Language in Children

Last night, we went to a Shrove Tuesday Pancake Feast at our church. Alvaro volunteered to be the official maker of the American Pancakes and most everyone said that they were “the best pancakes I have ever eaten”. Having learned all of his pancake making skills from my dad when he was in the United States, he now feels like he has graduated from the Gwaltney School of Pancake Making and can honestly call himself a panquequero. [There really isn’t a translation for this word. It takes the Spanish word for pancake “panqueque” and rhymes it with the Spanish word for cowboy “vaquero”. Therefore it’s a made up word that suggests a pancake making cowboy. One of the women used this word to describe him last night, and I found it incredibly fitting.]

I was there simply to supervise the pancake making and serve as an official American representative if needed. While the men were busy frying sausage and flipping pancakes, I entertained myself by playing with the children. In the midst of this, I introduced myself to a man that I had seen before, but never formally met. He and his wife are American college professors that are in Peru leading their school’s International Studies program for one year. As all of the children ran circles around us, I asked, “and these are your children?” To which he replied, “Yes, all the younger ones.”

A few minutes later, an adorable two year old boy wearing a Peruvian soccer jersey came up to me holding a wooden toy. With his large, greenish eyes he looked at me and in Spanish said, “Mine.” Confused, I replied in Spanish, “Yes, this is yours.” He then looked at me again, pointed to my hat and said in Spanish, “Yours.” Again I replied, “Yes, this is mine.” After our short exchange, he became distracted by the freshly made pancakes and ran away, toy in hand.

What was so confusing was that this boy was the youngest child of the American family, or so I thought. But his free use of Spanish confused me. Midway through the evening, Alvaro was relieved of his panquequero duties, we took our pancakes and sat down near this young family. The same little boy was sitting next to me and his very American mother. He was struggling to take off his shoes and I asked him, “Do you need help?” Without skipping a beat he looked at me as said, “sí!” After removing his shoe he ran over to his mother and tried to play with her purse. He began demanding things inside and performed the whole exchange in Spanish, “I want that, no this. Mine, not yours.” She looked at us and said, “Now he prefers to speak in Spanish.”

This boy’s mom told us that he, as well as his two siblings, attend a preschool that is completely in Spanish. They also have a part time nanny that speaks to the children in Spanish. This simple immersion experience has taught this boy the most important words of a two year old’s vocabulary: Mine, Yours, No, Yes and I want. She continued to tell us that he actually prefers to speak in Spanish and in many instances, doesn’t even speak to his parents in English. The most surprising part, is that he recognizes that his parents are the English speakers and his teachers are the Spanish speakers. His mom told us that on a few occasions he has been speaking to her in Spanish and then before walking off, gives a little attitude and says, “thank you,” in English, as if he thinks she wouldn’t understand the word “gracias”.

As we were talking, another woman joined the conversation who is American, but has a German husband. She told us that when her two boys were younger, they didn’t grasp the concept of translation between German and English. That if asked, “how do you say this in German?” they were unsure. All they knew was that their mom spoke English and their dad spoke German, as if they were aware of the languages as forms of communication, but couldn’t yet see the connection between the two.

As I struggle to correctly pronounce the sounds of Spanish and am working on conjugating more quickly, I am constantly aware of how we learn and adjust to a new language. It is fascinating to me that children, when placed in an immersion experience, learn a second language the way that they learn their first langue. Simply by listening and then repeating. While listening to the two year old American Spanish speaker, Alvaro noted that he had absolutely no accent, but rather sounded like a Peruvian child. Can someone please teach me how to speak like that?