The Bery Fungry Caterpillar

At the beginning of the summer, we came across The Very Hungry Caterpillar at the local library, the Spanish version. Curled up on the sofa with my nearly-four-year old, I read it in Spanish, pausing when I think she can fill in a word she knows, like luna (moon) or hambre (hungry). After all, in September she starts school – 100% Spanish school.
When I get to hoja (leaf), I pause, thinking she might know it. She suggests “feuilla?”, her own variation on the French word feuille. She’s completely wrong, but I’m pleased all the same. Clearly she has seen how similar French and Spanish are. Most of the time at least, even if not for the word leaf.
pastequa anyone?

pastequa anyone?

When the caterpillar goes on a major binge on Saturday before building its chrysalis, I pause for her to guess at a couple of food items, like ‘queso‘ (cheese) which she gets right. The last thing the caterpillar eats on Saturday is ‘un trozo de sandía‘, a slice of watermelon. When I pause tentatively, my daughter suggests: ‘pastequa?’ from the French pastèque.
Learning Spanish naturally pushes you to draw on French or any other Romance language you may have some grounding in because of so much vocab in common. In addition, some grammar is more understandable to English eyes, for example, Spanish has two present tenses, giving equivalents to I do and I am doing whereas French only has one, je fais. And to top it all off, Spanish has a large vocabulary of words taken from Arabic, though many are altered past recognition. In fact, Arabic is said to be the second largest lexical influence on Spanish, after Latin, accounting for 8% of the Spanish dictionary.
So with some knowledge of French, English and Arabic, I feel we should be able to get to the bottom of Spanish. Except of course there are some words which, at first, seem to have come from nowhere. Like hoja (leaf/feuille), for instance. Or hogar (home/chez soi). They don’t seem to have anything in common with their French, English or Arabic equivalents. It feels a bit odd, when words come from nowhere, because that’s just not possible. But then I noticed a pattern between Spanish and French.
Hoja – feuille (leaf)
Hija – fille (daughter)
Higo – figue (fig)
Hinojo – fenouil (fennel)
Hambre  - faim (hungry)
Hilo – fil (thread)
Hila – file (row, queue)
Harina – farine (flour)
Hogar – foyer (home)
There’s definitely a shift from the initial F in Latin to H in Spanish. And I’d say there’s some kind of complicity between the L and the Spanish J – someone out there who’s done some Spanish linguistics would know. All of a sudden the fog clears and hoja does look a bit like feuille, or at least like folio and its variations. And while hogar can’t be made to resemble chez, it happens to share its root with foyer (from the Latin focus, or fireplace; and of course hogar and foyer also mean hearth). Even hacer, a word I learnt so long ago I never wonder about its origin, is apparently a cognate of faire.
I even came across a Spanish sign asking people not to fumar (smoke, French: fumer) as we were in un espacio sin humo (smoke-free area, in French literally un espace sans fumée). So there you have both spellings in the same word group. Once you’ve got the pattern, all sorts of words make sense and become easier to learn. Now I know an F can hide an H just like J can replace an X, or like the German J often turns out to be a Y in English. The language nerd inside me is relieved, triumphant even; it does make sense after all.
Funnily enough, it turns out sandía is from an Arabic word, but not the one I know, bateekh بطيخ , which is, however, the one which pastèque comes from. Sometimes with etymology you seem to end up right back where you started.

School Enrolment in Spain: Grand Finale

Finales ought to be exciting. Be warned: this one isn’t. True to many people’s expectations, we didn’t get a place for my 4 year old at the nearest school. Not at first, that is. Following the application in March 2015, I returned a fortnight later as instructed to find, not the results of the application process, but the first stage of the results. It was a list of applicants and which class they had applied to at the school, along with the number of points each child had been awarded.

Since we parents already know which class we applied to, this seemed a little superfluous, but actually wasn’t, since they had my daughter down with the 3-year olds, whereas in 2015 she turns four. (Spanish school works on a Jan-Dec birthday basis.) I remembered them actually writing “4 años” with an orange highlighter on the file they made for her, so I wasn’t worried, and sure enough they sorted it out within a week with no harm done.

school books for 4 year olds

school books for 4 year olds

 

Over a month later, at the next stage of this lengthy process, they posted a list of those kids who had been accepted by their first choice of school, and those who hadn’t and were still in limbo. My daughter was on the second. Since the class I had applied to was already full, all the kids having started the year before, the three applicants for it were all refused, regardless how many points they had. I was told I had to wait until other schools knew what places they had before opting for one of my less-preferred choices.

