Unexpected Challenges I Faced When Raising My Bilingual Kids
by Adriana T. Gomes
As a writer I treasure the gift of communication. Maybe that was my problem when I had my first baby. I insisted on teaching her Portuguese and English simultaneously. It’s not easy. No wonder so many children of immigrants speak only English. The system is rigid, and pediatricians and teachers won’t always support you. Not because they dislike bilingualism, but for lack of understanding. So when I decided to take that road, I faced a few challenges.
Unfortunately babies don’t come with manuals. So, as many new moms do, I bought a copy of What to Expect When You’re Expecting and watched for milestones. Was the baby nursing, turning, sleeping through the night—first baby was a stellar sleeper for mommy and dada, second baby, not so much—crawling, babbling, forming comprehensible words, etc.? Everything happened according to the statistically expected, except for the speaking part. My older daughter stared at us with her big brown eyes showing her eagerness to communicate, but only said dada and mama when she was nearly two. A few more articulated words came closer to three. During that time I took her to Gymboree classes and she happily played around following the other kids silently. I organized play dates with a couple of other parents, and one of my closest friends at the time spoke Spanish, which I speak as well, so we would have been jumping from English to Spanish constantly, and I would have been addressing my daughter exclusively in Portuguese quite frequently. She uttered a bunch of funny syllables pointing at things when she wanted something. I believed she was taking a little longer because of the cacophony of languages around her. Is it a car, um carro, or un auto? The other kids didn’t care one bit, and neither did I. Before the three year checkup, that is. The pediatrician demanded I take her to see a speech therapist and told me to speak with her exclusively in English. I agreed with the speech therapy, but stood my ground: at home my husband and I spoke Portuguese exclusively. After four sessions I had to return for an update visit. The doctor and the therapist agreed that my daughter spoke gibberish and moved from activity to activity too fast. She was sent to an ENT (Ear, Nose and Throat) doctor for a detailed evaluation of her hearing. He was wonderful. He clearly stated my daughter was perfect. Some kids take longer than others to speak and she was being exposed to three languages at once. The pediatrician insisted I take her to another specialist. She let me know she suspect my daughter could be mildly autistic. The thing is, once she started looking at my daughter, and I, with a funny expression of condescension, the kid started trying to hide under the examining cot and there she would have stayed till the end of all those very uncomfortable conversations, me insisting she was within the parameters for an expat child, the pediatrician insisting she needed further evaluation to accept that.
The waiting room of the children’s psychotherapist was packed with kids with serious issues, from Down syndrome, to clearly autistic kids who would be sitting facing the walls, and a couple of kids in sophisticated wheelchairs because they couldn’t control their own movements. My daughter entered that room like a ray of sun, she walked from child to child, and she touched their arms and caressed their hands with her chubby fingers, and she smiled and talked to them in her funny language, and only those with extreme disabilities didn’t smile back, but every single one of the parents in there did, thankful for a child that didn’t show any discomfort being with their babies. There was a play corner with some basic games there; blocks and shape puzzles mainly. It was empty. I remember guessing that the mildly autistic kids weren’t there that day. My daughter assembled all the puzzles in lightning speed, and started walking around the room taking the games to the other children. She would place a game in front of a child and speak gibberish without expecting any answers, then move to the next. I’m so thankful for the long wait on that day. I can see how she could have come across as a child in her own world, but all I could see was how happy she was, and how she tried to share her funny language with the other kids in the room. Dr. Franck Scola, a French research author on the health and medical needs of expatriated families, explains that “When code mixing [in language development] continues beyond three years of age, despite sustained daily learning of both languages, it is mostly a case of ‘typical bilingual talk’. This is not a display of linguistic ineptitude, but rather a communication strategy adhering to a precise set of rules.” (Scola, Frank. “Suspecting Language and Speech Delay in Bilingual Children.” Expatclic. Nov 2015. Check the box for more information).
Even though I didn’t know all this fifteen years ago, I noticed the other parents looking at me curiously. What was that girl doing there? And I had an epiphany; my daughter couldn’t possibly be autistic. I stood up and left. As anxious as I was, I trusted my gut—and the constant curiosity I saw in her eyes—and kept doing my thing. I read to her every evening in both English and Portuguese, I organized play dates—with Spanish speaking friends and all—I took her to the park, and I allowed her to watch American and Brazilian age appropriate TV shows. By the age of four that girl talked so much, in both English and Portuguese, and something in between, that on and off I had to control myself not to tell her to “please be quiet, for the love of God.” Oh, I ditched that pediatrician, and the speech therapist. My younger daughter was also late in her speech development, not as much as my older daughter, but probably because of having an older sister chatting with her non-stop since she started growing inside of me.
There certainly are many pediatricians in the US nowadays who are supportive of bilingualism. Probably there were many back when I had my baby, just not that one. The ENT specialist I was lucky enough to meet had a lot to do with me holding on to my resolve. Still, it took a lot of courage to stick to my original plan. I had my fair share of sleepless nights until my older daughter finally started making full sentences in either Portuguese or English. But every time I hear both my daughters speaking in Portuguese with their grand-parents over the phone, or on Skype, I feel proud of my stubbornness. I made the right call.