This week my daughter and I met up with a Spanish-speaking amiga and her 3 and a half year old son. Camila and him have a preschool, platonic-love relationship and are always looking forward to their play dates. While at the park, my friend mentioned that the only other kid her son interacted with in Spanish is my daughter. I thought that was a little odd since my daughter is still at a stage where she is sorting out both languages and mixing them a lot. She speaks mostly Spanish at home, but mixes in many words and phrases that are common for play and/or reinforced at preschool: “Why?” “What happened?” “Ready, set, go!” and so forth.
He also speaks in Spanish to me all the time; he’s already sorted out that Camila and I are Spanish-speakers and has no problem switching when he’s with us. They use the OPOL method in his home-father speaks English, mother speaks Spanish-so his brain is already trained to recognize that different people use different languages, and he can adapt to them. However, my friend was telling me that he has been using English a lot more when addressing her. Her strategy has been to tell him that she doesn’t understand what he’s saying to encourage him to speak to her in Spanish.
This got me analyzing that the way I address Camila’s growing language mixing has been by acknowledging and repeating what she said, but in Spanish. Not being sure if this was the best method for us, I delved into finding out about the most successful strategies to use when our children mix languages, and found a study done by psycholinguist Elizabeth Lanza. She clearly states that it is completely normal for children to mix languages in their early years, especially because they still don’t know all the words in either one. However, the determining factor into how much she will language mix when she’s older, is dependent on how parents react to it. I should mention here, that language mixing is not the same as the more complex use of code-switching in adult bilinguals, which Roxana explained in much more depth in this article.
So, how should we react to our child when he mixes languages to continue supporting his bilingual learning? Lanza proposed 5 strategies that range from 1 being the most effective to strengthening the target language skills and 5 the least.
1. Fake it
This is basically what my friend is doing with her son-pretending as if she does not understand what her son just said in English, since she wants him to speak only Spanish to her. This is a very successful strategy if used wisely and non-forcefully. The goal is not to discourage your son to want to speak to you at all because he feels put down that he can’t express himself. This has to be done in a loving way where the attention reverts back to the parent being the one not understanding, and not the child being unable to express himself. Revert it to the “I” instead of the “You”. One way would be to say to him in Spanish, (or your preferred language) “I am having a hard time understanding that in English, can you please repeat what you said in Spanish?”
2. The Guessing Game
When you use this strategy you try to guess what your child just said in the other language. This way, you allow a little bilingual interaction where your child “knows” you speak English, but you need her “help” with certain words/phrases. For example, if she says, “Mami, I want to go out and play with my friend,” then you respond, “¿Me dices que quieres salir a jugar con tus amigos?” The question will usually require a yes/no answer, but that’s OK because you are establishing a preference for Spanish, or whichever your target language is.
3. Repeat, repeat, repeat
This is the strategy I feel the most comfortable with, although I am becoming a bilingual parrot which constantly repeats and translates my daughter’s English requests. The way it works is that whenever you child says something to you in the “wrong” language you continue with the flow of the conversation and insert the same phrase she said, but translated to your target language. For example: “Papá, me comí todo mi snack.” To which dad would reply, “Felicidades! Me da gusto que te hayas comido toda tu merienda.” This strategy doesn’t force her to answer back in Spanish, but does help her fill in the gaps of the words she doesn’t know in Spanish and she just needs to hear more often.
4. No comment
The child speaks in whichever language, and the parent acknowledges him either way without comments or pushing him towards a preferred language to communicate in. This strategy sets very little limits as to which languages you want your child to speak with you and allows language mixing and, eventually, code-switching. I can see this being utilized more in homes where the family’s interactions are in two or more languages and, possibly, they code-switch as a norm.
5. Follow their lead
The parent decides to follow the child’s lead and code-switch to whichever language she was using. If the child responds in English, so will the mom. She then responds in Spanish, so will the mom. The mom is basically saying that any language is okay and allows for a bilingual conversation to naturally occur.
For more on the topic of language mixing, I recommend you also read Dr. Simona Montanari’s Ask an Expert entry titled: What to do if My Child Mixes Languages.
Do you identify with any of these strategies? If so, which one and how do you use it?