In a final twist to the school application saga, though, while we were in Lebanon, friends called and told us that our kid had after all been accepted. I suppose others had moved out, or our preferred school had stretched its numbers a little bit, as public schools sometimes have to when more people move into their catchment areas. That was early June. On the first working day we were back in Spain, a Friday, I went and got the matriculation papers, which were due by the final deadline of the following Monday, 8 June.

Now it’s late August and I have obtained the school books we were told to get – 50 euros worth for about six brightly coloured workbooks. All I need to know is when term starts. Cue another trip to the school, where I was told: “About 10 September.” Which is as much as I already knew.

For the rest of the saga: School Enrolment in Spain Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3.

Is it a good school?

I received many dire warnings from people (whom I had never met before) who were concerned that my three-year old wasn’t in school yet. The main concern was that I was a social recluse, maybe even a Stig of the dump, and perhaps hadn’t realised that I lived in a town with schools. Secondary to that, they worried – more likely scenario – that I wouldn’t find a place. Since there are nine or ten state schools in my municipality, I didn’t think that was very likely. I mean, I can’t be the only crazy mum out there that is still at home looking after a baby and that doesn’t pack the older one off to school as soon as the government is willing to relieve me of her. After all, I’m already putting her in two years before real school starts.

But, they said, you won’t get a place in a GOOD school. What are the good schools? I asked. They listed four or five in my town, so I relaxed and ignored them again. The chap at the Education Department of the Town Hall also labelled two of the closest schools as “good”. So what is a good state school?

Some points we thought of were, not necessarily in this order:

  • distance from home (preferably a 10mn walk or less)
  • a short day (some schools run from 9am until 2pm; others have a 2-hour lunch break then the kids go back until 5pm)
  • languages taught (some have English ‘taught’ from age three up, some have a couple of subjects actually taught in English later on, and some have French taught from age ten)

Oh, and of course we would love to have great facilities and fabulous teachers, but from what I have found out, there isn’t all that much variation between the local state schools (which is as it should be in publicly funded schools, after all) and we may only find out the differences by actual experience.

When I visited the school that the chap at the ayuntamiento intimated was the best in the neighbourhood, I mentioned his accolade. Oh no, replied the lady who fielded my questions. “Todos los colegios son iguales,” she insisted.

If I had moved here with a seven or eight year old, then sending them to a centro bilingüe school with some classes in English would be a very high priority for me. I can imagine that total immersion for kids that age and who don’t speak Spanish in a curriculum designed for native speakers would be quite a baptism of fire. But at four, when school is more about playing, I’m hoping it won’t be too bumpy. In the two years of preschool before any classes in English are introduced, I think – I hope - that my daughter will learn to function well enough in Spanish.

Some days I’m confident – after all, she is already bilingual, and she’ll find Spanish very similar to French. Plus she has a head-start on reading, so she won’t struggle with the actual material, just with the communication side. Other days I just play the stressy mummy role.

Perhaps being in a centro bilingüe would make some classes easier. Perhaps I would understand more about those classes. Perhaps she would even learn some English vocab that I am not likely to use with her. But at the end of the day I think it is down to me to teach her proper English with a wide vocabulary and a deep love of learning so she can fill in any gaps I leave. It is also down to me to keep up with understanding her education and her homework, and I’m determined to make that happen. Besides, it could even be irritating to be in a class of complete beginners being taught English by a non-native speaker. The same goes for French.

As for the timing of the school day, all those in the area stick to the shorter day, so that turned out to be a non-choice. So when it actually came to filling in the form, listing our choice of five schools in order of preference, we simply named the closest school as top choice. Followed by the next closest schools. Phew. All that research to end up back where I started. What was I saying about stressy mummies?

On a positive note I discovered evidence that some schools in Andalucia use Cuisenaire rods (regletas) to teach maths to five-year olds in Infantil. As you know, I am very interested in these rods and the similar colour factor sets, so I’m delighted to know there are some like-minded educators in the area.

Against the flow

You would think that passing on your mother tongue to your children would be straightforward. Actually, if you speak a well-regarded, globally useful language, it isn’t particularly hard. Relatives on both sides of the family will support you and even be grateful you can pass on a language which will boost the kids’ career prospects. There is a plethora of materials available. People won’t look at you strangely in the street. People won’t erode your determination by suggesting that your speaking your native tongue is hindering their progression in the majority language.

You can look at it this way: if English is the minority language in your family, you needn’t worry because it’s the majority language of the world. The same is true of other “major” languages, to a lesser degree. I really feel for parents trying to transmit equally important heritage languages, but which are less well known or considered of little use in the business world.

