“Uno, dos, tres. Pato. Pato,” our daughter sings as she touches her fingertips lightly together. “There is a tree in the yard at school that in the summer produces pears,” our son explains to us in English, but reflecting the Spanish words in which he first heard it. These are small indicators of the great strides out children are making here.
Before we arrived in Montevideo we spoke to our children in Spanish with a haphazard level of discipline. We read them Spanish books, listened to Spanish music, and carried on conversations in Spanish until they rolled their eyes and screamed, “Say it in English.” There, Spanish was just a novelty, spoken by a few and never really needed. They rarely responded in Spanish, but they both still understood a fair amount.
Then, after our ample warnings, they were without warning immersed in Spanish. Here, our apartment was the only refuge from a buffeting stormy sea of questions, requests, greetings, signs, and overheard conversations–all in Spanish. We thought maybe all that latent language we’d been cultivating for years would just rise to the surface, but instead it was as if a huge wave of Spanish rose up and pummeled every last bit of understanding out of them. A cheery hola from the doorman was met with panicked blank stares. Simple commands they had followed without thinking for years needed to be translated and parsed.
So we did the only natural and compassionate thing parents can do in this situation. A week after we arrived we plopped them down in a small, welcoming, but purely Uruguayan school named after a popular left-leaning cartoon character. Beyond the blue locked metal gate is a yellow building that houses a clean, bright world of children aged two to six. Our children, like all the other children, wear the school uniform–a green, plush-lined tracksuit for the older children and a plaid, long-sleeved tunic for the younger. And they, like all the other children, are welcomed each morning with euphoric greetings, hugs and kisses from their teachers. The first half of the day of the day is entirely in Spanish. The older children, who stay the whole day, spend the second half with English-speaking teachers. This is a place of learning, of play, of mess, of noise, and apparently of great joy.
We expected our children to come home exhausted and overwhelmed. Of course there would be a period of adjustment and resistance. No one can expect children to start school midway through the year in a completely new country, language, culture, and community without some problems. They would be homesick. This would be normal and we were ready to be supportive and firm. We were not prepared for our daughter to wake up on weekends tearful because she could not go to school. Nor were we prepared to contend with our son’s bouncing exuberance and energy after an 7.5 to 9 hour school day. We were certainly not prepared that they would be so happy that they would simply accept the new language, culture and community as part school.
After the first week of school they started bringing home the names of their classmates. They tried out the unfamiliar sounds of Valentina, Santi, Martín, Cata, Diego, Pupe, and Jaoquín in conversation with us and in their private mutterings. At a dinner one night when discussing nachos, our daughter’s head snapped up. “There a Nacho at my school,” she said, delighted to have made the connection.
By the second week both children kissed their teachers hello without pause and offered a quiet, but firm, hola to anyone who greeted them. In other ways though their language development diverged.
Our daughter began singing songs made up of gibberish words, but with the cadence of Spanish. Then one day after a run of birthday parties in her classroom, she burst out singing, “Happy Birthday, feliz.” This was quickly followed by the song about ducks and requests for besos. This week, I realized that our daughter can now count higher in Spanish than English. Yesterday, as we sat making a grocery list she insisted I write down panpanas. After some investigation it turned out she wanted manzanas. Language is still fairly new for her, which seems to make the transition from English to Spanish more fluid. The world is always providing new words, so maybe it’s not so surprising that this school is full of them.
Our son, more conscious of language and more aware of anticipated mistakes, has integrated fewer words and sounds. He still claims to understand nothing, still says he just watches the other children for clues, still says his teachers explain things in English. However, his teachers say they use only a handful of English words a day to help him understand; and he brings home stories that indicate he is understanding far more than he could glean from simply watching gestures. This week while skyping with a friend from home, he excitedly told her we had zanahoria muffins from the market. He couldn’t understand why she responded with only a blank stare.
Sometimes, often, almost always, I have an unrequitable urge to fast forward a year to see where our children are, how they speak, who they have become. Of course I can’t and it doesn’t really matter. For now, we are marveling at patos, holas, manzanas and zanahorias.