article can be explosive.


Since this is a blog about being a parent, and all, I think it's appropriate to wonder out loud about my latest case of parental guilt: bilingualism. I don't speak another language, period. I barely scratched out Cs and Ds in high school Spanish and did worse than that with middle school French. Hebrew school taught me, uh, Hebrew, but I can read it about as well as I read Braille, or music. Randi is actually quite good with French, but since I know nothing about it we don't speak it at home. Instead Stella is getting a heavy load of plain old English. And while I admire English and believe it is a fantastic, amazingly expressive language, boy do I feel like we're shortchanging our kid.

You see I had very few plans for how I wanted Stella's baby-hood and toddler-hood to go. In fact, there were really only two things I really wanted. One, I wanted my child born in water, that didn't happen. I am not saying this was a logical thing to want, or made any sense, I just thought it was cool.

The other major thing I wanted was for my kid to be bilingual, English and Spanish. And it looks like this isn't happening either, at least so far. So I have a dry birth, English speaking kid. The Universe mocks me.

I want the bilingualism because Spanish is, whether you like it or not, becoming a larger and larger part of American life. As I have learned from our recent debate about Arizona large parts of that state have signs only in Spanish. I also know that in Miami it's the same deal. What if she ever wants to visit these places, or live there? I want her to be prepared.

Or maybe she will need to speak Spanish as part of her job. So many jobs in the U.S. now require you to speak Spanish, and that number is sure to grow. Or maybe it's just cool to know another language, and not be such a gringo like I am. I always feel that people who know two languages are just a bit smarter than one language folks, because their brain had to develop an entire new system of symbols.

Also, I have this creeping fear that the "window" where Stella absorbs languages without any difficulty is only going to be open for a little while. She's two, and it will be open, I guess until she's what, four, five?

So, this is my dilemma, and what I have to figure out. I would really, really like for Stella to have insights into the Spanish-speaking world that I lack. I would really, really love for her to travel to lands where English is not the native language and feel comfortable, like she's wearing a second skin. Me? Whenever I have to use Spanish I do that thing where I start to speak really loud and exaggerate my hand motions to convey to the other person that I am both deaf and using my own simple form of sign language. And it's almost always to find the bathroom.

"PardONE," I say/shout, "Donde esta el BANYO?" You see, really emphasizing the last word is key. Because otherwise they might get my request completely confused. Because I know that when someone asks me where the bathroom is in English I never can help them unless they shout the word "bathroom" at me in an unnatural, and freakish way.

I know there are immersion day cares and pre-schools. Maybe those are the route to go. I don't know otherwise how it will happen. We have a few battery powered toys that have an English and Spanish option, but I feel that this is really not the best way to try and get Stella to learn an entire other language. One is this talking drum that recites the alphabet as you hit it, and another is a maraca that basically does the same thing except with colors. Both also have a setting where this ridiculously cheesy mambo music pores out of them for hours on end until you turn them off. Then when you DO turn the talking drum off it has to get in a parting shot that's incredibly loud and grating: "BYE BYE!"


I have an honest, from the heart question that I would like to pose for you guys. As the oil spill continues to get worse, and the news around the various government agencies continues to sound more and more like a clinic on corruption how do you cope with it? How do you not just walk around depressed, enraged and cynical all the time?

To me, I have had cataclysmic thoughts about the oil spill, about the species it will wipe out, the Gulf coast it will coat in oil, the shrimp season it just decimated, the people in Louisiana who have gotten it in the shorts, again.

I try to find, somehow, a bright side to all this, which is that finally we will say never again, shake the yoke of corporate America off our backs and we citizens will once again demand our country become safe, sane and competent. Never again will we allow exploration based companies to rape our natural resources without any thoughts of safety, never again will we put ourselves in the position to have a horrible, avoidable disaster take place on our watch. This is how I deal with the horror of the oil spill, this is the one positive I can take from this all. What about you guys? How do you deal?


The fact is, though, I really, really don't want to walk around feeling down and end-of-days-ish about the oil spill, or anything. I do believe life is to be lived and enjoyed. That it is a gift and we are here to work to make the world better, yes, but also to spread joy and give joy. It is not just a nice idea, it is actually really important. We should laugh, play, dance, love, and be a light for our friends and family. And while I realize we can't all be happy happy all the time, I do believe it's important to try and be happy much of the time, upbeat and positive when we meet people on the street, nice and kind to the people closest to us.

I also realize I haven't always done this. I have spent large swaths of time being a whole lot more downcast than I should, and while I don't feel guilty about this -- none of us are perfect -- I do want to change and become stronger, physically, spiritually and emotionally. And stronger in the work I give to the world, and do for myself.


You know what helps a lot? Taking a few moments to really appreciate the Brooklyn Baby, Stella. I don't know if I convey enough just what a wonderful, singular, hilarious child she is. Yesterday morning she awoke in a good mood -- not always a given -- and absolutely cracked me up. We walked into her room and she started to meow like a cat, for no real reason, just to make us laugh. Except she doesn't do a "cute" cat meow. She doesn't do a little meow, when she sounds like a cat, it's really loud and long, like the cat is in heat, or injured or something: "Meoooooooooowwww!" It kills me.