Lots still to learn...

Lots still to learn…

Still, even with a “major” language, there is one element which can make it hard to pass on that language as fully or as consistently as you had planned. I tend to think of it in terms of a current. Immersion works because you end up being carried along by the current. As soon as your kid goes to school, they’ll not only learn to swim, they may even be carried away by the majority language to the detriment of their minority language(s). So they need you to provide a strong enough flow in your language for them to swim in that direction too when they choose. But as a parent living in a foreign culture, you, too, need to learn the local language. Just because you want to pass on a family language doesn’t mean that you don’t want to integrate your host country. Anyway you need to talk to teachers, doctors, and so on. So mentally you are pushing yourself into the local-language current, trying to learn to swim in that direction. This makes for a linguistic struggle in your head, because you too end up being carried along by the majority language, even though it may be your weakest language.

On the one hand I desperately want to ease the transition into school for my rather reserved daughter. I want her to know some basic vocabulary, to be able to express basic needs. I also want to keep up with her teachers, her playmates, her homework. On the other hand I want to keep providing a decent flow of English interaction when she is with me, and also support our other minority language, French. Not to mention continuing to support a modicum of Arabic exposure. I already try to speak French with their dad during mealtimes so the kids are more immersed in it. I can’t afford for the majority language, Spanish, to steal any of my linguistic effort, when the last thing my kids need to hear from me is Spanish because they will be thoroughly immersed at school.

So my plan is to start Spanish lessons in the autumn, when my oldest goes to school. But I know this will mean a battle of currents. I know I’ll have to fight against Spanish expressions slipping into my speech, fight against the tendency to choose vocab from the top of my head which would mean muddling it all up, fight against talking in sentences that would raise monolingual eyebrows.

Some people succeed with a more relaxed approach, but I need consistency, so does my routine-loving daughter, and so does my 19-month old who says his 40 odd words in three languages and I’m sure will end up being on the receiving end of an avalanche of Spanish once his big sister comes home from school and wants to play teacher on him, poor thing.

Arabic alphabet cards

Aeons ago in my pre-motherhood life, before I had any kids to subject to my linguistic experiments, my in-laws gave me these cards as a gift. This set of Arabic animal alphabet cards helped me, and now they are proving fun for my little ones. My kids are just about old enough to play with them without spoiling them (the oldest just turned four), so this has been their latest treat.

Arabic alphabet flashcards

Arabic alphabet flashcards

IMG_20150609_154928-001

from right to left, the Arabic alphabet in animals

As a bonus, while I was last in Lebanon, I found this book from the same series. Inside it has the same illustrations as the cards for each letter, and also a short phrase about the animal.

Here is the book

Here is the book

 

The cards and book complement each other. The advantage of a book is that you can take it out and not worry about losing one card (it’s so frustrating when a crucial part of a set is missing!). My three year old can look at it in the car, or during book time, too.

sin

sin

With the cards, on the other hand, you can play all sorts of games. Because they present the same vocabulary in different forms, they are a good language-learning tool. You really need to see a word in different contexts for it to sink in, so the two formats help.

Of course, choice of vocabulary is always an issue in Arabic. For example the word used for ‘cat’ is neither the  قط  I learnt in my Classical Arabic course, nor the ‘pseiné’ the Lebanese generally use, but هرة. You just can’t pin Arabic down and make it behave like other languages. But then again, no living language can actually be reduced to black and white and fixed in place or in time.

The animal names are useful vocab for kids as they crop up a fair bit in their other books. There is quite a bit of cross-over of vocabulary with their Arabic versions of Gruffalo (Al Gharfoul), The Odd Egg (Al Bayda Al Ageeba) and Monkey and Me (Ana wa Qirdi) because with all of them combined, we have several monkeys, chickens, elephants, bats, snakes and owls. Of course small phrases are even more useful than nouns, but using the cards you can always work on ‘give me…the monkey/cat/snake’, and ‘where is …the frog/giraffe.’ If your kids aren’t too sensitive, you can always work with a verb like ‘eat’:  ‘The crocodile eats the monkey, the snake eats the chicken… what does the bat eat? The spider?’

We went to the zoo recently, and on the way home we told ourselves the story of Monkey and Me, in Arabic, filling in the animals that we had actually seen. The text from the book is short and rhythmic so it is easy to learn off by heart and the oldest actually remembered quite a range of animal names too. Later I can see us using the card to copy the letters, or compare the shape of the letter on its own to the initial joined to the rest of the word.