We have 2 amazingly awesome girls, age 3 and 5. My wife being from Panama and me being bilingual, it’s always been our hope to raise bilingual kids. We always heard the common refrains “kids learn easy”, “if mom only speaks to them in Spanish, they’ll learn easy”, and “of course they’ll learn with no effort on either their part or yours”. In recent years we’ve come to find out that many of those assumptions are not true, or only partially true.
Things were going swimmingly with our older daughter until when she was about to turn 4 years old. Prior to that, she actually had been speaking Spanish. When she first learned to talk, she would speak some words in Spanish and some words in English. When she was around 3, I remember she had the ability to say something to my mother in English, and then to turn and say something to my mother-in-law in Spanish. Then it all changed. When she was approaching 4, she noticed that her peers only spoke English. All of the sudden she didn’t want to consume Spanish media (Plaza Sésamo), she didn’t respond to us in Spanish anymore, and even with coaxing she just plain didn’t seem to want to have anything to do with the Spanish language.
Thus began our quest to maintain her ability to speak Spanish, and to raise her younger sister speaking as well. We’ve always read stories in Spanish, spoke with the kids in Spanish, listened to Latin music around the house, and have done many other things to encourage their speaking and comprehension. We’ve also been fortunate enough to travel to Panama to visit our in-laws on several occasions over the last few years, and are actually just getting back from a trip now. This is a huge brightspot. When the girls get around their cousins and other kids, they naturally start speaking a little more, and learn very rapidly. In 2014, when we came back from our trip, to help the girls maintain their skill level we joined El Cículo Juvenil de Cultura, a program for Spanish speaking children in Pittsburgh PA to provide a place for kids to learn in Spanish with other Spanish speaking children and Spanish volunteers. It is an excellent program that incorporates many aspects of Latin American culture. That program happens to conflict with another family obligation, so we only did it for one semester. After that, the girls interest in Spanish plummeted again, although we continued reading to them, speaking to them, listening to music, and trying to use Spanish in the house in any way we possibly could.
A year and a half passed before our most recent trip to Panama. This time, we all went together for 3 weeks, but then we left the girls with their abuela for an extra 2 weeks. Even during the time we were there together, the girls started speaking more Spanish, mostly mixing sentences in Spanish and English (“Mira what I can hago” or “Do you want to jugar conmigo?”). Now that the girls have returned they are speaking considerably more, translating their thoughts to abuela, who is staying with us for a month. So, how do we plan on maintaining it this time?
For one, we’re going to try to always speak Spanish at home. We’re going to put our dvds on in Spanish at least half of the time (they do always ask for them in English). We’re going to buy kids music cds in Spanish, as well as the Speak Spanish with Dora and Diego cds and play them in the car. We’ll continue to go to all of the Latino community events in Pittsburgh that we possibly can (although those events usually mean adults speaking Spanish with all of the kids playing in English). Another great thing for us is some of the kids’ cousins are coming up from Panama in January, this will give the kids an opportunity to be around Spanish more, although we will try to make it an immersive English experience for them!
I’ll be posting our progress here on this blog. Do any of you have any experience with having kids speak non-dominant languages? What strategies do you use? I’d love to hear your feedback!
Also, look forward to reviews on some raising your kids bilingual books that I'll be reading in the near future.