“No, Mummy, say it in Melbourne!” cries Layla. My daughter wants me to speak to her in English, not Spanish. I’m trying to speak to her in my parents’ language, so that I don’t lose it and so she can learn it. In a battle of the wills, the four-year-old is winning.
I was one of 260,000 people who migrated to Australia in 2016, arriving nervous and excited with my Aussie partner, Hugh, and our little girl. I thought of how my parents had migrated from Argentina to London and brought up their kids in a Spanish-speaking environment. We spoke the language, we kissed everyone on two cheeks, and we arrived comfortably late to everything. We were leaving this all behind, but the language was coming with me. Right?
Fast forward three years, and my bilingual heritage is need of a drastic intervention. In finding work and making a home, speaking Spanish came last. My Spanish went from being spoken to me, by friends and family, to being something isolating. Weekly calls with my mum made it quite clear that sharing the language with my daughter was all on me: “Fernandita, you have to speak to her in Spanish or she’ll lose it!”
Layla wasn’t the only one losing her Spanish. I was, too. Then, along came someone who I didn’t feel embarrassed talking to in my increasingly rusty español; baby Ray was born in April 2018. Out came a flood of simple, loving phrases that he couldn’t reject, and that I wasn’t embarrassed to use. A thought carved itself out of the brain fog: This is me.
This speaking Spanish not perfectly, but with feeling and enjoyment, was part of me. According to Professor John Hajek at Melbourne University, I’m not alone. Hajek leads research into multilingualism, and speaks Slovene to his children. “There are lots of people in your situation,” he says. “We were born and raised and schooled in English-speaking countries. But we also have this second language [that’s] very important to us and to our identity”.
I wanted to share this sense of self with my children, and following the ‘one parent, one language’ rule was the overriding advice I got from other bilingual parents. But speaking Spanish excluded Hugh from the conversation and Layla just ignored me. Hanging clothes out to dry one day I asked her – in Spanish – for the pegs. Only I couldn’t remember the right word. Frustrated almost to tears, I ended up getting the pegs myself. Whatever I called them, my daughter wasn’t interested.
This speaking Spanish not perfectly, but with feeling and enjoyment, was part of me.
This behaviour isn’t surprising, I’m relieved to find out from Hajek, who suggests a re-set for both of us. Children are quick to pick up on the language of power, he tells me. I wasn’t doing anything to encourage Layla to view Spanish as an alternative to English.
Slowly, things have changed. At a Spanish playgroup in early 2019, I get a nanosecond of friendly conversation with other mums while I chase after quick-crawling baby Ray. One of them has started a language class for kids and I sign Layla up. It involves singing, dancing, and listening to stories along with your child. For the first time, we are having fun in Spanish.
Whatever you might call my previous efforts – the tutor that Layla hid from, my bad puns during games of UNO “It means ‘one’ in Spanish! Let’s say UNO in Spanish!” I suggest to my family, who cringe and ignore me – they weren’t fun. Growing up part of a bilingual community was fun for me. I have a world language in my back pocket and an understanding of what it means to be different.
A thought carved itself out of the brain fog: This is me. I wanted to share this sense of self with my children.
Focusing on the positives has been illuminating. My husband doesn’t speak Spanish but he encourages me to speak it. I needed to see Spanish as a culture my kids could enjoy, not just a language they needed to learn.
Hajek tells me about simple books his team have created so that parents can read to their children in their own language. Parents told him that a lack of reading material was a major obstacle for them and he said, “How hard can it be to make your own book? It doesn’t have to be professional, it just has to be done.” It’s this sense of ‘Just get on with it!’ that I hear from my parents, too.
I download Chicken Little in Spanish from the university website (it’s also available in 30+ languages). I select the black and white version so that we can colour it together at home. I’ll tell Layla the colours in Spanish, even if she tells me “do it in Melbourne, mummy!” I can teach her about her heritage by my own example
I can’t pretend to be 100% Anglo, or an authentic Latina, because I’m neither. What I am is bilingual, and it suits me.
Fernanda Fain-Binda is a freelance writer. You can follow Fernanda on Twitter @FernandaChat.