There’s a joke that goes something like this: If someone who speaks many languages is called multilingual and someone who speaks two languages is bilingual, what do you call someone who speaks one language? The punchline: An American.
Ugh. That’s me, along with approximately 80% of Americans. While it’s not too late to start and reap certain brain-related benefits, my husband and I want our children (2 years and 9 months) to start learning as soon as possible. One of our goals is to encourage bilingualism (Spanish) to prepare our children for their future and communicating with others, in addition to any cognitive advantages.
There are challenges for monolinguals like me. I have a very basic understanding of Spanish. In high school I took French. French! It’s a beautiful language and has been helpful in learning Spanish, but in hindsight it is not the most useful now especially while living in Texas. So when I expose our sons to Spanish and learn along with them, I struggle with a limited vocabulary, verb conjugation, and pronunciation among other aspects. Fortunately there is an abundance of resources at our disposal to help on this journey.
Learn the Language: Unlike enrolling your child in swimming, dance, or music lessons where there is a traditional instructor, encouraging language development at home requires active participation from parents and caregivers. Yes, I could sign up the boys for language classes and perhaps someday I will. In the meantime, I feel it is necessary to communicate with them throughout the day in a variety of settings. I’ll be honest: I’m a beginner. I’m not conjugating many verbs yet and have a lot to learn. And I see that as a fun adventure that we can enjoy together. Moreover, kids watch what we do so it only seems fair and sensible to lead by example. Before I had two kids under two, I really liked using Duolingo and Fluenz. Somehow I have less time for these now and learn along with our boys.
Make It Relevant- Incorporate the language into your normal routines to build connections to concrete objects and people. I narrate a lot of activities and observations in English and I try my best with words and phrases in Spanish while grocery shopping, getting dressed, driving, going for walks, cooking meals, playing with them, etc. Holding (when allowed), touching (gently!), smelling, and looking at an actual fish at the aquarium is more memorable and engaging than merely looking at a picture of one. My attempts are certainly not perfect, but I use what I know and I am continuing to learn. It’s a start and their brains are absorbing it.
Use Music: We love music! Whether we are actively singing along and dancing/drumming to the music or just listening to it while we color or eat a snack, this is a simple and fun way to expose kids to another language. And it’s helping my learning too! I remember lyrical grammar better than rules and conjugation charts, and kids do too. Bilingual songs are truly gems! We have a few cds from friends and rotate cds from the library. I am thrilled to add Kids’ Candor’s songs to our growing collection! Catchy lyrics and melodies stick, and if you’re like me, you may find yourself singing songs even when your children aren’t in the same room. (Anyone else?)
Read: Kids love being read to. We have bilingual books at home that our older son adores and we are fortunate that our library has a decent bilingual collection (as there should be in every public library… especially in Texas!). Two of his favorites are “Quiero a mi mamá porque...I Love My Mommy Because” and “Quiero a mi papá porque...I Love My Daddy Because” (as he should) and he loves learning all the animals’ names in English and Spanish. Because we read a lot of books, this is where I have learned the most grammar and verb conjugation. I have to sound out a lot of words, which is great modeling for kids learning to read, and I find it helps when books have pronunciation keys. When there isn’t one and I’m stuck, I usually ask my husband (who took Spanish in school but is the first to admit he is rusty), a friend, or Google Translate. In addition to books, look for other print materials to read to your kids such as food containers, signs, posters, and brochures.
Use Visuals: Act out what you are saying. Use hand gestures, body movements, and props too! This pairs well with using music and reading. Kids will remember more when they are able to include their own movements.
Encourage Practice with Others: If you are like us and speak predominantly one language at home, there are many ways to communicate with others in another language. If they can’t speak in person, active screen time like Skype and Facetime make it easy for audio and visual connections.Your friends and neighbors can be resources too. There may even be bilingual Meetup groups in your area. At our children’s museum and grocery stores, some employees wear “hablo español” buttons; I haven’t initiated conversations yet but plan to step out of my comfort zone by doing this soon.
Optimize Screen Time Wisely: I literally have to hide my cell phone from our kids. If I don’t, somehow our baby will chew on it so a puddle of his drool makes the touch screen inoperable or our toddler will hack his way into YouTube and veg out to 800 versions of “The Wheels on the Bus”. This interest isn’t necessarily bad and it is an opportunity for me to incorporate Spanish clips, playlists, and interactive apps for our toddler when he does use it or the iPad. It is important to distinguish between passive and active screen time and to acknowledge that each parent has his or her own limit and balance for how much is appropriate considering the context, content, and child. For our 2 year old, I try to limit passive screen time to less than an hour total a day and I am working on making the interactive components more accessible and navigable for him. As for tv shows, he doesn’t have the attention span to watch more than 3 minutes of any episode yet including “El Mundo De Elmo” and its English version “Elmo’s World”, which is fine with me, so this will be new when we get there. My hope is that I can use any screen time to include Spanish and less time passively watching animals riding a bus, unless it’s an autobús.
Repetition and consistency are important for kids to learn. Whichever ideas or combinations you are using or plan to use, try to do it every day. If you take a break, start again. If you’re considering another language and you’re a monolingual too, try starting with numbers and colors. Our toddler seemed to grasp these quickly and we can easily incorporate these into everyday activities. Consider joining your kids in the adventure! Kids are great at mimicking what they see. Whatever we are doing, they want to do it too.
What are some ways that you encourage bilingualism?