Mother Knows Least

I was thrilled when my daughter began learning a second language at day care. But what was I supposed to do when my three-year-old started engaging in conversations I couldn’t understand?

September 2012By Comments

Photograph by Randal Ford

Five years ago, when I was searching for day care for my first child, it didn’t occur to me that she might start learning Spanish before she could crawl. I was just looking for a sweet, affordable oasis for Mia, preferably near my office, and Escuelita del Alma, located on Austin’s busy Congress Avenue, fit the bill. The fact that the school was committed to Spanish immersion struck me as a nifty bonus.

When I was a child, learning a second language wasn’t a priority. I grew up in Wisconsin, the great-great-granddaughter of Irish, Norwegian, Welsh, English, and Belgian immigrants, most of whom moved to the Midwest about 130 years ago. Geographically, there was no urgent incentive to master a foreign language, since our Canadian neighbors to the north spoke English too. And though I took Spanish in high school, years later I hadn’t retained enough to take a conversation beyond “¿Cómo estás?” (God forbid the responder elaborated on “Bien.”) Maybe because of his childhood proximity to Mexico, my Texan husband speaks passable Spanish and learns languages easily; on vacations, he’s comfortable conversing in the native tongue in Germany, Brazil, France, and Argentina. Me? I tend to smile and nod a lot—hardly a useful habit to pass on to Mia, especially in a state where an increasing number of her peers will know two languages.

So for the next five years, my daughter heard Spanish roughly eight hours a day, five days a week. For Escuelita’s Hispanic parents, it was, no doubt, a joy to hear their children speak the language of their ancestors. My experience was quite different, though it too was rooted in history. I learned what so many immigrants before me have learned: how strange it is to hear your child speaking a language you don’t understand.

On Mia’s first day, Escuelita’s assistant director, Rosa Delgado, took us to meet the baby-room teacher, Basilia, or “Basi,” a serious, pretty woman in her late sixties. She greeted me with a brisk “Hola, señora” and stood at the ready, wearing comfortable shoes and an ironed red apron, her dark gray hair in a bun. She asked Rosa a few questions, and I realized during the time it took for me to put away Mia’s bottles, milk, diapers, and blankets that Basi knew absolutely no English.

This was going to be tricky. Even if I had a better memory, nothing I learned in high school Spanish class would have helped me much. Spanish phrases for “Where is the telephone?” and “What time is it?” were useless to me. I needed translations for “Why does my baby hate to sleep?” and “Oops, she just threw up.”

So we mimed. I visited Mia at every lunch break, feeding her in a wooden rocking chair while Basi tended to the other children and tried to talk with me. Our conversations made us look like silent movie actors, exaggerating our movements to get a laugh. We misunderstood each other frequently during small talk too insignificant to warrant an interpreter. Once, she thought I’d said my husband lives in Mexico, which confused her since she saw him regularly. Still, I trusted her, and it occurs to me now that part of that faith stemmed from her habit of whistling with a wide vibrato, a sound that I’d heard only from my great-grandma. That trust was deepened the day I went to pick Mia up and spotted Basi walking her around the small courtyard, whispering in my baby’s ear as if confiding a secret.

Wanting to bridge the communication divide, I enlisted a bilingual co-worker to record phrases I needed to know to talk with Basi. I practiced in the car, while sitting in traffic: “¿Durmió mucho?” “¿Le gustaron las zanahorias?” I’m not sure how successful my efforts were. For all I know, my attempt at “¿Lloró mucho?” came out as “Flat land man?” Basi was probably grateful when Mia graduated to the next classroom.

Predictably, my anxiety didn’t disappear, even though I could converse easily with my daughter’s new teacher, who was fully bilingual. When Mia was almost two, she wasn’t forming any words I could recognize, while kids I knew who heard English all day were already chatterboxes, using advanced phrases like “more chicken” or “diaper poop.” One day I summoned up my courage and asked Escuelita’s owner, Dina Flores, “Is this normal?” She nodded. “Sometimes kids who are learning two languages are slower to talk,” she said. I probably lingered long enough to underline my concern. “Don’t worry,” she said. “You wait. She’ll talk.”

I trusted Dina instinctively, and her résumé supported my confidence in her. She had taught kindergarten, mostly bilingual, in public schools in Austin and San Antonio for fifteen years before taking a job as office manager in 1994 at Las Manitas, a legendary downtown Austin lunch spot. She soon noted her employees’ need for good day care and, after much effort, opened Escuelita del Alma next door in 2000. 

