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Today’s question is answered by Barbara Pearson, Ph. D., author of the informative and extremely useful book Raising a Bilingual Child.
This is the book that got Roxana and me started and we highly recommend to you, as we stated in this post: Top 10 Books For Parents Raising Bilingual Children.
We Moved to a Foreign Country and my Son Stopped Speaking Spanish
This question was sent by Christine McCollum, a native US mom who now lives in Turkey with her husband and son.
“I have a 5 year old son who was raised speaking Spanish. Both his father and myself spoke only Spanish to him and he began speaking in Spanish. We are not native speakers and we raised him in Utah. Almost two years ago we moved to Turkey. After three months here I stopped speaking Spanish to him because I realized he had no way to keep up on his English. He didn’t have the friends, family, TV, and basically everyone on the street to teach him English anymore. My husband has continued to speak Spanish to him but instead of responding in Spanish like before, he now responds in English and will rarely speak Spanish unless we beg him to repeat something. I would really like to get him to start speaking Spanish again with his father. How can we do this without making him feel too much pressure?”
It sounds like your family made a good start on Spanish, and then hit a big bump in the road when you went to Turkey. Learning three languages at a time is very possible for children, but your circumstances there are not the best for that purpose. It might be time to change your expectations for your child’s Spanish for the time being. But don’t give up on it. In your situation (and any situation), I would not pressure the child, but I wouldn’t give up my own love affair with Spanish.
I think your husband’s language task in Turkey is to keep Spanish alive for your family, so when your situation (or location) changes, you will still have a base to build on.
Your son is telling you that he doesn’t feel the need or the desire for Spanish. It was important to him back home when he needed Spanish to talk with the people he loves most in the world—you and your husband. But now, that’s no longer necessary. (You don’t say what you two speak with each other, but I suppose it’s not Spanish.)
My advice is for your husband to continue speaking in Spanish. He should make it clear that he prefers to speak in Spanish even if your son does not. In my book, I give a spectrum of responses (from Elizabeth Lanza) for how to respond when the child doesn’t speak to you in the language you want him to use. I would concentrate on the middle of the spectrum. That is, your husband can repeat the child’s turn in Spanish before responding. But it’s cumbersome to do that on every turn. Sometimes he’ll just want to respond in Spanish and go on, taking extra care to help the child understand him (without translating into English).
Given your isolation from Spanish, it may be hard for your husband to keep up his fluency in the language. He may need to find some native speakers for conversation even if it’s on the internet. To make Spanish less abstract for himself, your husband might enlist a puppet. Do you remember the Tom Hanks movie where he makes a companion out of a deflated volleyball whom he calls Wilson. To keep his sanity on a desert island, Hanks spends a lot of time talking to Wilson. Your husband might find a puppet (or his own volleyball to be his Spanish sounding board). Your son may even be willing to talk to a puppet whom he perceives as speaking only Spanish.
Use this time abroad to build your son’s awareness of how special it is to be able to speak Spanish. You could set aside a Spanish time every week when you join your husband in speaking Spanish. For this special time, make special foods your child likes and do activities that he likes in Spanish. Do songs or movement dances together—or karaoke. Maybe have a few special things you do only in Spanish.
You’re “selling” Spanish, but using the soft sell, not the hard sell. Eventually, your son may chime in, but even if he doesn’t, it’s important for him to see you enjoying yourselves while speaking the language. Given how well you did in Utah, I think you really will enjoy it.
Then when circumstances change again, you re-assess.
Keep us posted on your progress.
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