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Speak English!

Well, it happened. My daughter and I encountered our first resistance to bilingualism, in the form of a three-year-old new friend. On Friday, we went to Jumperoo toddler time at Urban Air, a local indoor trampoline park, and Maya and Mateo had an amazing time. It took just a few minutes for her to open up, but once she felt comfortable, my little gymnastic was all over the place. She jumped on every trampoline, into the cube pit, across the balance beam, and climbed all through the obstacle course. These types of indoor playgrounds are the best place for her to get out her energy, and meet some new friends.


It was the last day of winter vacation week, so the place was bustling with toddlers, preschoolers, and their caregivers, and Maya interacted with many of the other kids. Additionally, when some of them asked, "What's your name?" I was happy to hear Maya respond with "Maya." It prides me that her productive Spanish is so good, but she also understands everything in English, too. That's one of the reasons I make sure we attend many activities like this. However, in the two hours we were at the indoor trampoline park, I was also surprised at such a busy place that the only Spanish we heard were the words passed between her and me.
As a precocious two-year-old, Maya is quite friendly and often befriends the older kids, tagging along with their play. I think she's like that because she adores her older cousins, recent immigrants from Guatemala, and the majority of her fraternization and play time is with them.
Maya spent a good amount of time playing with many different children, but near the end of the session she befriended a little girl who must have been about three or four years old. They smiled and laughed, jumped across the trampolines, and climbed to the top of the obstacle course. The little girl heard Maya and me speaking a different language back and forth, and she asked what we were speaking. "We speak Spanish," I told her. A while later into their playtime together, I helped them both mount the swing inside the obstacle course. I was telling Maya how to get on and push the swing, when the little girl turned to me and said, "Speak English!"
She spoke those words directly to me, and I don't know if Maya even heard over the buzz of activity all around us. But I immediately paused. I knew sometime during Maya's life we would encounter this situation out in public, but honestly I didn't expect it quite so soon. And I'm embarrassed to say, I had no idea how to respond. I still don't.
While bilingualism is a huge advantage, it can also build walls between monolingual peers. Those who don't speak your language might feel threatened when hearing a language they don't understand, or in the case of this little girl, I think she might have just felt confused and wanted to know what I was saying to my daughter. Maya's language production didn't seem to impede their ability to connect, or interact, or play, but my speaking in Spanish to Maya made the little girl feel left out.
I've made such a commitment to developing Maya's Spanish language, I haven't given much thought over the past few months about how that makes the people around us feel. Conversely, I must admit hearing the words "Speak English," put a knot in my throat, because it evoked images of microagression and discrimination in my mind, and made me fear for when my daughter might encounter prejudice like this in the future. But it is for this reason exactly that we are raising our kids as bilinguals, so that they can transition with ease from one language to another, from one culture to another, from one country to another.
For now, I just brushed the demand aside with a kind smile. I know the little girl said those words in innocence, not malice, but she has given me a lot to think about. I think about my ESL students, struggling to learn English in a new country, I think about my immigrant husband and how many times he has been told those very same words, and I think about the world my three rising bilinguals will encounter, and how they might be able to use their bilingualism to bridge these gaps and hopefully make the world a more welcoming place for people of all languages.

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