Series Post: Is Your Bilingual Baby Confused? (And How to Relax in the “Sponge Stage”)

We’re tackling a common question this week: Is Guapa confused while being exposed to two languages?

Yesterday, we talked about how sign language has served as a wonderful bridge in Guapa’s ability to communicate, no matter the current language situation.

Today, I would like to describe what I have come to call “The Sponge Stage”.


When a sequential bilingual (i.e. Tico or me) enters into a language learning process, there is often a 6 month period in which the learner does not speak in the second language. Oftentimes the learner is absorbing so many new things all at once and does not have the mental stamina yet to quickly engage in conversation.

Among educators, we call this the “silent period”. I like to call it the “sponge stage” because the second language learner is absorbing everything around them via listening and reading. They’re not ready yet to speak and write!

Conversation in a second language as a sequential bilingual is actually quite a complex process at the beginning. It goes something like this: Someone speaks in the second language. The learner translates what was said into their first language, determines an appropriate response (again in the first language), and then translates said response back into the second language… often a painfully slow, humbling process as the original speaker patiently awaits a response.

Painful? Slow? Humbling? No wonder there’s a silent period!

Intense. My first 6 months of Spanish immersion were so intense that I would have migraines. I was so motivated to communicate, yet so frustrated that I couldn’t communicate, that my body even had physical reactions! (Did I mention it’s an intense stage?!)

But remember, that’s the sponge stage as a sequential bilingual. That’s me learning English for the first 22 years of my life and then diving into an immersion experience for 3 years.

Guapa is not in my shoes, and she never will be (at least with English or Spanish! Maybe another language?!).

Guapa is a simultaneous bilingual, which is a game changer. She is absorbing EVERYTHING around her, like all babies and toddlers do, just like a sponge soaks up water.

And for this reason, she is also in a “sponge stage”.

She’s a sponge. Soaking up Spanish as Tico and I talk to her. Soaking up English as we visit my family. Soaking up English at day care. Soaking up Spanish soon when we visit Costa Rica (in March!).

She absorbs.

Then she tries out those words she’s hearing.

And at this point, she’s trying out ALL the words without determining if it is an English situation or a Spanish situation. There’s no separation in her mind of which is which.

(That comes later… what I call “the classification stage”… more on that tomorrow!)

It’s not just the bilinguals that are in this sponge stage: All babies and toddlers are! Even if a child is learning one language, he absorbs and learns to use that one language he hears to communicate what he wants. The parents accept lots of meaningful gibberish from the very beginning that slowly morphs into language that is understandable to those beyond the family unit.

Meaningful gibberish can be a helpful communication tool as long as the parents are in tune with the toddler’s current babble.

For example, Guapa says “ma ma” (her current version of milk) and we respond with “leche”. She uses the “milk” sign and we echo that back to her while using the Spanish word. Another example might be when any child says something like “pasguetti” or “callipider” and we know exactly what they’re talking about.

After meaningful gibberish experiments, our toddlers move beyond meaningful gibberish to actual words. Guapa is currently in a language stage of one-syllable words, sometimes two syllables. While she has a larger speaking vocabulary in English, I realized the other day that most of these words have one or two syllables, while their translated Spanish word has three, four, or even five syllables. She seems to understand what we say to her in Spanish, and for now she responds in her one-syllable English word.

Example: As she obviously finishes a meal (you know, the toddler refusal to eat any more bites of even the best thing on her plate), we say “Has terminado?” to, you know, double check. She eagerly waves her hands in the sign and proclaims, “All done!”

“All done” is way easier to say than “He terminado.” Touche.

An advantage Tico and I have is knowing all three of her languages and being able to respond in Spanish no matter what language she is trying to use to communicate. For example, when she says in English “hand” and holds up her hand for me to see, I can respond in Spanish (the minority language) with “Ah si Guapa, es tu mano!” Responding in the target minority language (in my humble opinion) is key at this point.

So I guess we’re in a stage of accepting whatever she uses to communicate as she absorbs and uses all her words and signs to communicate regardless of the language situation.

Does this mean she’s confused? Again, I don’t think so. She knows exactly what she wants so there’s no confusion!

We’ll take a look tomorrow at what I call “The Classification Stage”, which will come someday in Guapa’s future!

Again, feel free to comment or add your questions below! We want to be a resource for YOU and hear your ideas too!!

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