From the very beginning, my husband and I agreed that we wanted to speak to our kids solely in Spanish. This was a no-brainer as we knew they would pick up English by speaking with other family members and friends, by watching TV, and eventually going to school. So at home, we speak mainly Spanish and sometimes Spanglish. Every now and then, a few English words or phrases slip from my mouth, and expressions like “Oh my God” naturally blurt out when I’m communicating any type of emotion (surprise, excitement, frustration, etc.). And Liam has been quick to pick up my expressions.
But every day, I am grateful that my parents live close by and take care of my kids while I’m at work. The fact that my kids are developing a meaningful relationship with their grandparents is something both my husband and I wanted since we both had strong bonds with our own grandparents. Beyond stocking up on indelible memories with poh-poh and kun-kun (grandma and grandpa in Chinese), I am even more grateful that my parents speak to the kids in Chinese. Exposing the kids to the language on a daily basis has in turn made them trilingual (well, at least in Liam’s case, since Lucas is still too young to speak, but he is soaking it all up even at his young age).
The road to raising trilingual children has not been an easy one, in the sense that it requires consistency and commitment. At first, it felt awkward to speak to my infant first-born in any language at all, let alone Spanish. But slowly, I overcame that awkwardness and started speaking to him as much and as often as I could, describing everything that I was doing, pointing to things when we were in the car, making up songs at night, etc. All in Spanish. As Liam became more verbal and started understanding and responding to me more, it became second nature to have conversations with him about our daily routines and life in general. Now that Lucas joined the gang, we add him to our conversations even if he’s not responding back (not yet at least).
Another challenge in speaking to our kids solely in Spanish has been that some words are just easier in English, especially when you’re trying to teach new words to a toddler. Take for example the word book. In Spanish is libro, which is two syllables: li-bro. Many times I was tempted to ask Liam to say the monosyllabic English word, book. Book! It’s just one sound! But I resisted the urge to go the easy way. Li-bro. Not that hard and he eventually said it. But take another example; the word (or words) for puzzle in Spanish is rompe cabezas (its literal translation would be head breaker?). What child will not want to choose the word puzzle over rompe cabezas? I know I would.
In the end, the rewards of communicating with my kids in my mother tongue are beyond amazing! In a way, teaching my children a second (or third) language is my gift to them. It is my way of passing a precious family token. And in the process, I have learned a few things:
- People will stare at you. This could be good or bad. Whether the person staring at you is judging or just being curious, do not let it discourage you. So far, the only strangers who have approached me in public spaces when I speak to my kids in a language other than English has been other parents who speak a language other than English.
- People will question your efforts. I have mainly experienced this from family members who are concerned with our kids’ ability to “catch up” when they’re in school. I politely thank them for their concern and carry on.
- Your child might not always talk to you in your language. Lately, Liam has been responding to me in English. Not sure if it’s a sign of resistance or just him having fun exploring another language. Either way, I always respond to him in Spanish. My parents practice another approach in which they won’t respond, unless Liam speaks to them in Chinese. Both strategies seem to work!
- You will get frustrated. See my comment above regarding the word puzzle!
- Your heart will melt. Include in here both sets of grandparents. Hearing your child speak to his grandparents in a language they understand has no price.
Tips on exposing your kids to another language
Even if you don’t speak another language fluently or don’t speak it at all, there are ways in which you can expose your child to different languages. It can be fun and it may require that you learn a few words along the way too!
- Have sing alongs. You’ll be surprised by how many familiar nursery rhymes you can find in other languages. Look them up on youtube and hum to the tune with your child. My favorites are Frère Jacques and ¿Estrellita dónde estás? (Twinkle, twinkle, little star in Spanish).
- Play I spy. Choose a language. Learn the basic colors in that language (yes, this requires that you do some homework!). Play I spy with your kids saying the colors in the chosen language.
- Watch cartoons! Depending on your child’s age and your screen time policy, look for cartoons in another language and watch them with your child. Dora the Explorer is not a bad way to start.
- Stick a label. Again, depending on your child’s age, label different objects around the house in your language of choice. Practice calling these objects aloud with your child.
- Try a new recipe. If you’re adventurous and love to try new foods (and assuming your child does too), try picking a recipe from another country and make it an international night at home (crepes count too!). Ask your child how to say the ingredients in the language spoken in the recipe’s country of origin.
- Repeat, repeat, repeat. I know this isn’t going to make your child fluent in any given language. And even if these activities seem superficial, you will be surprised by the power of repetition! Besides, exposing your child to a different language(s) at an early age can increase their ability to learn a new language, develop an appreciation for other cultures, and even improve their future academic success!
Do you have any ideas for exposing your children to a different language? Have you tried any of these ideas? Did they work or flop? Let me know!