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Sunday, November 9, 2008

“¿Qué pasa, calabaza?”

By Rachael Nachtwey

(Translation: What’s up, pumpkin?)

I remember learning this phrase in a Spanish class a few years ago. It was quite possibly the cutest, most endearing greeting I had ever heard. I’ve used it regularly ever since, sometimes to a boyfriend at a particularly loving moment but since boyfriends come and go, this phrase is most often reserved for the toddlers in my lives. My niece, Autumn, was the first to hear it as she has been deemed “the pumpkin” in my life. Then, when I started caring for Ethan and noticed his plethora of Spanish speaking toys, I decided it couldn’t hurt to speak my very basic español to him. What I didn’t realize at first, though, was what great practice this was for me, too, and not just the conversational aspect of it. I was also forced to work on expanding my vocabulary. Sure, I could easily ask him, “¿Quires la leche?” when handing him his bottle but damn if I could say, “You’re right…that is a helicopter out there!” (FYI – Helicopter happens to be helicóptero which neatly fits my theory of “When in doubt, add an ‘o’ to the end of a word”).

So for the past nine months or so, I’ve found myself speaking as much Spanish to Ethan as possible. His parents love it. Why not expose him to another language while his brain is a little sponge? One of his very first words, to my complete surprise and utter joy, was “agua”. Of course, sometimes I get lazy (good Lord, I’m not carrying a pocket dictionary with me at all times!) and my phrases may come out more like, “¿Quieres la agua de…umm…the faucet?”

Although it’s been incredibly helpful to practice my Spanish with an 18-month-old (wow, that is even more pathetic when written down in black and white), I haven’t taken any actual classes for two years and the knowledge that I had gained by gallivanting around Spain has been slowly dissipating. I started to feel discouraged and quite frankly, a little stupid. What’s the point in speaking to Ethan in anything but English? I thought. My vocabulary is so bad and my verb tenses? Ugh! I’m probably just confusing him. Poor guy…he knows ”outside” but stares at me blankly when I ask if he wants to go “afuera”. Maybe you should just leave the kid alone, Rachael, and let him absorb English first instead!

One particular day, I didn’t have the energy to speak to him in anything but our native tongue (borrrring!). I was just too tired. However, after his nap and my three cups of green tea, we had both perked up. As he called me from his bedroom, I started to feel a bit more optimistic. In typical toddler randomness, he peered at me through the crib slats and said, “Ribbit!” For no particular reason, I decided to completely change my mindset and said, “Sí. The frog says ‘ribbit’. Y la rana dice ‘ribbit’, tambien”. He smiled that big toothy grin in response. It was all the encouragement I needed.

I leaned over the bars of his crib and asked, “¿Y qué dice la vaca?”’

“Mooooo!” he replied, laying flat on his back, his drool sopping blanket half covering that smile. I was shocked. Did he just say…? I think I stopped breathing for a minute.

“¡Sí, sí, Ethan, qué bueno!” I paused for a moment. “¿Y qué dice el caballo?”

The blanket flew off his face and those big blue eyes looked at me squarely. He suddenly belted out a “Neighhhhh!” Oh…my…God…

“¡Sí, perfecto!” I squealed, clapping my hands. Do I push my luck? Yes.

“¿Y, Ethan, qué… qué …dice el perro?” I stammered. As my eyes widened in anticipation, his did, too. Now, he was standing up in his crib, clutching the bars, inches from my face.

“Woof, woof!” he cried and began jumping up and down, giggling.

I don’t know who was more excited. Even though he did not yet use many Spanish words, I was finally getting some feedback. He was understanding me and I was absolutely thrilled. I had accomplished something with him that I had never tried with another child. And he seemed just as thrilled with his accomplishment. Yes, he seemed to be thinking, I get it! I’m starting to finally get all your crazy talk! The excitement between us was ramping up more and more.

“¿Y el gato, Ethan? ¿Qué dice el gatito?”

Suddenly, the most sincere look of perplexity. Okay, we need to work on that one.

“¿El pollo??”

“Bock, bock!” And we were back to it. As he jumped and I clapped in an utter frenzy, I thought back to my social work days. Yes, I felt a sense of accomplishment about many of the adoptions I finalized or the homes I found for clients or the jobs I helped secure but those moments were so few and far between. Not only were they infrequent, there was always a sense of impending doom. “How long until he loses the job?” or “When will they get evicted?” But this…this is something that will stick. As long as I keep at it, Ethan will know that a frog as well as a rana says “ribbit”. I am not just someone who hangs out and plays with a kid few hours a week. I am helping to expand a child’s world.

Now if you will excuse me, I’ve got a Spanish class to sign up for.

Nachtwey is a Brooklyn Nanny and regular contributor to Hip Slope Mama.