You took a lot of German in college, or you studied a year abroad in Mexico City. How do you pass the benefits of your hard work onto your kids? Here are my thoughts on bilingual parenting, after ten years as a Spanish- and English-speaking mom.
Growing up, I studied Spanish for 12 years. That’s a lot of flash cards and vocabulary lists. And, ha ha, you never expect the Spanish subjunctive! (I wish I were a bullfrog….Deseo que yo fuera una rana toro.) Then, I was lucky enough to live abroad in Chile for a year with my partner. We returned to the US and settled down; thought about having a family. Maybe a bilingual family? After the years it took me to memorize thousands of words, slog through the multitudinous tenses, attempt as authentic an accent as posible, and commit silly grammar mistakes, I wanted our bebé to have an easier road to fluency.
On to creating the child; after long and frustrating period of five years with no luck, we were pregnant! At that time I was singing in a local Latin American folk group. I was speaking Spanish with friends during the practices twice a week and singing songs in Spanish. The group was great fun and we performed several times a year. Six months into the pregnancy, my little fish started to be active at night when I was trying to sleep. I trotted out my folk songs en español to sing our child to sleep in my belly. After I finished singing every single one I know in both languages, we both slept.
Wait, how could I teach our child Spanish if I’m not a native speaker of the language? That is the Fake Flamenco of this story! Our very best is good enough; I need not be perfect to teach our child something. I’m not a great soccer player, but I can teach our child to kick a ball and pass it to a teammate. Just so, I make grammar mistakes, but what I teach well is communication. A decade later, our child is bilingual in Spanish and English. This journey began with una idea…
What if I speak Spanish to our child from the moment I first hold them? And then as many moments as I can after that? That was the foundation of this experiment, and ten years later our child does speak and read Spanish! Interested in how?
5 Tips for Bilingual Parenting
- Commit. Decide you have the tenacity for this long term goal. You can do it.
- Start early. Begin during pregnancy if possible. Yes, the little tykes can hear what you’re saying that early! In utero they catalogue sounds and get to know the voices of their parents. Next best time is from birth onward. If your child is over 12, you might start with language camps first.
- Make a routine. When will you speak the language? Which parts of the daily routine will be in Spanish (or another language)? We speak Spanish in the morning and evening weekdays, and add conversing in Spanish from morning until noon weekends and holidays.
- Create Community. Seek a dual immersion program at your local school so your child is fluent in reading and writing as well. Use an app like Meetup to form a group of bilingual families that share your language pair. We did both. Learning to read in Spanish was one of the best academic gifts we gave to our child. The words actually sound like they’re spelled! Socializing with other Spanish-speaking families is a wonderful treat for us. Kids love sharing their “home language” with other children who speak it too.
- Entertain. While speaking Spanish, play games, play Legos, read books, and read magazines. When they are old enough, see movies in Spanish (animated films are great for this!) Any activity that you can do in English, you can do in another language.
What if my spouse doesn’t speak my second language? It’s still possible. My partner speaks conversational Spanish, but usually leaves the conversaciones en español to us.
Kids are wired to learn languages. Why not give them a leg up for their future? Snow is optional. <wink>
I look forward to your comments.