For the past few nights, when I check on the kids before I go to bed, I have noticed that my daughter has fallen asleep with a blanket of books around her. After we leave the room, she climbs out of her bed, grabs 2 or 3 books, climbs back in, and quietly reads until she falls asleep. It’s a heartwarming picture.
After I gather the books, I give her one more kiss before I leave the room, and in a half asleep voice, she says “Te quiero”, I love you in Spanish. My heart warms again.
My little bilingual bookworm.
It has always been important to me that my children grow up bilingual. Being bilingual myself, I had a second language I could offer them, and not only did I feel it was my responsibility to do so, for many bilingual families, that second language is a huge part of our children’s cultural identity.
The task of teaching my children Spanish seemed a little intimidating at first. Would having two languages confuse them? Would their speech be delayed? Will they be able to communicate with their little friends? It felt like the odds were against me.
I am happy to say that the reality has been far from that. The experience of simultaneously introducing two languages to our children has not only been easy, it has been so much fun, and incredibly rewarding.
In simple every day activities, we have introduced two languages to our children from the moment they were born, and their love for books and stories has been our greatest tool to achieve that.
One Parent, One Language
We adopted the OPOL (One Parent, One Language) system in our home. It was an easy but clear way to distinguish the two languages; Mom speaks in Spanish, and Dad speaks in English. It took a little getting used to at first, because it meant I was speaking to my children and my husband in different languages. Like many things in life though, consistency is key, and I switch between languages without even thinking about it now.
Tell Stories in your native tongue
Story telling is something that comes naturally to many of us, and we don’t even realize it. We tell stories about our work days, what we had for lunch, who we saw in the day; we narrate what we have lived, it’s second nature. When we become parents, this daily narrative continues with our children, and it’s the easiest way to introduce speech to them. As we narrate our days, our children become exposed to a wide range of vocabulary, and by simple osmosis, they are learning narrative skills which will be beneficial for them in future.
Reading books (in both languages) during bed time routine
From the time our children were 2 months old, we have read two books before bed, every night. Sometimes the books are in English, sometimes they books are in Spanish. In addition to providing another opportunity to expose both languages to our children, it’s also a wonderful family activity, and lovely way to end the day.
Listen to Music or Sing Songs in Spanish (or respective second language)
When we associate a word to music, it’s easier to remember. It just is. I still know the lyrics to songs I listened to when I was a kid because the melody was so catchy. Nowadays, almost all of the most common children’s songs have been translated into every language, so children can join in to “Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes” even if they sing it in a different language…the body parts are all the same, haha! Music in foreign languages also lets our children hear different sounds and phonetics, which is an important of speech, but they are also hearing different rhythms and beats, and who knows, they may be dancing salsa in no time!
It Takes a Village
The more people that speak to your children in a second language, the more they get to practice it. In our case, visits with the maternal grandparents and aunts and uncles always offer an opportunity for the children to practice hearing and speaking Spanish.
Are you a parent to bilingual children?
The Edmonton Public Library has material in over 20 world languages, and is a wonderful resource for bilingual parents. My children are able to enjoy “new” Spanish books every couple of weeks, and the library doesn’t just have books in other languages, it has many foreign music and movies, which is another way our children (and parents) can enjoy learning languages too.
In addition, to promote early literacy, the library provides a “Welcome Baby” package when you get your baby his or her first library card. You receive a bag, a book, and helpful information about the programs that the library offers for children and parents. If you have a baby, this is something you want to do!
The best part of it all, this is a resource available to the community at no cost!
Whether you are introducing one or multiple languages to your children, it’s never too early (or too late) to start. Even though my children cannot read or write yet, we are providing them the building blocks that they will be able to use in their future language development.
In the very international and multicultural world we live in today, language is an amazing tool. It allows us to connect, to meet new people, to enjoy books, theater or movies, and to learn more about different cultural discourses.
Language provides us another tool with which we can explore the world.
My oldest is just under 2.5 years old, and I’m happy to say that when she goes to her little friend’s birthday parties, she is able to ask for Agua or Water, depending on which language she feels like speaking at the time.