Two of my children are bilingual.
One is not.
Given my family’s 66% success rate, I am reevaluating what works for raising bilingual children, and what we may be doing that clearly isn’t working at all.
First, I’ll give you a bit of my family’s background. My kids were all born in Mexico, and my husband is Mexican. We spoke English at home and Spanish when we were on the street, at school, and with friends and extended family. Once my kids were in preschool for a few months, raising my children to be bilingual was nearly effortless.
Then we moved to Toledo last year.
Now we’re speaking English 100% of the time, which explains why my four-year-old doesn’t understand Spanish anymore.
So What Does Work?
One Parent, One Language
In many bilingual families, one parent will speak exclusively to their children in one language, while the other parent will speak to their children exclusively in another language. This works for plenty of families. (parents who use this method, please comment with any tips!)
I notice when I begin a relationship with a new bilingual friend, the language that we began our relationship with is the one we tend to use. Trying to use the other language with this friend often seems forced, or odd. I’ve noticed this with my kids, too. As they are used to talking with my 90% of the time in English, it really takes some prodding to get them to continue a conversation with me in Spanish. It just feels weird.
In our case, the same is true with my kids and their dad, even though he’s a native Spanish speaker, and my kids are native Spanish speakers. Trying to navigate their relationship in a different language isn’t comfortable (at first). But he is working to switch to Spanish when speaking to our kids, now that we live in the US. Slowly but surely, they’re following his lead.
Minority Language at Home
We used the “Minority Language at Home” method when we lived in Mexico. It worked wonderfully! At home, we spoke English. Everywhere else, we used Spanish.
While this method worked beautifully for us, it did have some glitches. When my daughter first attended preschool, her teacher was mystified about why she didn’t sound like a normal 4-year-old. The teacher wasn’t aware that we didn’t speak Spanish at home. So my daughter was a Spanish-as-a Second-Language student in Mexico for a few months. Not long after that, my husband’s cousin came to live with us, and she filled in the rest of my kids’ language gaps.
But now, while living in Ohio, trying to convert my English-speaking home into a Spanish-speaking home is proving to be more difficult than anticipated.
It may be difficult to convert my English-only home to a Spanish-speaking home, but we’re trying. And–let’s face it–trying is the most important thing we can do.
As my kids understandably resist my botched-up Spanish, we wait until my husband is at home. When we sit down and have dinner, we try to speak entirely in Spanish. At first, the eight-year-old protested. The ten-year-old even left the table.
But we persisted.
The older kids now know that dinnertime is Spanish time. Now that we’re getting into a habit, it’s beginning to feel normal to talk to my husband in Spanish. (He’s another one who resisted talking to me in Spanish for YEARS.) But we all realize that this is a long-term goal that we’re committed to. My kids suck it up and deal with my accent while I remind them of words they have forgotten.
Even though the four-year-old still doesn’t understand us at all, we’re taking the time to explain words to him (three or four at a time) and he’s cooperating by repeating them back, and trying to identify the object we’re explaining to him.
All we can do it try.
Trying, combined with consistency and perseverance, will help our kids maintain both languages. With lot of trying, consistency, and perseverance, even our four-year-old will become bilingual one of these days.
Meanwhile, we’ll keep persisting.
Resources Online & in Toledo
- Spanglishbaby.com–website for bilingual parents (given the name, most specific references are for English/Spanish bilingual families, but it is a handy resource for any bilingual family, regardless of language). Admittedly, this site hasn’t been updated in years, but it’s still full of great information.
- Escuela SMART–Toledo Public School’s Spanish/English Bilingual elementary school.
- Al-Bayan Arabic School–Arabic classes for all ages through the Masjid Saad Foundation in Sylvania.
- Chinese Center of Toledo–resources and classes for both Chinese families in the Toledo area and for students with no prior knowledge who would like to learn Chinese.
- Alliance Francaise–French lessons for all ages in Toledo.
- Usborne Books–this publisher has an excellent list of titles in Spanish. If you need even more (with titles that often aren’t translated) try out Gandhi booksellers in Mexico . . . but check how much it costs to deliver to the US before ordering!
Do you know of other great resources for bilingual families of any language? Comment below! We’d love to learn about more NW Ohio or online resources.