After a long summer break, the Mini-Interview series returns! Here is a brand new entry about a fantastic bilingual mum I met through the Bilingual Zoo and was privileged enough to meet in real life a year ago, whilst on holiday in close locations. Meet the lovely Raquel, who is Spanish, and decided with her husband to give their children the beautiful gift of bilingualism. An inspiring story that demonstrates we can raise bilingual without being a native speaker!
Thank you Raquel for taking the time to share your experience, and I hope our paths will meet again soon on a sunny beach 😉
Tell us a little bit about you, your family and the language strategy (OPOL, ml@h, Time & Place…) you use to rear your children bi/multilingual.
My husband and I are both Spanish and live in Spain. We have 2 children, a 3-year-old son and a 6-year-old daughter. Our minority language is English. We use a variant of ml@h: my husband and I have always addressed our children in English. In the beginning, we always spoke Spanish with each other, but we now switch between languages. There are times when we speak a lot of English with each other and times when we revert back to Spanish. Our children now speak English to us and with each other.
Many non-native parents dream of raising bilingual but do not dare to actually go on and do it. What incited you to actually go ahead?
That’s a good question. It wasn’t just one thing:
- I have always loved this language and it was something I wanted to pass on to my kids. I wanted them to have the freedom to travel around the world and be able to communicate with people from other cultures. I also wanted them to get to know other cultures and have an open mind.
- I used to work with a woman whose kids were bilingual because she always spoke English to them. I thought what she was doing was amazing, but I felt my English wasn’t good enough. I looked for information online about non-native parents raising their kids bilingual. Every article and comment I read said parents didn’t need to be that proficient to raise their children bilingual. My take on this has always been: if I got from 0 to 2, my children can get from 2 to 4, which is a good thing. A less than perfect English is better than no English.
- My husband was on board from the moment I mentioned it. He had no doubts: he wanted me to speak English to our kids and said he would do the same.
What are the 5 (or more) things you did that with hindsight have made a difference on your bilingual journey, and why do you think they had this positive effect?
- Always speaking to them in the minority language. No exceptions. It doesn’t matter where we are or with whom: we always speak English with our children. I’m happy to give an account of what we’re saying in Spanish if someone doesn’t understand us, and I actually offer to do so when meeting someone, but we’re not changing our language of communication. It would feel funny.
- Both parents speaking the minority language. If it had been just me, it would have been much harder. My husband’s English level is lower than mine, but this extra exposure made all the difference. I think my kids would have become passive bilinguals -understanding, but not speaking- if he had spoken Spanish to them. Mistakes correct themselves over time, but extra exposure is too important to pass up when they’re little. I make mistakes too, so a few more won’t make much of a difference. This is something that worried me in the beginning: passing on our mistakes.
- Having nothing in the majority language (ML) at home and lots in the minority language (ml). All our media -for adults and children-, and books are in English: radio, TV and even when going to the movies, we choose one that’s in the ml. Talking toys had to speak English too. Anything in Spanish was sent to their grandparents’ home, where the kids could play with it and we could still keep our home ML-free.
- Pretending not to understand the ML, so that they needed to communicate in English with us. This wasn’t our idea. A babysitter my daughter had in July when she turned 2 did this. The first day, she got my daughter to say in English one of the two words she only said in Spanish. We followed her example after that and it worked.
- Making sure the summer they turned 2 was full of English. A friend told me about this and she was right. Their speech develops fast at this age, and if you can have them surrounded by the minority language, that’s the language that benefits from it.
- Getting the older sibling to help us: We asked my daughter (almost 3 at the time) to speak English with her baby brother when he was born. We told her he needed her help to learn to speak 2 languages, like her.
- Get in contact with other families doing the same. Share ideas, try new things, learn from them. We’ve done this online and in person.
- Teaching them to read in the ml before or at the same time as they learn in the ML: We’ve only taught my daughter so far, and she doesn’t read on her own yet, but I think this one will be very important for their future language development. Books are key to language development. If reading in the ml is harder for them than in the ML, they’ll only read in the ML and will miss an opportunity to expose themselves to the ml.
- Informing ourselves. Reading about bilingualism, especially books that go beyond theory and are practical. The best one I’ve read was this one: “Maximize Your Child’s Bilingual Ability”, by Adam Beck.
What is the n°1 tip you would give to any bilingual family on this bumpy journey?
Keep at it. Don’t give up. This has its ups and downs. When you’re going down, it feels like you’re staying there for good. I try to remind myself that whatever I’ve accomplished is better than nothing, so I’m not giving that up. I then try to make changes, ask other bilingual families for advice and hope that takes us back up.
What specific tip(s) could you give to other non-natives who would like to raise bilingual?
- It’s hard, but worth it.
- Keep working on your ml. Not being a native speaker of our minority language, I’m always working on it. I read in English, watch TV in English, changed the language in all my devices… I knew I had taken it too far when I couldn’t understand the street names my GPS was pronouncing.
- Mistakes will correct themselves. Try to speak your ml as well as you can, but your ml doesn’t need to be perfect for you to do this.
Raquel is a Spanish mom of two, living in Madrid. She works full-time and has always loved languages and traveling. She and her husband are trying to raise their kids bilingual English-Spanish.