Talking To Myself: Tips for Raising A Bilingual Child for the Non-Native, Fluent Speaker

My fellow traveling parents,

Fear not! Raising a bilingual child when you (the parent) are bilingual, yet not a native speaker, is quite the task; but it is surely not an impossible thing to achieve. The even more amazing thing is that whether it be Spanish, French, or Jamaican Patois, the tips in this article will work for you. Even if you don’t speak a foreign language, you can set your children off on a path that will have a positive impact on their life for years to come.

I should probably start off by saying that I didn’t begin to seriously and actively try to learn Spanish until I was 24 years old. First, I started teaching myself conversational Spanish and grammar with a combination of audio programs, grammar books, and volunteering my time after work at an ESL center in my city. I’ll spare you the details, but you can say I changed a 30-day trip into a 6-month getaway and then the next three years saw me spending my life living and working abroad. I created my own private ESL classes and eventually conversational Spanish classes for other expats. In the first year and a half, I became fluent – living my dreams.

Four years after returning, my son was born. Having him was what can only be described as the greatest joy. I knew right away we’d have the best conversations about life, love, turtles that fight like ninjas, Alex Haley, clownfish named Nemo and all sorts of important topics like that.

But we’d do it in Spanish and English.

IMG: ABCs. Rain Love AMR. Flickr. CCBY 2.0

What I didn’t see coming was the breakup with his mother, the subsequent co-parenting experience, and what that would mean to all sorts of things big and small. It becomes a situation where your child is speaking English in school and with the other parent and their only exposure to speaking another language is when they are with you. That said, I have been truly impressed with my son’s level of speech in both English and Spanish. He’s five now…going on 45 of course! Although he is further in “el inglés,” he can easily switch off into some key phrases in Spanish and, to my great surprise, understand almost all of what I’m saying to him. If he doesn’t want to speak Spanish, then I back off. You never want to make learning feel like a chore!

Every time we greet each other, he prefers to do so in “our private language.” He has fun realizing he can understand people on the street and sometimes when he isn’t sure of what I said, he repeats it in English. I take joy in letting him know he is indeed correct or gently correcting him where necessary. It’s something you have to keep up with, even when you don’t think they are listening or getting it. They are! At times it could be three or four months later, and he’ll throw a word back at me that leaves me “boquiabierta” (mouth wide open/jaw dropped). He tries to form his own new sentences and gets it both wrong and right. But he’s trying. You have to smile at that level of curious interaction and natural genius.

The question you may be asking yourself is: How? I offer you a few of my tips and advice.

TIPS & ADVICE

Speak to them right away from the womb to birth and beyond! There is no need to wait when it comes to a mind that can recognize up to eight different languages in its first year of life. You may want to lean on your second language a bit more, especially if English is the lingua franca of the house.

Create a list of popular cartoons and movies and find their equivalent. I believe my son was three years old when he was visiting my brother’s family and first realized that there was another set of Backyardigans that “spoke English.” He’d been so used to alway seeing the characters in Spanish on Los Backyardigans.

Music! I can’t say this one enough. From nursery rhymes, like BINGO, to Despacito, there is no shortage of tunes to jam to with your kids. Go even further and translate the lyrics together and the Spanish will really stick.

Bedtime stories are also one thing I could always rely on; especially books that had both of my target languages on the printed page and next to pictures. One such book was Perro  Grande…Perro Pequeño (Big Dog…Little Dog). Without noticing, my son was memorizing heaps of vocabulary that he otherwise wouldn’t have been exposed to on a daily basis. Also, his favorite stories became ingrained in his memory, and he began easily recalling parts to me later when asked.

The last piece of advice I’d give is to encourage other people in your child’s life (that speak the target language) to constantly converse with him or her. Any friends or family, babysitters or neighbors that live and work around you can be helpful. When my son was in pre-school, I’d push his teachers and class helpers, who I noticed would chat in Spanish with the kids whom they felt “looked Hispanic,” to talk to him in Spanish as well. I even once met an Afro-Panamanian sister who was the new temporary teacher, and I had to convince her that my son understood us by having him follow directions given in Spanish. She was surprised, but she also became an asset.

You get what you push for; I’d like to think.

If there’s anything I hope to leave you with, it’s the sense that whether you live abroad or in your own country,  immersing your child in a language you have become fluent in is quite possible. Furthermore, those parents who aren’t fluent can follow many of these same steps to the benefit of their children! Before you know it, you’ll have a tiny face looking up at you trying to speak (“hablar” ) with you playfully.

Good Luck (“Buena Suerte”),

Shaun C. Skeete

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