Raising a Bilingual Bambino

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If you know me, you know: I’m from Trinidad and Tobago. I live in Madrid and I’m married to a Spaniard. I have a 11 month old son, Liam, who I am borderline obsessed with!

One of the things people usually say to me, is how lucky my son is, that he will be bilingual. They also say that it will be so easy for him and that it should be even easier because I’m a teacher! Then they start in with the advice [read: orders] on how to make sure he’s bilingual. At this point, I usually get slightly annoyed, especially when the advice is coming from people who only speak one language. I mean, I only have a Master’s degree in Bilingual and Multicultural Education. I only speak 2 and a half language- but what do I know?

Aside from the fact that I have a real problem with people telling me what to do- I have probably an even bigger issue with people telling me what to do when it comes to raising my child. I am not a know-it-all and I am VERY comfortable asking for help and or advice when I feel it’s necessary.

I/we have decided to raise our children without too many set rules. Before you gasp and clutch your pearls- NO, we’re not going to have a bunch of wild, wayward children running around the city. Our children will have chores, be taught manners and general right from wrong. What I mean is that, we I completely willing to adjust our ideas, as we go along, depending on out children and their needs.

Each child is different. Think of your own siblings (if you have any). I’m pretty sure you sometimes question how you are even related- I know I do! (Hi brother!) Seriously though, what may work for one of your children may not work for another (child of yours).

That is pretty much the stance I have taken when it comes to raising a bilingual child. It seems to me that Liam, though he is only 11 months old, is pretty headstrong- as much as a baby can be anyway. He likes what he likes; how he likes it (just like his mamá!) I think most children go through that little defiant stage where you tell them “No!” and they look you in the eye and do EXACTLY what you, in all you parental glory and power,  have just forbidden! “Oh, I’ll show you, Mummy! Mira lo que hago!” So I know, that demanding that he speaks to me only in English is not going work. That and the fact that I would never insist.

Now, there are quite a few methods that can be used when trying to raise a bilingual child. This article from the Huffington Post sums it all up quite nicely. In our case, I generally speak to Liam in English, especially now as he’s understanding a bit more of what we want to say to him. I do sometimes speak to him in Spanish but it usually depends on who I’m with. So if I’m with a Spanish friend that doesn’t speak English, I may say something to him in Spanish, especially if I’m in the middle of a conversation. Even though Spanish isn’t my first language, I speak more Spanish than English on a daily basis and sometimes it’s actually hard to switch- or to remember to. My husband speaks to Liam mainly in Spanish but he also speaks to him in English from time to time.

Some may argue that it is confusing for the child but I honestly don’t see how it’s any more confusing than me speaking to him in English but everybody else in Spanish. Won’t he wonder why I don’t just speak to him in Spanish like almost everyone else around him? He may or may not and that’s the thing, I think he’s too young for me to decide on a strict approach.

I think it’s important that he is surrounded by as much English as possible and since his family here speaks almost only Spanish and society on a whole speaks mainly Spanish, he needs to have his “immersion” some how.

Our (tentative) plan is as follows:

  1. Bilingual or International school where English is the main language of instruction. I feel like just having me speak to him in English is definitely going to help him but he needs another setting where he has to communicate in English and where it will be natural. If everyone around him is speaking in English at school and he already speaks with me in English, it lessens the chances that he may feel shy or embarrassed to speak in English. It may sound silly about him not being embarrassed but I have had students who are bilingual answer things incorrectly or pronounce words wrong, on purpose, so as to not stand out in front of their classmates. I don’t think this will be the case with my son, but you never know. I want to make it as easy as possible and as comfortable as possible for him to speak English. Check out this school in Dallas, Texas.

2. TV- English ONLY! I am not a huge fan of children watching television. I feel like               they should busy themselves with reading or playing outside and using their                       imaginations. However, as children get older, there are several interesting and                   educational programs that they can watch. We agree that if we let Liam watch any             TV, it should be in English. I’m sure there will be a Spanish cartoon he really likes, and       I’m fine with him watching that but the goal is 95% of any TV programs he watches,           should be in English.

3. Play groups and extracurricular activities. I am not fan of going to group                         meetings with a bunch of ladies who sit around and complain about motherhood. It           bores me halfway to death and I’m just not into it. But I think it’s extremely                           important that bilingual children are exposed to other bilingual children so that they         can interact in settings that are natural for them (games, sports, etc.)

4. Never force it. I think there will be days when my son is a bit tired or frustrated with       having to switch between languages. I think Spanish may be easier for him because he     lives in Spain and the majority of people he will interact with here speak Spanish. I’m       never going to punish or scold my child for not speaking to me in English. I will                   probably respond to him in English most times but I’m hoping that by being as                     “normal” as possible when it comes to speaking to him in English, it will just come             naturally.

Recently we were at a bar in the neighbourhood and overheard a father insisting that his daughter speak to him in English. He was scolding her because she wouldn’t repeat something (poorly phrased and pronounced, mind you!) My husband rolled his eyes and mumbled “Que pesado!” (How annoying!) I laughed and agreed. A while later, Liam woke up from his nap and I said “Hi! How was your nap? Want a beer?” (I talk to him like we’re long time friends and as though he actually understands half of the silly things I sometimes say to him) I should maybe mention now that I don’t give him beer (well not often anyway! 🙂 ) Liam was stuck on “Hi!” and kept waving at me! The Scolding Dad overheard me and decided to come over with his daughter (so she could get some practice, I guess). He went on to mention that they came over because his daughter’s English teacher is also black and they thought maybe we were related. (I kid you not!) But that’s a whole other blog post! All in all, the little girl was sweet (annoying dad and all) and her English was quite good for her only being 4 years old.

I share all of of that to say, I think it’s important to encourage but not insist. Speaking in English or any other language should not be a chore or an obligation for a child. It should come as naturally as possible, if the child is a bilingual or be treated as something enjoyable and interesting, if the child is just learning the language in school.

Is my son going to be bilingual? Of course he is! I honestly would like to add French in there too, so that he speaks 3 languages. But we’re going to go about achieving this in the way that’s best for him.

Are you raising a bilingual child? Is the second language your native language? What method are you using? I’d love to hear from you!

Puedes usar Google Translate para leer este articulo. La traducción tendrá fallos.