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?
I have to say that I can’t complain! I think I am the friend and Adrian is the 3 1/2 year old here. Hahaha! I love that you posted this!! I can’t complain because I got a detailed article about my problem!! And I was thinking on researching SB to see if I found more answers before this article.
Now, I was doing the “no entiendo” thing and that used to work really really well about a year ago, actually I wasn’t even using the phrase anymore, that method helped me so much that his spanish was always good, but now he is smart and knows that I speak English and understand it. And I KNOW that he knows the words in English that he wont say in spanish sometimes. I have done the repeat, repeat thing sometimes and I always feel dumb cause he wont say them and I’m the one saying them in Spanish (just like a parrot like you said!) while he gets away with the English, no fair. But I will be more patient and keep trying.
So, looking at these, I’m going to keep trying the Repeat, repeat and the guessing game methods. For the guessing game, I’m going to try to guess the “wrong” words first and see if he corrects me with the right one too. I’ll let you know how it goes!
LOL! You and Adrian were definitely my inspiration for this post! I’m glad it saved you the time to go researching some for.
You made me realized that we hadn’t delved into this topic and there’s still so much more to say/write about it.
You hit it on the nail when you write that Adrian is already smart enough to know you do understand English. That’s when strategy #1 starts getting more difficult. The experts say that the issue shouldn’t be forced because you want to encourage a love for the language, but, at the same time, clear boundaries need to be set where he knows that mamá will only accept Spanish. You can say: “Te entiendo, pero mamá dice ….” Especially in an OPOL family, this reinforces to him which language is used in which context.
Love our playdates! So much inspiration
Fantastic tips and information as always
I used the “Mami doesn’t understand” up until he discovered that I really do speak English. I guess that I am extremely lucky because I have never had a problem with Diego trying to speak English with me. When we are in mixed company (English and Spanish speakers), he will speak to someone in English and then turn around and speak to me in Spanish. Once in awhile he will throw in an English word when he doesn’t know the Spanish equivalent. I always repeat the word in Spanish and try to incorporate it into our conversation a few more times until it sticks.
You definitely are lucky you haven’t faced the language power struggles! It really has to do so much with your child’s personality and the way you respond to it.
He obviously enjoys speaking Spanish with mamá!
Great post!! I use #3 most of the time, as well as #1. I really LOL when you mentioned being a bilingual parrot!! I’m one too! I think I want to use #1 more and I really appreciate your suggestion as to how to do it without making my son feel bad!
Oh, yes! We are bilingual parrots!
Let me know how it goes with faking you don´t understand. I´ve been hesitant to use that strategy, but I might need to give it a shot
Our daughter just turned 2 and we are still trying to figure out what language she is trying to speak. As an English only speaker and my husband who is bilingual but has a very thick Spanish accent, we have gotten used to speaking only English to our daughter now realizing that it is time to introduce her to her Latin tongue. It is a slow process as she is still trying to grasp a language, any language to communicate with us. Thnak goodness for helpful articles like this to help the naive parents like us.
I´m glad you found this article helpful!
It probably will be tougher for dad to adapt to making the switch to Spanish if he´s used to speaking to her in English, but it will only take him some weeks to feel comfortable with it. If she´s only 2, now is the perfect timing! She´ll benefit tremendously from it.
Thanks for visiting us!
This is such an excellent article, Ana Lilian!
One thing that has been working for us whenever Vanessa, who speaks mostly Spanish to us, throws in a few words or phrases in English into the mix, is to remind her that her little brother doesn’t speak English.
Of course, repeat, repeat, repeat is still one of my favorite options and I’ll continue to use it.
This is a very timely post for me. My son is 2 and I’ve been thinking about how to set the stage for him to understand the difference between the two languages, as his vocabulary increases. At the neighborhood playground, Spanglish reigns. And you know how it goes when you try to tell family what to do. The kids are bilingual & at various stages of learning/mixing languages. The adults tend to enthusiastically throw whatever English words they know right in with their Spanish. So my son is hearing a mash-up of both languages quite a lot of the time. Even myself, frequently with all the simultaneous conversations in the house it’s all I can do to keep myself in only one language, or the other, a sentence at a time. I’ve been trying to get everyone to speak only Spanish when around my son. My husband is the only one who is truly co-operating. So far!!! I’m not giving up. His father and I want our son to be able to really function in either language. This is a wonderful post. I’m remembering these ideas for when he’s older. I am SURE this is going to be something we’ll go through!
I really enjoyed reading this post. My son just turned two and my approach has always been to repeat or reword in Spanish anything that he says in English. I also have had some success with asking him (particulaly with isolated words such as numbers or colors) “¿Cómo se dice…?” and he almost always answers me correctly in Spanish. It was interesting to me that the first time I asked him to do this he was only 20 months old and he seemed to instinctively understand that I was asking him to translate when I said “¿Cómo se dice?” I’ve never used the words “español” or “inglés” with him because I’m unsure whether he has the cognitive ability to recognize that he speaks and understands two different languages. I speak Spanish with him at home and my partner speaks English. I have noticed more and more recently that he makes a conscious choice to address me in Spanish, although he still mixes both languages a lot. My guess is that a lot of people reading this have more experience with all of this than I do and I am wondering if anyone knows how early children can really recognize the difference between the two languages–should I be referring to them as English and Spanish? Also, I have always assumed that there will come a point when I need to insist that he address me in Spanish only and not acknowledge him if he speaks in English, but is two too young for that? I really appreciate any feedback!
Great article. I think I use strategies 2 and 3. However, my children know I also speak English. From the very beginning they were aware of different languages since we started with ASL, Spanish, and English. And we use the OPOL method at home. I think it’s best that they are aware of languages and how extremely cool it is two know more than one. My children speak only Spanish to me. My oldest, 4.5, catches herself speaking English and “corrects” herself when speaking to me. Sometimes, when my 2 children are playing and speaking in English, I gently remind them that I prefer that they speak Spanish when they are in the house with me. Sometimes they remind me that they speak English AND Spanish. I tell them, “Si. Ustedes son muy afortunados de hablar mas de una idioma!” They usually switch back to Spanish.
I also want to empasize how important it is to have a social life filled with other Spanish speakers. I LOVE our playgroup for the many opportunities it has given us in expanding our circle of friends who speak Spanish.
So, Katie, your two year old has more than the cognitive ability to recognize more than one language. And he is a normally developing 2 year old. I wouldn’t “insist” that he speak one or the other language to you. I would just be matter of fact in always speaking Spanish to him no matter the situation. At 2 yrs. old they are learning so much! When my kiddos where 2 I used the “repeat, repeat, repeat’ method.
For example, my son learned to say “ball” before “pelota” and if he brought me a ball to play with I would talk to him a lot about the ball. For example, “Me trajistes una pelota! Quiers jugar con la pelota? Es una pelota azul. Te voy a aventar la pelota. Agarra la pelota! Corre detras de la pelota. Donde se fue esa pelota azul?”
Again, talk to your children A LOT–even if you were only teaching them one language.
Gracias, otra vez, for a great post.
I use all of these methods and find that variety is the spice of life! especially when raising polyglot tots! Lots of repetition, rephrasing, asking the child to repeat words or phrases, lots of praise, and sometimes nothing at all! It depends on the context: where are you? what is your child’s current state of mind, emotional state, fatigued, excited, calm, nervous? there is no one right answer to coaxing the young polyglot tot’s desire to speak in the target language. and above all, refrain from forcing! you want to foster your child’s enthusiasm about speaking in a foreign language!
great article! thanks for sharing!