Four-year-old Mateo E. is a lucky little boy. He has one baby sister, Paloma, and two dads, Fidel and Emil; Also, he speaks three languages, English, Spanish and Polish.
His papa Emil boasts that he’ll walk into Mateo’s room when he’s playing, “and I see he’s got some of his little stuffed animals speaking in Polish, some in Spanish, some in English.”
Bright and outgoing Mateo has been at EDS My Classroom for two years. He's picking up English from everywhere, with friends in the neighborhood and from living in L.A. But at home with Fidel, Mateo speaks only in Spanish. And with Emil, he speaks only in Polish. “We do the one parent, one language, to not confuse him,” explains Fidel, a pre-school special education teacher. “We want him to be multilingual, being that he can absorb it all and the bases of languages and the accents the sounds need to be learned early on in order to speak them.”
Mateo and Paloma started learning before they were born. Fidel remembers recording himself singing songs in Spanish and Emile reading stories in Polish. The surrogate mothers “would put the headphones on their belly so the baby could hear,” Fidel recalls.” Because we know the fetus starts listening at the third trimester.”
A few years ago, Fidel and Emil were learning Spanish from Ms. Ana at their home. Little Mateo would always play with Coco, the EDS toy monkey mascot. “He would take out the mini ukulele and play me songs,” recalls Ana. “He is a little performer.”
It’s no wonder Mateo is a natural at learning languages. His dad Emil, an economic consultant, was born in Poland and moved to New York when he was five. As a child, he also learned French and Spanish. When he was a teen, Emil spent a summer in Quito, teaching art and p.e. to children and teaching their parents to become literate in Spanish. And in college, he studied Japanese and Portuguese.
“I only speak Polish to my parents, and I would go back to Poland almost every summer,” Emil says. “We took Mateo to Poland about two years ago for a couple of weeks, so he met his family and he picked up Polish really quickly."
Fidel was born and raised in the L.A. suburb Whittier. His parents were also born in L.A., and his grandfather moved here from Mexico. He says he spoke Spanish mainly with his babysitter and learned a bit more in school. “Mateo knows that my Spanish is basic and that I'm perfecting things. And so he'll correct me sometimes now, which I'm comfortable with.”
Emil and Fidel say they always knew that when they had children, they’d raise them to be multilingual.
“Travel was super important to us and so was having children who were worldly.” They wanted them to learn to speak other languages sooner rather than later because “after a while if you don't teach it to them, they don't want to learn it.,” says Emil. “We know kids who respond in English only to their parents, even though their parents speak their native language because they don't want to. So that's why it was important for us to have that foundation to start early.”
Mateo started at a daycare where the teachers ended up speaking a lot of Spanglish, but his dads say they were itching to find a place for him to learn just Spanish. They’re happy to have him at EDS, where he has learned to read in Spanish, which Ms. Ana says is quite an accomplishment for a child so young. Through EDS My Classroom Early Literacy curriculum, for example, Ms. Marta has taught him to read the “Pata Pita” book series.
“Now he's, like, riding in the car, reading signs and everything. And it's fun trying to explain to him that, oh yeah, in English this is read this way. But it’s not always that combination of words. You know, it's written this way and it's not pronounced that way,” says Fidel. “Miss Marta goes with him at his level. If he wants more, she'll teach him more. And he's super excited about going to school to see Ms. Ana and Ms. Martha.”
Mateo’s even making jokes in Spanish, for example, with the term “vosotros,” which is used more in Spain than other Spanish speaking countries. And he helps little Paloma. “When he talks to her and he conjugates things, it’s just hilarious,” says Fidel. Mateo is getting ready to begin the dual immersion program at Edison Elementary in Santa Monica this Fall. And Paloma is getting ready to start learning at EDS, like her older brother.