Friday, October 12, 2007

Bilingual Babies

I have been in awe and wonderment as my own children have developed so naturally with both English and Spanish. When they were very little, my husband and I spoke almost exclusively Spanish with them. As they have gotten older we have instituted certain routines and rituals into our daily lives. We have meals in Spanish, bath time in Spanish, and bedtime stories in Spanish. That is not to say that throughout the day we don't communicate in Spanish, which we do often. We have just decided to make particular times of the day Spanish only, and we encourage our children to communicate and develop their vocabulary. When we travel to Mexico or visit our relatives, my children are able to communicate effectively and effortlessly. It is amazing to watch their development, as they just absorb and retain the language. As parents however, we need to make an conscientious effort to keep the language alive, so that the children do not fall into the rut of answering in English. As a teacher, I have seen so many children that fully understand a second language, but are not able to communicate because it was never enforced that they answer in the target language. Being bilingual is such an incredible gift, and although it may take some family effort and participation, encouraging your children to speak and practice will pay off in the long run!

Raising bilingual children often comes with some triumphs and blunders. My children's personalities are very different and their learning styles were very different. My daughter merely absorbed the Spanish language and was speaking and understanding both languages well before she was 2. She also had the unique insight to know who spoke English and who spoke Spanish. She was very precise in who she addressed and in what language. My daughter also could easily switch from one language to another with an understanding of the difference between English and Spanish. My son, whom we affectionately refer to as ' el tremendo' was and is a different story. Most of his first words were in Spanish and he understood commands and discipline very well in Spanish. I was not surprised at 16 months, his babysitter asked for 'cheat sheet" of Spanish phrases that she could post on her fridge. I was so excited that she wanted to communicate with him and thought perhaps she wanted the basic ( colors, numbers, greetings, food). But no, she was interested in how to say " get down, no climbing, no throwing, be careful, etc". Apparently since we had not been disciplining him in English and he just didn't respond to her! My son also spoke to whomever he wished in Spanish, seemingly having no clue if they were Spanish speakers or not. I often had confused looks from the nursery workers in the church as I dropped him off and heard him shouting ' pelota!". Just as the language develops, everything begins to fall into place. Now at age three, he clearly understands the difference between Spanish and English and will respond appropriately when asked in each language. He still does respond better to discipline when spoken to in Spanish, but maybe that is because he is 'el tremendo'.

Why did you decide to expose your child to a second language? Are you having success? Are you having problems? Do you have any funny stories to share? Do you have any questions about bilingual development? I would love to hear stories, suggestions, feedback about your experiences.


ferret said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
ferret said...

I want my child to be able to compete in a global economy, so that means not only speaking one language. I also want to take advantage of my child's "language sensitive" period, when she is learning the names and function of different language. There are also many bilingual children in my school system and I would like them to feel more welcome by having my child to converse with.

Jean Evich

ransomkidz said...

I am very happy with my daughters development of the Spanish language. Earlier this week her preschool teacher asked how her Spanish classes were coming along, apparently she has been substituting Spanish words for English words in the classroom. I don't think this is her getting confused between Spanish and English, I think this is just her way of reinforcing words she knows in both languages.

One other thing we do to help reinforce the language is by letting her watch her favorite movies: Cinderella, Alice in Wonderland, etc in the "Spanish" mode. She already knows what happens in these movies, but now she watches them in Spanish and is able to pick up on key words as well as hearing the language spoken. This is especially helpful since neither my husband or I are fluent in Spanish.

Tse Family said...

Being from Texas, we intended to expose our kids to Spanish and hoped to continue their learning so that they not only had the knowledge, but the confidence to speak Spanish better than we do. Because we will be living in Belgium the next few years we are taking advantage of the French exposure. Even our "old" brains are picking up the language enough to get by. I am taking a survival French class and have been pleasantly surprised with how much I know (when I knew almost none 6 months ago) and really need to focus on the confidence. The kids begin learning French right away in school, but they are not immersed so we don't expect them to become fluent without a lot of work. They have gone through phases where they are excited about it and other times annoyed. It has helped to be around so many other children who speak more than one language here. To them it isn't weird or strange to learn a language other than English. Our 5 year old did put up a fight in the beginning because he thought that we were going to stop speaking English and speak only French like everyone here. He seemed relieved when we promised him he would always be able to speak English. They also watch us and realize that we think it is important enough to take classes or practice ourselves. Daddy is learning German for work and also has the opportunity to practice Spanish often when traveling for work in Argentina and Spain. (We are learning that Spanish in Spain sounds very differnt than what we are used to!) The kids are learning so much about languages and cultures while living here (as are we) and we know that it will benefit them in the future.

spnmom said...

My child is 3, understands everythings in Spanish but doesn't communicate in the language. I am bilingual, but my husband is not. I read, speak, do activities and expose her to as many spanish things as possible. Will she ever be able to communicate in Spanish?

Maestra Jen said...

spnmom, you are doing a great job exposing your daughter to Spanish! All of those things will continue to stimulate her and reinforce her understanding. Bilingual children have a longer silent period often before they produce the language. Right now she is absorbing and retaining everything you are saying to her. In my family we are consistent with our 'communication' time. Lots of repetition and reinforcement. With my 3 year old, if he answers in English, we immediately say 'dime por favor.. or whatever the word is. We have even started a sticker/reward chart with my older daughter so that she will be intentional about responding in the target language. I am sure you will be surprised and pleased that very soon your daughter will be using the Spanish that you have been teaching her. Some ideas to get her to respond in Spanish is to 'trick' her... for example while playing point something out that is blue and ask 'es rojo'? or with animals, hold up a toy dog and ask 'es un gato'?. Kids will respond because they know the correct answer. Good luck! Keep doing what you are doing. Your daughter is very lucky to have the opportunity to be bilingual. Thanks for posting. Email me via our contact us form on our website and I will send you a free gift for posting. Gracias!

maureenv said...

Hi Jen

I really want my son to learn Spanish,as his father is hispanic and speaks some Spanish,I only speak alittle. There are no classes in our area so far so what would you suggest for a 4yo? Thanks.

Maureen Vazquez

Maestra Jen said...

Hi Maureen,

If you don't have classes in your area, you can do lots of exposure at home. Play based learning is very effective for preschoolers, as they just learn naturally. It is great that both you and your husband already know Spanish. Music and songs are a great way to hear the language and reinforce pronunciation. We love to listen to Jose Luis Orozco, as his music is fun and easy to sing along. Check out his site Also, have you checked the children's section of your library? We often find great stories on tape and videos in Spanish. Another idea is to make a certain time of the day ' Spanish only'. For instance, maybe meal times or bath time. Play " I spy" w/ colors or objects. Often kids will respond more freely when they are having fun and just naturally playing. Good luck! It is wonderful that you are exposing your son to Spanish. I am sure your husband is proud as well, that his son will have the opportunity to be bilingual and learn about his heritage. Contact me via our Contact Us form on my website, as you qualified for a free gift for posting. Gracias!


Becca said...

I was reading your response to a blogger who was concerned if her child would be able to communicate in Spanish. I under stood she was being exposed to the language in many ways. What really caught my attention was the info on the silent period. I would like to learn more abount this and bilingual children.