Spanish Summer: Soborno (Bribery)

I resorted to bribery. I’m not proud of it, but it is working.

The kids Spanish comprehension has been increasing in leaps and bounds, but I want them to SPEAK fluently. The conversations were typical of 1st generation American kids, with them responding in English, even though they understood exactly what I said in Spanish.

I remember a kid in my Spanish class in middle school. He used to ask me for help on the assigned “páginas” in the workbook. (How we groaned when we heard that word!) That kid asking for my help was 100% Latino, with a Spanish first and last name, two Spanish speaking parents at home, and he got made fun of hard for stumbling over basic exercises like, “Me llamo Enrique y yo soy de los Estados Unidos.”

I asked him why he couldn’t speak Spanish. He said, “I UNDERSTAND it, I just can’t speak it. I can’t put the sentences together in my head on my own.” … This made absolutely no sense to me at the time, but now watching my kids heading down the same path, I realize this is a common problem.

Well, I don’t want my kids to be Enrique so I resorted to bribery. I bought a jumbo bag of jelly beans and poured them into a jar, their tempting colors on full display. I then got two other jars and marked my children’s name on them. I explained that every time they responded to me in Spanish instead of English, and every time I heard them speaking Spanish with each other, they would get to put a “frijol” in their jar.

The boys responded to this game even more enthusiastically than I expected. Soon I found myself saying “Un frijol para ti” a dozen times per hour. I’ve created monsters. My younger son had the idea to do workbook pages for frijoles. They have a few workbooks, a couple Silabarios and another one that has little tongue twisters which they copy into a journal and then read aloud to me. Here’s an example:

Mi nena me ama.
Nena ama a Papá.
Mamá mima a nene.
Nina ama a mi nomo.

When they first began trying to read Spanish, they would read words using English grammar rules. For example, they would pronounce “silla” (chair) as having an “L” sound in the middle rather than the “Y” sound required for the “ll” in Spanish. (For non-Spanish speakers “silla” is pronounced phonetically as “see-ya”.) … Now they are applying proper rules all on their own much of the time.

Here are mis niños reading one of these little tongue twisters, (and being silly as usual.)

As for the jelly beans, I think I’m going to have to switch to some other sort of currency or else my children will soon have cavities along with their fluency.

Spanish Summer: La Piscina

Tomorrow marks two weeks since I began speaking only Spanish to mis niños. It’s getting a little easier for me, but if I don’t begin to mix it up a little, I think that by the end of the summer they will only learn verb tenses for making demands such as “Clean your room”, “Behave and eat your food”, and “Go play!” … I never realized that being a mother is akin to being a dictator at times.

One obstacle we’ve run into is that I have no privacy when speaking to the niños when Suegra is around. It isn’t like I’m constantly bad mouthing her to the kids, but sometimes I want to tell them something that isn’t her business. To do this, I switch to English, and Suegra is immediately suspicious and paranoid when I do that. It has created some tension, to put it mildly.

Yesterday, to escape the negative energy in the house, I took the boys swimming. Because thunderstorms were approaching, the pool was nearly empty which is a luxury I don’t take for granted. I grew up in a house with my own pool and now that I’m subjected to the horrors of public pools, having it to myself is a rare and appreciated occasion.

The water felt cold under an overcast sky, but after a few minutes, we got used to it. We swam in relative peace under the bored gaze of three lifeguards for awhile and then some more people showed up. It was an Anglo guy and his son. The little blond boy was probably about 5 years old, and with that typical 5 year old energy, he bounded into the pool, splashing and squealing, shattering my hopes for a quiet swim.

“Want to play with me?!” he said to my sons. My boys are 8 and 11, but they’re kind, so they obliged, at least for a little while. When they grew bored with the baby games, they swam out to deeper waters to join me. After a few minutes, the little boy began calling them earnestly from the shallow end of the pool.

“Hey guys! Come back! Come play with me!”

