Bilingual is Better

Today’s Ask an Expert question was sent in by Marlene, a native English speaker who is raising her two boys bilingually.

“I have 2 sons: a 6 year old and a 3 year old. We read books in Spanish, watch v-Me, sing songs in Spanish and my husband and I communicate to them mostly in Spanish. However, my 6 year old refuses to speak it. He understands most of what we say to him but seems to have trouble recalling words when he needs them, so he’d rather not try.

At the moment I’m homeschooling my kids and I try to incorporate Spanish into as much of what is being taught as possible, but being that I only studied Spanish in elementary school I sometimes have to fall back to English to explain the subject more clearly. Sometimes, it seems like no matter what I try, English will win the race. Can you give me some suggestions on how to motivate my son to speak Spanish?

Hola Marlene ~

First of all, I commend you and your husband on making certain to bring Spanish into your daily routine for your sons.  Daily exposure is the key to making certain that they learn and retain both Spanish and English.  I have presented at several homeschooling conventions, and there are two things that stand out in my mind that I feel you might want to incorporate as soon as possible to help your 6-year-old begin to verbalize his Spanish more often and with enthusiasm.

1.    Enlist the assistance of your older son to be the maestro/teacher for your younger son.  Have him sing a song with his younger brother while using props to make the song come alive or bilingual language cards to bring the learning to life!  If they are watching a segment on TV in either language, ask your older son to help explain the main vocabulary words from the segment to his brother.  (Perhaps you and he could create a word list from the show – about 6-8 words per segment should be sufficient.)  Begin having him read a book to his brother and have him ask his brother questions in Spanish about the story, the characters, the pictures, etc.  Giving him the chance to show off for you and his brother might be just the spark of motivation he needs!

2.    Across our country there are homeschooling co-ops, and I urge you to join one in your local area that will provide your sons an opportunity to learn with other children – whether it’s on field trips, co-op group meetings, or perhaps language sessions – these occasional co-op meetings might be the key to showing your sons that it’s cool to speak more than one language because all of the other children are learning a second language as well!  *One note here:  If this does not appeal to you, I urge you to find a playgroup or start one of your own that focuses on Spanish learning for young children.  Your boys need to witness other children enjoying speaking more than English.

Remember that your children go through ‘stages’ in many things, including their desire to speak in different languages.  They will default to what is easier (just as you expressed that you do) at times, and the key to success is to stick with it with a smile!  Try your best to model what you want from your sons – flowing back and forth between English and Spanish is fine and will give them the clues and cues that they need to feel success in both languages.

I will never forget the day I visited a preschool as ‘Ms. Music,’ and a group of 5 year olds insisted that they knew their days of the week in Spanish from a Spanish song they have been singing for months.  They proudly sang through the song (with wonderful pronunciation I might add!) and when asked, after the song was over, which day of the week was ‘Monday’ not one of them could tell me.  Nor could they tell me the word for ‘Friday.’  My point here is that, as your children are learning one language, it’s easier and often times more effective to give them both languages.  So, don’t worry if you end up speaking English even though you were hoping to use only Spanish.

You are doing what a minority of parents around our country are doing and that is to give your child the gift of a second language before the age of eight!  ¡Excelente amiga!  Excellent friend!

Beth Butler.-Bilingual educator of young children and strives to create better communication within our increasingly diverse society. She is the founder of the internationally acclaimed Boca Beth language learning series which has garnered various parenting awards. Ms. Butler lived in Chile and Mexico where she learned Spanish as her second language and has been bilingual and biliterate for more than 30 years. She has spent over 25 years in the field of preschool and elementary education writing and recording four bilingual music CDs in Spanish and English, as well as producing three bilingual educational movies for children. Read Beth Butler´s answers here.

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