My husband is from Ecuador in South America so his first language is Spanish. Even though all of children were born in the UK it is incredibly important to us that they understand both Spanish and English. I am in no way an expert in the science of raising bilingual children. I thought it might be interesting to leave the theory aside and instead share our experience as a bilingual family.
Being a bilingual household
I don’t think we ever had a conversation before our eldest child was born about whether we were going to raise her as bilingual. It was pretty much a given. We decided that to keep things simple – Rolando would speak to Sofia in Spanish and I would speak to her in English. I understand Spanish pretty well so this approach works for us. I can understand what Rolando is saying all of the time even if I’m speaking in English. This might be something that you would approach differently as a couple if you didn’t both speak or understand that same languages.
Starting from birth
My gut instinct was that it was important for Sofia to hear the sounds of each language even when she was a tiny baby so that she could recognise and tune into the different distinctive sounds and tones of each. This is the basis of what we did.
Some people advised me that speaking two languages at home could potentially delay our daughter’s language development as we were giving her more information to process. But we decided that this approach made the most sense to us. I think it would have been odd to speak English first and then at some point add in the second language. In actual fact Sofia was an early talker and understood a lot of both languages from a very early age.
Slow natural process
The beauty of being a two language household is that it is a very slow and gradual process that doesn’t really feel like you are teaching your child a second language. It is so natural for Sofia to hear English and Spanish she picked up both through listening to us day by day and absorbing both languages like a sponge. We could tell she understood both languages even when she was very little as she would respond to instructions like “please shut the door” regardless of whether it was asked in English or Spanish. If we were looking at a picture book and asked her to point at something she would do this whether we asked in English or Spanish. She never really questioned why there was two different ways to say everything. It really was a joy to see.
Playing with words
I noticed from a very young age that Sofia was really flexible and creative with language. She plays with words and ways of saying things. When she was little she used to love making up rhymes with nonsense words or making up funny names for things. Even now she loves to read and write stories. I often wonder if this was a side effect of being experimental with words from a very young age.
Our twins language development
Things have been a little bit different for our twins language development. Speech in general has come much later for them. I was a bit worried that by 2.5 years they were still barely speaking, now at nearly 3.5 they have learnt a lot are still much less verbal than I think typical children of their age. There pronunciation is not very refined and there are often moments of frustration when they can’t make themselves understood.
It is possible that us being a bilingual household is a factor in this. But I also think there are other things that are relevant. Second children tend to speak later (as their older sibling steps in to express their needs for them). The language development of boys can be slower than girls. I think my boys have channelled all of their effort into being incredibly physical instead. I think the fact that Sam and Leo are twins is also relevant. At the age where Sofia was starting to try and talk to us they were babbling away to each other in their own made up way. They didn’t seem in a rush to learn our way of talking.
Even though the boys are a little behind with their speech we are still using the same approach as we have with Sofia. Rolando speaking Spanish to them and me speaking in English. To help with their speech development we are just trying to talk to them as much as we can. We try and help them when they are struggling to express themselves.
Where Sofia is at now
Sofia is now 7.5 years old. She understands a lot of Spanish and has lovely natural pronunciation. I can see that she take pride in speaking two languages although she is a little bit self conscious to speak Spanish in front of people. At home she calls Rolando Papi but if she is talking to her school friends she will refer to him as Dad. I guess it’s natural to want to fit in with everyone else. Sofia will talk to her Ecuadorian relative on the phone in Spanish but it takes a little bit of coaxing to get her to do this (she isn’t a massive fan of speaking on the phone in general). She is a bit more happy to speak to her relatives in Spanish if we talk via Skyp and she can see them. I really look forward to the day when she meets all of her Ecuadorian cousins face to face and they can talk to each other.
Tips for raising bilingual children
I’m not an expert but I think the tips that I would pass on to other families who want to raise bilingual children are……
It takes a lot of commitment for the person speaking the second language to do this all day, everyday especially as the results are not going to be seen for years to come. I give full credit to Rolando for the effort he is making to speak to our kids in Spanish everyday. I think out of everything this is the most important factor in raising your kids to be bilingual.
Make it fun
We have a few picture books in Spanish that Rolando can read to the kids. Before Sofia knew how to read Rolando just translated English story books as he went along so anything could potentially be made into a Spanish story. We like to find things that the kids to watch in Spanish on the internet. There are tonnes of Spanish videos available on YouTube. We have found a lot of clips from Disney films in Spanish and the Spanish versions of their favourite TV like Charlie and Lola. Rolando sings Spanish kids songs to the kids that he remembers from his childhood and they sing along to Spanish pop music.
It really is a very slow and gradual process. I guess you could supplement conversation at home with formal language classes. This is not something that we have done but I wouldn’t completely rule it out in the future.
We never try and push the kids to speak their other language. Sofia in particular has always hated being put on the spot to perform in anyway and I think that if we did this with speaking in Spanish it would have a detrimental effect. I think if it felt pressured the kids would probably react against this and insist on exclusively speaking English. Instead we are positive and encouraging whenever the kids speak in Spanish.
What is your experience?
I’m genuinely fascinated by the way people approach language with their kids. Are you a bilingual household? What approach have you taken to teaching your kids two languages?