The father of the boy relaxed in a lounge chair, making no attempt to silence the boy as he called after us over and over again.

The boys looked at me pleadingly. “Don’t make us go back, please.”

I answered in Spanish, “Diga le que estas descansando y puedes jugar más tarde.” (Tell him that you’re resting and that you can play later.)

My 8 year old cupped his hands around his mouth to amplify the sound and called out, “¡¡MÁS TARDE!!”

My 11 year old and I burst into laughter and my 8 year old had no idea why.

“You just told him in Spanish, baboso!” My older son told his little brother.

My 8 year old cupped his hands around his mouth and called out again,


Spanish Summer Mutiny

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.

Spanish Summer

Many niños Latinos in the United States learn Spanish each summer when they’re shipped off to live with their Abuela. My problem? The Abuela lives with us and my children’s Spanish is still not on grade level with native speaking children. The problem of course is that they have never experienced 100% immersion. They’re in the United States, they speak English with their friends, with each other, with me, even with their father. They watch T.V. in English, they listen to music in English. The Spanish they get is just a small dash each day, heard in the bedtime story, when they are nosy and try to understand what Daddy and Abuela are fighting about, or when their Abuela demands, “Cipote! Pongame el televisor! Quiero ver las noticias!”

It’s not enough and so I decided to do something drastic. This summer at our house is going to be…

I think it would sound better in the voice of a fútbol commentator. That would excite the niños much more than the way I say it. (They weren’t even impressed with jazz hands added in.)

Maybe they have reason to be cynical though. They know something you don’t. You see, ever since my children started school, I’ve always tried to make the summers slightly educational so that their brains wouldn’t turn to mush over their 3 month break, but let me be honest here. I hate schedules and I hate rules, so usually my good intentioned plans to “home school” my children, dissolve into chaos within days. This is a big commitment for someone like me, but I’m determined to stick to it. The main rule of “¡El verano de español!” is that I will speak only Spanish to my children. They are to answer me back in Spanish when they’re able to, but if they can’t, they can reply in English or Spanglish, at least at first. I will try to get my husband on board, but he has stubbornly spoken 90% English to our children all their lives. He made the common and unnecessary mistake of many immigrants who worry that their children won’t learn fluent English and will fall behind in school if they speak the native language at home, but all this does is rob your children of an opportunity and of their roots.

The one drawback of this “Spanish Summer” idea is that Suegra will be privy to our every conversation, but if I must sacrifice, so be it. Besides, I suspect she understands more than she lets on and I’d do well not to become too comfortable in the illusion that she doesn’t.

Anyway – here is where you come in. ¡Sí, tú! … In the comments, leave me your best idea for an activity or lesson I can use this summer with my children. It can be a nursery rhyme, song or poem in Spanish that you learned as a child which you think they should memorize, a recipe they should make, a movie they should see, a book we should read together, a field trip we should take – (we’re in the DC Metro area), or something else entirely – keeping in mind, the theme of this summer is to teach them Spanish.

As an example of what I mean, here are some things I’ve considered doing…

• Having them practice and memorize Spanish tongue twisters, particularly ones that teach the “rr” trill, (which neither child can do.)

• Playing Lotería often and having them read the dichos on the back of each card aloud.

• Going to the Latino market where they can buy a dulce, but they must complete the entire transaction at the register by themselves.

• Watching favorite movies with the Spanish language option turned on.

• Reading Latin American nursery rhymes together.

• Buying a tape recorder for them to play with and recording them speaking each week so they can hear their improvement.

• Teaching them traditional recipes.

• Having them write a letter to relatives in El Salvador in Spanish.

• Having them keep a daily journal/diary to their father, where they must write one sentence per day telling him what they did while he was at work, (in Spanish.)

• Taking a geography test and filling in the country names on a map of Central and South America.

Alright, now it’s your turn! (Best idea wins a Spicy Maya Chuao chocolate bar!)