Native language is primarily unconscious: case in point

It is so hot out now that Yago and I have to take our walk early if we want to escape the blazing sun.  Spanish early that is, about 9:30am.  It’s a busy time on the waterway with all the unemployed dog walkers, fisherman and joggers doing the same.  Since the unemployment rate exploded to over 20% we have noticed a definite increase in morning  pedestrian traffic.

All the better for amusing Yago.  He loves waving hello to the dogs and often people stop to talk to us.   Funny, nobody talked to me before I had a blonde bombshell at my side.

We generally have a standard small talk exchange that begins with the dog and the kid, then shifts to the weather, and then the inevitable, “Your kid is very blonde and you have an accent.  Where are you from?”

I’ll always have an accent.  My Spanish is definitely passable now, but it is obvious that I am not a native speaker.  Yago on the other hand will grow up native in both English and Spanish.  His first (and only) word is Hola.

Lately I have been doing a lot of reading on bilingualism in children.  What sticks out is just how easily children unconsciously absorb language  and what a pain in the butt it is to learn a language as an adult.  Most adults without second language studies hold scant conscious perception of the range of grammar and vocabulary they have assimilated in their native tongue.  The tenses and parts of speech.  All the rules and all the exceptions.  The expressions and colloquialisms.  Most of us use our language all day, but have no idea how it works.

Case in point:

Here is a transcript of one of today’s conversations.  Note:  This conversation took place in Spanish.

  • Stranger with dog:  “Cute kid, hot day, yada yada etc. Where are you from?”
  • Me:  “He was born in Spain and his Dad is Spanish, but I am Canadian.”
  • Stranger:  “Do you speak Spanish?”
  • Me, slightly boggled:  “hhhmmmmmYes, yes I do.”
  • Stranger:  “Well, you really should learn.  That is the problem with you immigrants around here.  You don’t speak Spanish.”
  • Me:  “Good point.  Maybe I’ll look into that.”

I would love to know what language he thought we were speaking.  English?  Pig latin?  Mental telepathy?   Maybe he just wasn’t the sharpest sword in the bull fighting ring.

I considered probing him a bit but let it go.  He was happy that he had told an immigrant what for.  Yago had happily said, “Hola, Hola,  Hola” (in Spanish) to his dog.  And I had something amusing to blog about.

No pictures unfortunately.  The only interesting photo I took today was of a guy taking a leak.  You have that to look forward to tomorrow.



  1. That’s funny, Rea! And you’re so totally right about how amazing children’s brains are particularly when it comes to language learning.

    Your son is gorgeous and I love his name 😉 We call our Santiago, Santi and my husband, who is from Puerto Rico, calls him Chago, but I had never heard Yago before. Do you pronounce the Y like and I?

    I’ve enjoyed visiting your blog and I absolutely LOVE your pictures and the way you write. I’ll be back for sure!
    Thanks for visiting SpanglishBaby and if you ever have a question regarding bilingualism feel free to send it in for one of our awesome experts to answer it!

    Disfruten de la feria. Looks like loads of fun! 🙂

    1. Hola Roxana.

      I love the Chago version! Yago is the typical nickname for Santiago in Galicia, a northern region of Spain with its own language (Gallego). Interestingly, there was a ton of emigration of Gallegos to the Carribean so it may be related. And, yes, it sounds like the root, IAGO, which would be the “James” translation, without the Saint. Do you know any history of where Chago comes from in Puerto Rico?

      I’m loving your blog. Thanks for putting it out there.

  2. I find that my problem here in Spain is that I will hold entire conversations with people in Spanish, while they speak back to me in English (and veryyyy broken English at that). And then the majority of these same people guffaw at the idea that us English-speakers apparently only speak English. Well geez, stop speaking to us in English, especially when we’re fluent in Spanish!

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