Bilingual Etiquette

Last week I took my one-year-old for our evening walk. A smiling neighbor walked by us and stopped to chat. He introduced his dog and I introduced my baby. “Hey Ricky, do you want to pet the doggy?”, he kindly asked my son. The response: an awkward blank stare. To the rescue, I came up with my first honest thought: “Oh, he’s never seen a dog this close”, which sounded just as odd, I’m afraid. He was probably ready to hear next: “because we keep him in a dark basement with no windows throughout the day”. Anyway, this happened in English.

I’m not necessarily attributing Ricky’s lack of enthusiasm to the language, but it did trigger some concerns about public situations like that one. He is normally very social. He likes people, he likes other kids, and he sometimes starts the conversation by standing in front of you yelling with a martial, yet friendly tone. He doesn’t speak yet, English or Spanish that is, but he understands my Spanish for sure. And because he spends most of his time with me, I don’t know if he understands English the same way yet.

In theory, the system we “planned” on using to raise Ricky bilingual is the OPOL (one person, one language) method. That means I speak only Spanish to him while his dad speaks only English. The other options are the ML@H (minority language at home), this one we have mostly adopted since my mom is visiting, and T&P (time and place), which is how I learned myself by having two daily hours of English at school.

We are at a stage where I believe it’s very important that I’m consistent with my use of Spanish. So I never speak English to him… except in public. And to be honest, it feels very funny and unnatural. I can feel his skeptical look wondering why I’m speaking the men’s language, like my husband would say. But what is the correct bilingual etiquette? Do other people need to know what I’m telling the baby? Is it rude to leave them out? And above all, does Ricky understand me in English?

Some experts say babies can distinguish between different languages at four months. Others believe they do it from birth, and I’ve even heard they could actually start before they are born by differentiating the rhythm of speech. It’s very clear by now that Ricky knows the difference to the point that he knows I’m not talking to him when I’m speaking English.

We will probably get to a point where it won’t matter what language we’re speaking if our son is successful at learning and using both languages. I know it will be hard; we might need to face resistance and periods of one language dominance, but overall, it sounds like it’s going to be a lot of fun.

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