As a Spanish school for children and families based in Madrid, we see many cases of bilingualism, where one of the parents is a native Spanish speaker but English has become the dominant language in the family. The Spanish-speaking parent often struggles to get their child/ren to speak Spanish and it even gets to the point where speaking in Spanish between the family is more of a chore.
Passing on languages to our children should feel like a gift and definitely not a chore, but it’s not the easiest process.
Typical multi-lingual family scenario:
Pablo, the dad, is from Spain. Susan, the mum, is from the UK. The family live in the UK and the children go to an English school. Their two children have been exposed to English from their mum, family, society and school. The main family language is English but Pablo tries to speak to the children in Spanish.
After giving it a real go with their eldest child (Juan) for the first few years, they get to the point of giving up on Pablo speaking Spanish to the children. He is frustrated that Juan always responds in English, even when he is spoken to in Spanish.
Where have the family gone wrong in the bilingual process?
What Pablo overlooked was that although Juan didn’t respond in Spanish, he understood the question enough to respond appropriately, even if it was always in English. If Pablo had continued, Juan and their other children would have started to respond in Spanish eventually, but this can take up to as old as 8 to 9 years old, and even longer in some cases. It is not an easy process and requires work and patience.
Tips to help you raise your children bilingual
- There has to be a reason to speak the non-dominant language (NDL), which in Pablo’s case is Spanish. Try to make sure TV and books are in the NDL so the children see it as fun and that it has a broader context and significance.
- Where possible keep in contact with family members through Skype, etc. Try to not limit this to just grandparents, if you can include children and maybe cousins of a similar age.
- Persevere and don’t demand too much. Keep talking in the NDL language regardless of whether the children respond in that language or their Dominant Language. Just don’t stop. Eventually the children will join you but it takes time.
- Try to bring the culture of the language into the house. If the NDL language is Spanish, try Tapas Tuesdays where the food is Spanish, you watch a Spanish movie together and everyone speaks Spanish. Make it a habit so it becomes part of a weekly routine.
- As the children get older, make the NDL feel special. Tell them it’s a secret language that not everyone understands and use it in this way to make it exciting for them to use it.
- Find other families through social media who are in similar situations, share ideas, get the families together and speak in the NDL. Children need to see that this language is something that is used and useful, and not just something their parents annoy them to speak. It’s a means of communication, just like their dominant language.
- Just keep going through the frustrations. Children are like water and look for the path with least resistance, if responding in the DL is easier they will do it but if they are able to respond appropriately they understand the NDL and are building a fantastic foundation.
If you would like your family to improve their Spanish, LAE Kids offers courses for children from 4-17 years old. We give personalised, individual attention to every family so you will leave our school reaching your goals.