And she's starting to imitate everything, and I do mean everything, we say. One of my cats walked up to me a few days ago and demanded I pet it, a completely usual occurrence in our house, that happens pretty much all day every day. I looked at the cat and said what I usually do, "hi dude." From behind me I then heard a tiny voice say, "hi dude!"

Oh man, this cracked me up. Now I ask her to say it about ten times a day. Spanish, apparently, can wait, but I need my daughter to say "hi dude," right now.

Yesterday we were on the swings at our local playground and Stella was having such a good time she started to howl like a wolf. Again, this is daddy's malign influence. You see we were reading a book called "Lucky's Big Week," about a dog that runs away from home. At one point Lucky sits and howls as the moon. Being a bit of a ham I drew this out. "On Saturday Lucky hoooooooowled at the moon. Hooooooooooooowl!" Then I asked Stella if she could say it with me, and this little girl then went, "hoooooowl!" It killed me. Now every time I see a picture of the moon in book -- and it shows up all the time -- I ask her, "Stella, what do you do when you see the moon?" And then she goes, "hooooooooooowl!" I die every time.

Now, I guess, she's started to use this howl for her own purposes. So there we were were at the swings, her howling, and then I started to howl too. It might have seemed a bit odd to some of the other parents and nannies pushing their toddlers and infants, but we were having a great, great time.

You know what else shows up in kid's books all the time? Owls! Like you see them a lot. In fact in my life, I've maybe seen a handful of owls in wild, like two. But they're all over kids books, maybe because they're fun for artists to draw?

Anyway, she also goes "whooooo, whoooo!" when she sees owls, although the first thing she does, usually, is scream, and I do mean scream, "OWWWWWls!" I don't know why this gets her so excited, but, by god, she loves to scream out the word owl when she sees one.

Stella's newest thing, though, is that when we get to the playground she just takes off running. It is the cutest thing of all time, this little tushie boogying across the playground as she tries to get me to chase her. And I do. At this point I can keep up with a brisk walk, but I still make it seem like I am really chasing her down, she loves it. I love it too, we both laugh. It is so much fun to see her having fun. I don't know if it makes me feel like a kid again, but it does make me happy.


Amanda said...

The oil spill is completely depressing, and that's all I'm gonna say about it.

As far as language, I was going to suggest finding a babysitter who speaks Spanish so they could use it with Stella. My kid's only 9 months old right now, but I'm already looking into getting her on a waiting list for a private language school here in Portland (the silly part is I think I can afford it, HA!) The school does Chinese, Japanse, and Spanish. Hmmm, which would I choose? DUH!

I've always regretted the fact that I wasn't bilingual :( My great-great-grandparents came through Ellis Island from Norway and once they got here, they never spoke Norwegian again! They said, "we're Americans now" and refused to even teach their kids Norwegian. I'm still mad at them for that lol :)

Holly said...

Ditto that on the oil spill.

As far as language, I would say not to sweat it too much. The window won't close at age 5. It might be a little more difficult, but it's completely doable. I started German when I was 12 years old, and I still was able to become fluent and even got my Master's degree at a German university. Yes, I envy those who grew up bilingual and can so effortless speak without an accent. But I don't know if their second language means as much to them as German does to me. I worked hard, and I earned that language proficiency. It is something I am incredibly proud of, and it gives me immense joy to speak, something I do not take for granted.

Just wanted to give you another perspective, in case you're not able to make the Spanish thing happen in the near future!

David Serchuk said...

Hi Amanda and Holly,
Sorry it took me a few days to get back in touch. Thank you for your comments. I too have regretted the lack of a second language in my life. I am not panicked about doing this for Stella now, but I definitely want to make it happen within the next year, because I see her picking up words and phrases so fast now, I see it happening right before my eyes.

Holly, thanks for your reassuring post. As always there is an argument for not panicking. What are your plans for helping Lachlan speak German, if you have such plans?

Amy G said...

I'm another voice for the "don't sweat it" language crowd. A large portion of my adult life has been spent teaching bilingual and dual-language classrooms, and I have to say that only so much can be done intentionally when it comes to kids and language. Ultimately, it's about authentic exposure + the child's own motivation to learn another language. Having a native speaker interacting with her on a regular basis is best, but even if she just hears songs or sees kid's videos in Spanish, the exposure will get her on track to be more receptive later.

Also, my husband and I are fluent in Spanish and English, plus conversational in a few other languages, yet so far our son only speaks English. I feel very guilty about this, but honestly, it's HARD for us to break out of the habit of speaking English on a daily basis. I've asked all the Spanish-speakers we know to only speak Spanish to Lucas, and they've been faithful to comply. And I can tell he at least understands Spanish because he responds to them appropriately, but his budding toddler vocabulary seems to only contain English words for the time being.

I hold on to hope that as we go, this language-learning thing can take better shape. Here's one of my favorite resources in case you haven't already seen it: