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The Unexpected Benefit of a Kid Who's Not Bilingual Enough


We recently met a little boy who doesn't speak English.

I also met his parents and wielded all my Spanglish to introduce myself and mumble something like, "Oh, I don't really speak Spanish. My husband is from Guatemala."

Then, I introduced my daughter - the bilingual one. Except I know that's not true.

I wasn't trying to oversell her skills, but I was aware that of the other people present in that moment, she knew the most Spanish. And I wanted this little boy to feel less alone.

I talked to Gabriella about befriending him, trying to translate if needed. She looked at me and simply said, "I don't want to do that. And I only know Spanish a little bit."

She's right. While I never expected her to be a fluent translator, I was surprised to see her pulling back from helping someone. And there's this tight rope we walk as parents between pushing too hard or not guiding enough. So I sat with her declaration for a little bit.

Later, in the car, I brought it up again. And I asked her a question. "Do you remember how you feel when you're in Guatemala and all the cousins are speaking Spanish? And it's hard because you don't always understand what's going on?"

"Yes," she answered.

And there it was. Something I'd never considered before when raising bilingual kids. And maybe more correctly, bilingual kids who are limited in their second language. Empathy.

She knows what it feels like to be left out. To hear words and sounds and syllables but their meaning is just out of reach. She knows how helpful it is to have someone translate, talk more slowly, or act out their meaning.

"That's how that little boy might have felt. Everyone was speaking English, and he might have needed a friend or a little bit of help."

"Okay," she told me. "I can do that."

That little moment of recognition. She could remember what it feels like to be in a similar situation. And it scooted open that little door of compassion. My own heart was blessed in the process.
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