It turns out, there was no song about ducks. Patos is just how the girl pronounces cuatro. She counts, “¡Uno, dos, tres, patos, cincos, ocho, nueve, diez!” Not surprisingly, though, songs have been one of the first places we have seen their language develop. She and the boy first brought home a song about snack time and a song about the silence of owls. They go like this:
Mi merienda. Mi merienda.
Para ser más fuerte. Para ser más fuerte.
Y crecer. Y crecer,
La lechuza. La lechuza.
Hace shhh. Hace shhh.
Hagamos el silencio, como la lechuza.
Que hace shhh. Que hace shhh.
Since both songs are sung to the tune of Frere Jacques, the mashups were inevitable and, to them, always hilarious. For us, it was exciting to see them understanding the words enough to know when they were making a joke. Every day there are snippets of songs that, even when the words aren’t decipherable, the cadence is purely Spanish. The boy came home one day confused about a song they sing to encourage the children to sit down. He didn’t understand it, he said. When we asked if he remembered how it went he proceeded to sing the two verses without pause. He finished scrunched his nose and asked, “But what does it mean?”
Spanish is the ambient noise that they hear for much of the day, so it makes sense that understanding would precede speaking. The boy came home one day and breathlessly told me that the kids at school throw sand. Having recently spent three days washing the last batch of thrown sand out of his hair, this didn’t seem like news. “They said, ‘Estaba tirando la arena,'” he explained. This wasn’t so much about the act of throwing sand, but his understanding that they were talking about throwing sand. I could understand his breathlessness. At a recent birthday party viewing of Smurfs 2 he told us he didn’t really watch all of it, but he could hear it and some parts just sounded like they were in English. At school when someone was talking about gatos the girl excitedly pulled a book down off the shelf and searched until she found a picture of a cat. When we read together at home her face will suddenly light up with recognition. “A guardar,” she’ll say before breaking into the clean up song from school. We’ve noticed that when people talk to either of them, while are still shy and likely to respond in English, there is often hardly any lag in their understanding.
Everyday their ability and willingness to speak Spanish increases. The girl has mastered perhaps the three most important words in the two-year-old lexicon: dale, dame, and tomá. She sometimes wanders off to a far corner of the living room to repeat them softly to herself like a mantra: do it, give it to me, take it, do it, give it to me, take it. She is also quick to repeat back short phrases that people use with her, like vamos, no más, and sentáte. “Nacho said, ‘no más.’ No más. That means no more, Mama,” she told me while wagging a finger in my face. At lunch, she had been mostly silent when she suddenly looked up with a wild grin and yelled, “Pupe se fue. Se fue. Se fue. She went her house. Se fue.” It was as if, and it may well have been, that at that exact moment the neurons and synapses finally connected the sounds and the meaning.
At first, the boy wanted every single word, including place names, translated back to English. He only called the Ciudad Vieja the Old City, for example. This shifted quite quickly once he knew the alphabet well enough to sound out words on his own. He now reads signs and names things using the Spanish words. Of course, this also means he is able to read the words crudely graffitied on walls, which expands his vocabulary in more a mature direction than we anticipated. He has been hesitant to speak much more than a single words, but he came home the other day excitedly telling me he tried to say something to a friend in Spanish. We’ve suspected for a few weeks that he speaks more Spanish at school than he admits or even realizes. Not too long ago he was showing someone a book about dinosaurs. She would ask him questions in Spanish and he would respond in English, but suddenly the excitement of the Jurassic Period overtook him and he shouted, “¡Mirá¡ Este tiene espinas.” He often talks to himself in the bath or before falling asleep, and these monologues increasingly include parts in Spanish. With an impish grin of brashness he turned to me last night and said, “Mama, calláte la boca.”
At night after they have gone to bed Nathan and I often replay every iteration of every word, phrase or Uruguayan gesture our children managed to produce that day. Some of this is just that as parents we are always enamored of our own children, but I also think there is also something universally amazing about watching another person learn to communicate.