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The loneliness of the long distance father.

Problems with bringing up bilingual children - stamina is needed.

Date of writing: 18th November 2012.
Age of subject: 3 years and 5 months.

They seem so happy chatting away to each other! I'm looking in through the bathroom door as my wife is dressing Carmen. It's the same in the back of the car, sitting on the sofa watching the tele, playing together, painting together... . Carmen and my wife seem to have developed a mutual rapport of sublime friendship which manifests itself in relaxed and genial chit-chat. Quite frankly, I feel envious.

Influence of school on bilingual development.

School seems to have been the "culprit" for what was once a wonderful linguistic experience in English between daughter and father. At three and a half, Carmen now attends pre-school (like so many Spanish children of her age). She starts at nine in the morning and remains till two in the afternoon. Apart from the few words she might learn in English class, school is a vast input of new and influential Spanish-crammed language - as it should be! But Spanish school also seems to be powerfully detrimental to Carmen's rather flimsy relationship with English. School songs, chants, jokes, banter, teasing, arguing, fighting, playing, fun classroom activities and even punishments all serve to broaden and inculcate a stonework foundation of Spanish language that I am at a loss to equal. Everybody is now charmed and delighted at this newer, richer Spanish that Carmen comes home with.

Lack of linguistic knowledge at early stages.

Couldn't I still strike up a little natter with my daughter in English? I am fortunate enough to have time to play with my daughter when she is at home and take part in the washing and clothing. The problem is that Carmen lacks the word power and the inclination to converse with me in English in the same way as she is able in Spanish. I detect that her comprehension of English is far greater than her ability to speak the language. But even so, I am aware that many things I ask her are just lost in thin air and her replies in English, if at all, are brief and somewhat forced.

Insisting the child speaks in English.

Carmen invariably answers in Spanish if she understands me and I find myself saying again and again "In English!" I feel that without that command, she would never say anything in English whatsoever. Carmen doesn't object to the order, however, and tries a type of inaccurate English paraphrasing of her almost immaculate and grammar-rich Spanish but then dries up. I constantly think: 'what can I say in English that she'll understand so we can have a conversation?'. The temptation to burst into Spanish, which I speak fluently, and forget about English language learning altogether, is overwhelming.

Bilingual learning and family relationships.

Fortunately, I cannot detect a fracturing of our father-daughter relationship. If there were one, I think I'd give up the whole idea of bilingual education for my child today. Neither is there a reluctance on Carmen's part to speak in English due to an aversion to the language. My insistence on always speaking in English at home has not meant that Carmen tries to avoid me, for example. She seems to accept that her father is just a little different from all the other people in her world, perhaps he has some sort of handicap, and admires me as one hopes a loving daughter would. Communication in English is just more difficult for her and Spanish is so much easier - so why speak in English?!

The importance of bedtime stories.

Bedtime story reading is still the most rewarding language activity we experience together. Carmen seems to accept that stories at bedtime come in English and whether she comprehends the story fully does not seem to matter. On the contrary, if I attempt to paraphrase the English text of the picture book to avoid the more literary and complex prose, she tells me to "read properly". She appears to enjoy the lyrical sound of English while she looks at the pictures.

Apart from these odd moments of mutual linguistic union, however, I feel I have reached an English language doldrums with Carmen. But I'm going the long distance. I'm not giving up as I know many parents in my situation have. I'll hang in there and rely on those wonderful moments when children just seem to evolve overnight. That's the astounding thing about children at this age, there's no status quo - just flux and change... I'm holding out for an upturn.

So long!


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