You know two languages, right? How did it happen?
My mother taught me as a child from being a baby. She spoke solely Spanish to me until the age of 4 when I started primary school and unfortunately, in my opinion, as I was behind with the English language: communication, reading and writing, my mum stopped speaking to me in Spanish at home altogether. My dad worked shifts and so I wasn’t exposed to the English language much ‘pre’ school. The only other place I heard and was spoken to in English was at playgroup a couple of hours a week.
I picked up Spanish again when I was seven. I went to something called ‘Clases Particulares’, which are classes outside of school taught by a teacher who is a Spanish national and a teacher in Spain. The teacher would be sent from the Spanish Consulate in Manchester and they would put on classes near where you lived. It happened to be up the road actually and only available to children who had at least one Spanish parent. The lessons were a couple of hours once a week and my mum carried on speaking to me in Spanish when and where possible, obviously with my dad being Hungarian, there was English spoken in the house as well.
Is your brother bilingual too?
Sometime during the period when we dropped Spanish my younger brother was born. He was used to hearing Spanish being spoken at home but was too shy and lacked the confidence to speak it himself. English was already being spoken quite a lot in the house by the time he came along. He was exposed to more Spanish at Spanish classes after school with me but he hadn’t the confidence to speak it. He does understand it perfectly though.
So was your dad your source of English at home?
Yes. He was Hungarian but he never spoke to me in Hungarian. My mum was my other source of English from the age of 4 onwards (partly in Spanish and partly in English).
Was learning Hungarian never an option? Did your dad ever try?
He did but my mum wore the trousers on the language front and she decided that Spanish would be more widely used so she wanted to enforce this language. She didn’t want us to get confused by introducing Hungarian as well. Probably with what happened when starting primary school, this more than likely influenced her decision.
Did you learn to read and write in Spanish during those lessons?
Yes. My mum gave me children’s books in Spanish and read them to me so I could see and recognize the words, but she didn’t actually teach me how to read in Spanish.
Do you ever wish that you could speak three languages?
Yes and no. I’m happy that it was Spanish that I learnt and not Hungarian. But in another respect, it’s so easy to learn when you are that age so it wouldn’t have been difficult. Now, after my dad’s passed away, I can’t communicate with his family at all, so we’ve distanced ourselves from the family in Hungary. And that’s a shame. So in that respect it would have been nice for me to have learnt Hungarian as well.
Did your parents pass their culture on? Like the food, the festivals, holidays? Was that equal?
Well not on the holiday front. We just couldn’t afford to go to Hungary one summer and to Spain the other. So my dad used to go to Hungary once a year and the following year my mum, my brother and I would go to Spain on holiday. I only went to Hungary once, when I was 3 and to be honest I don’t have any memories of it. So that wasn’t equal but the food was. My dad loved his food so he would cook dishes that he knew from his own childhood and what his mother had shown him how to make. And he’d bring back food from Hungary for us to taste and would buy things from European shops in the area.
How about Christmas? How did you celebrate it?
We celebrated it the English way totally, with the roast dinner and all. But as I grew up my mum would explain how they celebrated their Christmas in Spain on the 6th of January. She would leave little things for us, for example “if we’d been good the three kings would come”! Because we are Catholic we would celebrate all holidays according to the Catholic Faith/Church and that’s pretty universal, but I never learnt about any Hungarian festivals.
Do you think there is anything bad about being bilingual?
Oh, no, absolutely not! It’s an advantage. I see it as a gift. Especially as I’ve grown older, you don’t really realize that when you’re a child, do you?
Do you ever feel that the languages compete inside your head?
Yes, especially after a six week holiday in Spain. When I come back I try to speak Spanish to people who can’t understand it because in Spanish there are many more words equivalent to one word in English. So I find myself thinking it’s more like this word and I try to say it in Spanish expecting them to understand and then I start to giggle. Of course they can’t understand! What I’m trying to say is, I’m scrambling through my head trying to find an English word that would exactly 100% describe what I’m trying to say and sometimes it’s just not there. So it’s so much easier I find, to express yourself in Spanish.
I teach Spanish in after school classes, but to tell you the truth, when I was a child I found the Spanish classes a bit of a chore. I didn’t want to go to those lessons; I had to be almost forced to go. Lessons are so much more fun nowadays though!
So your mum just put her foot down?
Oh, yes she did. But now I realize that it was the best thing she could have ever done! And I do feel that I’m gifted. I really do.
What do you think swayed your mum to go back to Spanish when you were seven?
She had a friend who was a Spanish teacher and his wife was a teacher too. They were linked with the Spanish Consulate in Manchester and they advised her to inquire about the Spanish lessons. She thought it’s such a shame that we speak English at home and she could feel the Spanish language slipping through her fingers and I think that it worried her. So she started speaking Spanish to me again which together with the Spanish classes maintained my Spanish. Then I went to secondary school. The teachers sent from the Spanish Consulate in Manchester to teach out of school classes recommended that my mum ask my secondary school to prepare me for my exams as soon as I entered at the age of 11. My mum approached the school and had a meeting with the French and Spanish teacher at the time, who had a keen interest to put me through the exam and so prepared me in her lunch hour and break times. So I sat my GCSE with the 16 year olds and I got an A, which was amazing! I use this example now with the parents whose children attend my Spanish classes to show them what advantage early language learning can give their child.
to be continued.