The Spanish immersion idea quickly followed. “It has always been distressing to me that we have children of Latino descent who do not know how to speak the language of their grandparents,” she told me recently. “That was a big motivator for me. Another motivator was ‘Oh my God, the wasted opportunities.’ We spend so much money having second languages taught in high school, and when the kids graduate, they can speak maybe a sentence in Spanish.”

Within a few years of Escuelita’s opening, it seemed all the parents I knew who worked downtown were enrolling their children in the school. (There was—and still is—a large contingent from this magazine.) When the building was set to be razed, in 2008, Dina moved Escuelita to a larger building next to I-35, bringing along more than 150 families and a three-year waiting list. 

By that time, Mia had started to talk. She said “duck.” If it wasn’t her first word, it was the first word I understood. Later, after one of her classmates picked up the nickname Guapo, this too became a favorite word, and she followed him around, repeating it like a young groupie. Soon she was asking for “agua” and “leche” and “más,” and every once in a while, as her English got better, my husband and I overheard her throwing in some Spanish phrases when she talked with her dolls. (One example I wrote in her baby book: “You need help? Okay, I help you. Are you happy? Oh, pobrecito. Are you my baby?”)

I have to admit, however, that I still didn’t believe she would actually speak fluent Spanish. I figured that, like many children of immigrants who overhear a foreign language at home, she would manage to understand a second language but never quite feel comfortable constructing a sentence herself. Her classmates spoke English with each other, after all.

On the day I was proved wrong, I was walking through the living room, getting ready to leave the house, and Mia was having bath time with her Spanish-speaking babysitter. I recognized my daughter’s voice, but I was stopped in my tracks by what I heard. I couldn’t understand a word she was saying. I was stunned: my child, whom I had considered an extension of myself, suddenly seemed like a stranger. I felt as if I’d just discovered that she had a preternatural talent for fencing or the luge.

My impulse in the weeks that followed was to get her to speak more than the occasional Spanish word with my husband and me, but she showed no interest in humoring us. She wanted her worlds separate. Mostly we respected her wish, but every now and again my husband asked her a question in Spanish. “¿Quieres fresas, Mia?” he’d ask. “¿Te gustan?” Nothing.

Finally, one day, he asked her outright: “¿Por qué no hablas español en casa?” She turned to him and, for the first time in her life, replied to him in Spanish: “Porque mamá no escucha español” (“Because Mommy doesn’t hear Spanish”). I was taken aback for a moment, but of course she was more or less right. How many times had she asked me for something—a ball or a doll—in Spanish and I’d stared at her as if I were deaf?

Perhaps, I thought, she’d enjoy being my teacher. “How do I ask you about your day, Mia?” I’d inquire. “Do I say, ‘¿Tuviste un buen día?’ ” Initially, she found this line of conversation ridiculous. She never rolled her eyes exactly, but she gave me a look of weariness, the sort of thing you might see on the face of a teenager whose parent is trying to engage her in a conversation about Justin Bieber.

Lately, though, Mia has begun to take pity on me. Every so often, when we see a family speaking Spanish in the grocery store, I’ll ask her to paraphrase. She’ll respond with something like “That boy wants a doughnut, and his mom won’t let him have it.” Sometimes she’ll broadly interpret what’s going on, in a way that makes her seem more like a sportscaster than a translator: “That kid is tired.”

She has even begun to relish the child-as-parent role reversal. When I’m trying to read to her from a Spanish book she has mischievously selected at the library, she’ll sit back satisfied as I stumble over the phrases, slowly pronouncing the words phonetically. “What does that mean?” I’ll ask. “Did I say that right?” By the end of a short book, I’m spent. “Mama,” she said to me one time, using a tone of praise, “your español is getting better.”

Last month Mia graduated from Escuelita and headed to kindergarten, where fewer than a quarter of her classmates speak Spanish. She’ll be attending an hour-long Spanish class once a week rather than hearing Spanish eight hours a day, every day. In the weeks before she was due to leave Escuelita, she was trying to wrap her head around these changes. One afternoon, when we were in the car, she asked, “What if the kids are mean to me?” I cringed. She seemed so small in that moment. I knew it would have been a lie to say kids are never cruel. So I dodged. “Well, what do you do at Escuelita when kids are mean to you?” I asked. She put on her sternest face and shook a finger. “I tell them, ‘¡No hagas eso!’ ” she said.

“What does that mean?” I asked.

“Don’t do that!” she shouted.

“That’s good! But they’re not all going to understand you.”

“What?”

“A lot of them aren’t going to speak Spanish. You’ve just got to figure out who speaks what and talk to them so they understand you.”

She stiffened up in her seat a little bit and stared out the window as she thought about this. And it occurred to me then that she was ready. 

Related Content