The other day I began “El verano de español”. My youngest son said, “We’re starting el día de español already?”
I corrected him, “Verano, not día. Día is only a day. We’re doing it the whole summer. Verano means summer.”
“Oh, Mommy!” he said, “The whole summer?!”
Within minutes he was acting more enthusiastic though, opening the freezer and telling me, “Te quiero una popsicle.” (“I love you, a popsicle” … he meant “Quiero una paleta” = I want a popsicle.)
But it isn’t just the kids who need work. Old habits die hard. When I was in Miami surrounded by the “tiki tiki” of Latinas, I fell into the rhythm, but here at home, it’s different. I think it’s natural for a mother to want to communicate with her children in her native tongue and making demands of them in Spanish strips me of some authority. Not only do I sound less certain of my words, but the kids, while they manage to extract the meaning of what I’ve said, they don’t react to it with the same sense of urgency.
If I tell the kids to “behave” in English, there is an unspoken but known threat in the nuance of it. “Portanse bien” feels fluffy in my mouth – a flashing lighthouse in the fog warning of sharp rocks, instead of a bold red stop sign. My motherly threats in Spanish don’t give fair notice of the discipline to come if my words are not heeded. Perhaps in time they’ll learn, and I will too.
I’m reading a book right now and some of the text jumped off the page at me because I related so much to it. Here one of the characters, a native Spanish speaker, talks about how her words lose meaning in English. (Of course, for me, it’s vice versa.)
“No,” I said, and again, the English words failed me. In Spanish, I could make a man tremble, force a woman to bite her tongue. But not in English…The words didn’t sound angry like they would have in Spanish, didn’t poke through the air with the same fire or conviction…”
-The Madonnas of Echo Park by Brando Skyhorse
The first day of “El verano de español” was the hardest for me. When the kids misbehaved, I stood there like a stuttering idiot, the words danced past my tongue, almost within grasp, before disappearing, like playful dolphins breaking the surface, smiling teasingly and sinking back into the depths of the ocean. That night, as if my brain short circuited, I dreamed the entire night in Spanish, which is rare. I typically have occasional dreams in Spanish, but not an entire night’s worth.
The next day at the grocery store, as I shucked corn with the boys, I chatted with them in Spanish, (though they replied to me in 90% English.) At one point in the conversation, my oldest son couldn’t understand what I was saying and became frustrated. Throwing down a corn cob he said, (loud enough for nearby families to hear), “Stop speaking Spanish! I can’t understand you! Can’t you just speak English!?”
¡Qué vergüenza! My cheeks reddened to match the color of the nearby apples. Full of embarrassment and anger, this time, my Spanish did not fail me.
“Inglés? Tú quieres inglés?… Mira, voy a darte inglés cuando regresamos a la casa y estoy dandote un chancletazo! ¿Cómo crees que vas a hablar con tu mamá así en frente de todo el mundo? Nunca me hables así, me entiendes?”
Believe me, he understood that.