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Lessons from a summer abroad

Created: 20 August, 2010
Updated: 13 September, 2023
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4 min read

    My husband and I have done the school supplies shopping early, except for uniforms and shoes. The kids—ages 9, 7 and 4— have been away all summer with my parents in Spain. My mom tells me they’ve grown a lot, so we decided to wait on those items.

    Talking with the kids on the phone I realize how good their Spanish has gotten in just six weeks. We speak Spanish at home, most of the time, but the kids know that we both speak and understand English, so they do not always make the effort to answer back in Spanish though they understand it.

    The “almost total” immersion experience seems to have been effective. My parents speak no English —they don’t need to— so that has forced our kids to learn how to ask for things in Spanish and to find ways to make themselves understood even when they don’t have the words to say it.

    Occasionally my brothers, one a teacher and the other a computer engineer, stop by to help. They’ve also taken advantage of their American nieces’ and nephew’s visit to practice their English. Both, as well as my sister, can get by in English thanks to education that demanded that we learn a second language starting in grade school.

    Before leaving the kids, we made sure they understood the importance of keeping up with summer assignments. Even the pre-kindergartener had a connect-the-dots coloring book to work on, and flash cards with numbers and letters to “play” with.

    My dad decided that the language of numbers is international and did not shy away from explaining basic math addition, subtractions and multiplication facts to them in Spanish. My brothers came to the rescue when my father could not read math problems in English and to supervise other reading assignments.

    The kids have learned a lot. They immersed themselves in a different culture and way of living. They tasted new food, learned new table manners and found that away from home there also are rules that it is in their best interest to follow.

    After an initial power struggle with grandma, our middle one, Patricia, begrudgingly conceded that grandma was in charge. To make a point, she would speak English to us on the phone so that grandma could not understand her — not to complain about her, just to annoy her. Hearing Patricia relate her version of events in English eased our concerns that the kids might need some English support upon their return. Her grasp of Spanish, by the way, has gotten so much better too, a comfort since she had the most difficulty speaking it.

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    The youngest, Rafael — who grew up hearing mostly Spanish from his Mexican grandmother in Colorado during the first two years of his life but had switched totally to English upon entering pre-K — also learned that it was in his best interest to speak Spanish. For one, he had to be able to communicate with his new accomplice in mischief, a younger cousin who followed him everywhere but looked blankly at him when he talked to him in English. He also had to make buddies with grandpa, who had promised to take them to the park or the pool every day if they did their homework early.

    Thank God for Elena, the oldest, who in addition to being completely bilingual and acting as interpreter when needed, also took the role of second mother to them.

    While we await the return of our musketeers in the next few days accompanied by their brave and probably exhausted grandparents, we have also been thinking about what else to do to get our kids ready for the new school year.

    Truth is they are just fine. They learned very important lessons this summer — mostly in Spanish — and they will continue to do so — mostly in English — during the rest of the year. Meanwhile, “Spanglish,” slowly but surely will become again the language at our family table.

    Kids’ capacity for learning is truly amazing. Politicians, sometimes, give them so little credit! If more people were bilingual, or multilingual, the world would be a better place. It is worth remembering that asking and helping someone from another culture to integrate are duties. To demand that they forget who they are and where they come from, or worse, that they abhor the culture of their parents, is a senseless cruelty that impoverishes everyone.

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