The moment they brought my baby girl to my arms, the only words that came out of my mouth where in Spanish. Since I married an English speaker, and realized we would be raising our family in a small town in North GA, I felt fear that my children would not be able to communicate with my family in Colombia. My husband spoke very little Spanish, and my 10-year-old stepson didn’t know a word! Our family language was English… wow, I even spoke English to our dog!!! How was I going to transform the language culture of our home? Fear. Paralyzed... that is how I felt. How was I going to have a Spanish-speaking child? The task felt impossible. However, the day I became a mom, it was the most natural thing in the world. You see, my parents never spoke one word of English to me, and to speak to my own child in a language that wasn’t my language of love, just felt…strange. But how would it work out?
My daughter is 3 years old now, and she is fully bilingual! We have a baby sister now who already learned her first bilingual word: Thank you- Gracias. Here are 10 things we decided to do as a family to keep language alive at home.
1. Consistency- I don’t speak Spanish one day, and then English the next because I made the decision to speak only Spanish to my girls… all the time, regardless of what language those who were around us spoke. Since big brother only knew English, switching for different audiences would give us very limited use of Spanish, so this is why we made this decision. When we began leaving the house, I tried to avoid speaking to my baby so no one would know I talked to her in Spanish. But when she became mobile and getting into everything, for her safety, I had to talk to her outside! It was SO AWKWARD for a few weeks, but then I got used to it, and now I honestly don’t care!
2. Reading- I read everything in Spanish, even English books, because I want my children to expand their Spanish vocabulary. I am a Spanish book addict and I will snag any I can get!
3. Music- In Spanish. We listen to it in the car, at home, and I sing to them. If the song they like is in English I make up a Spanish version with my guitar!
4. Activities- I force myself to do activities that we wouldn’t normally do just so that they can learn Spanish vocabulary of things beyond our daily routine. I want them be able to communicate in Spanish about more than what we are going to eat or wear. A few weeks ago we learned all about how plants grow, planted things in our garden, etc. just so we could gain some science and biology Spanish language.
5. TV- We don’t watch it often, but when we do, I put on DVDs that have a language selection option and I always select Spanish.
6. Spanish Speakers- I want my girls to realize that I am not the only person who speaks Spanish. So, if I hear people speaking Spanish at the park, I encourage them to say hi. We go up to them together and start a Spanish conversation. Trust me, I am the shyest person on the planet, but I am willing to cross MANY of my personal boundaries to keep Spanish alive in my family.
7. Fun- Each of my daughters is different, so I find out what they love and I insert language there. We play, we sing, and language is just the means towards lots of fun and love!
8. Normalization of weirdness-Yes, it is weird that at our table my husband, my stepson and I speak in English, and then I turn around and speak to my girls in Spanish. But actually it’s totally normal. It has been this way for their whole life, and they understand what the three of us are talking about. Since they are bilingual they can choose to participate in Spanish or in English, but I always choose Spanish when I speak directly to them. After 3 years, my stepson and husband understand almost everything we say, but when they don’t, they simply ask and one of us translates. There is no need to over analyze it; the strangest things can become simple and natural.
9. Flexibility- When something isn’t working out we change it. It’s all a learning process!
10. Travel- We try to go to visit my family at least once a year where they only speak Spanish. This helps with language; they came back with lots of new words!
These are the 10 things we do. But they are not the right or perfect way! Each family has to figure out what fits for them, what feels natural. What is your way to keep language alive in your home?