About La Mother Tongue

La Mother Tongue is my medium to share the joys and challenges of being a new parent as well as to share how we make a conscious effort in our daily life to bring baby up bilingual.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Mi Madre is un Language Nerdo

When our pediatra wrote in her medical records at the 15-month check-up that Sofía was trilingual, Español, English, and Sign, my heart sank. I sooo wanted my pediatra to be omnipotent, but I guess that I will have to suffice with the fact she knows pediatric medicine the best and language acquisition will have to be left to me. Don’t get me wrong, I would love for Sofía to be trilingual, but right now at best, she is monolingual (Español) with a speckle of bilingualism and hopes for complete and true bilingualism to follow. I suppose I am more along the spectrum of a linguistical purist. Over the past month, more people than I can count have asked me if we were raising Sofía to be bilingual. (Very few people can wrap their heads around Sign Language so they don’t even consider it to be any part of the equation.) I tell them that technically, we are raising a monolingual because we only speak to Sofía en Español. The English will come as she becomes more social with her friends and so I’m not worried about it. (Usually I don’t have to spew out my resume to dispel ignorant remarks about ESOL [English speakers of Other Languages], because I think the matter-of-factness in my voice shuns them off at the get-go;  but I have had to.   But on the whole, really, my experience with the general population has been that people covet the ability to be truly bilingual.)
So this recent influx of questions caused me to evaluate and analyze Sofía’s language abilities; both oral/signing production and listening/signing comprehension. But over the weekend, two people asked me if she understands English as well. My answer is no. Really all our interaction with Sofía is en Español and not in English except for a few words or phrases which just feel better in English. Every-now-and-then, I read her books to her in English instead of en Español, but not regularly. Sofía hears English when we are with our friends and neighbors and in public places she often will hear both languages. What does Sofía understand in English: I don’t know. As a language teacher I am cognizant of the controlled language input, it is the uncontrolled that I’m not sure about. Sofía loves and I stress LOVES to watch her Baby Signing Times DVDs. She only watches them about twice a week at best. The presentation is in English with signed vocabulary. Since Sofía picks up all the signs, I can only assume that she has also picked up the English vocabulary for the words as well. We know she knows the words en Español. What English she has picked up from her environment, I’m not sure. Still not enough for me to declare that we are raising Sofía to be bilingual, not yet anyway.
Prior to the English inquiry, I made an effort to test Sofía’s oral comprehension. I asked her various questions formulated in ways that I know are appropriate for her developmental abilities: yes or no questions, Where is _____? , What sound does the _____ make?, What is this? and Which shirt do you want to wear? I also gave her commands such as: Bring me your shoes. Shut the door. Give the gato a kiss. Some of her responses are oral (en Español) (about 14 words) and some of them are signed (about 30 words) and some of them are gestures like pointing. She has some words that she knows how to say and sign, but usually picks one or the other to communicate with and will not use both. I was surprised at how much she really knows. I knew that she would get the things we see or do every day, but I was shocked to see how she could identify or answer questions about things that we do NOT see or do every day. It was nice to see living proof of language acquisition theories and approaches. It really does pay-off to create a language-rich environment--to talk, read, interact and narrate EVERTYHING you do all day long—in either language or both! I also again see that language acquisition applies to Sign Language. Unfortunately I can’t keep up with her in Sign Language because I’m not fluent in it, but at least it gives this now 17-month-old a tool to communicate with her parents before she is developmentally able to do it orally. Now I suppose I have to test her English comprehension, but this will take a lot longer, so I guess you will have to check back with me to see what the results are!! Nothing like a linguistic cliff hanger for us Language Nerdos!


  1. "Language nerdo"--I love it! Language nerdos unite!

    I'm eager to hear about how much she can understand in English just from overhearing it outside the home. What if it turns out that her comprehension is quite high--will you be impressed? disappointed? confused?

    I can certainly understand why people would ask if you're raising her bilingually. (And hey, that's much better than the rude "Why are you teaching her Spanish in the US?") I guess we need a new word that means "We're raising her with sign language and the non-majority language but we fully expect her to pick up the minority language outside the home"!

  2. Congrats on all the learning she is doing with signing and Español.

    You are right to say your daughter will get all the english she needs as she becomes more social.

    I am going to look for the dvd you recommend. We aren't signing much these days because of how much my daughter is talking but I think she would probably enjoy it.

  3. A very interesting read. I think at 17 months it sounds like your daughter's language acquisition (in all languages) is going well. The fact that you are thoughtful in your approach, stimulating and engaging matter so much and will be sure to pay dividends.

  4. Sarah,
    Thanks for your comments. I think I will just be surprised if Sofia has high comp in English. She seems to do well when the neighbors talk to her...but people are very "graphic" in their expressions and gestures when they talk to babies. Who knows...I have to devise a tool somehow....I'll let you know!!


    We just came back from Pasadena! We loved it! If you look on Youtube, Signing Times has a channel and you can watch little clips. They include things from Baby Signing Times (what Sofia watches) and Signing Times, which is geared for a little older children. Again, I highly recommend the DVDs.

    Thank you for your kind words. Now I know who to turn to when I need a hard-core Linguist!


  5. I am impressed with your little girl's progress - I would agree with your paediatrician that Sofia is trilingual! She clearly understands DVD presentation in English and uses Español alongside sign language. Congratulations! Felicitaciones! Your example is convincing me to introduce sign language to my little boy too; signing, being a link between gestures and the word, may help him to connect Russian and English better & quicker:-)

  6. That is a really interesting thought! It never passed por mi mente....I wonder if there has been any research done on using sign to connect two oral languages?? If not, wouldn't be a bad topic to address!

  7. Hola Everyone...I just wanted to let you know that I just posted a small follow-up to this post. It can be found on July 6, 2010 or at this link. http://lamothertongue.blogspot.com/2010/07/wash-your-hands-sequel-part-i-of-mi.html