Up until I was 19 years old I only spoke Spanish and had never been to an English speaking country. Moreover, for a long time I thought I would never be able to learn English, as it was really hard to start studying the language when I was already an adult. That’s one of the reasons I’m committed to raising my children bilingual; and it is also why I like to share with everyone about the importance of bilingualism and the ways to support language acquisition I’ve learned over the years.
One challenge many parents face is the fact that they are monolingual, and often struggle in finding effective ways to support language acquisition since they are not fluent in the second language their kids are learning. However, there are tools and strategies that can help any parent support their child in the journey of bilingualism.
We now know that children have the ability to learn language in two ways: simultaneous or sequential. Sequential bilingualism occurs when a person becomes bilingual by first learning one language and then another. In homes in which only one of the desired languages is spoken, the sequential learning happens. Once the child acquires the mother tongue, he then continues to learn the second language outside of the home.
As it names states, simultaneous bilingualism happens when a child learns two languages from birth. This allows for the child to learn the both languages as first languages. For bilingualism to be considered simultaneous, the learning of the two languages has to take place when the child is less than three years old.
The above being said, you have the ability to raise your child bilingual even if the second language is not spoken at home. The earlier the child is exposed to the second language, the better, as the learning process happens more naturally and easily.
What you need to be successful in raising your children bilingual is to have the determination to be consistent and getting involved in the process with activities and tools that compliment the formal instruction your child receives. However, even for people who have the ability to provide simultaneous bilingualism like I do, it is important to find effective ways to support language acquisition.
My journey started 6 years ago, and now with three kids I know it gets harder as they grow and embrace English more and more. So, I continue to use the tools at my disposal to keep the Spanish language alive in our daily lives, and I’m sure you want to do the same for your kids.
Here are my tried and true ways
to support language acquisition
Buy bilingual books. As parents, we all know that reading daily with our kids is very important for their development and to nurture their love for reading and writing. When you are raising a bilingual child, having bilingual books is one of the best ways too support language acquisition in the home. It doesn’t matter the reading level your child is at, you can use a bilingual book to read in tandem. While you read in English to your child, he or she can read in Spanish or start to get familiar with the words as the learning process continues. That’s one of the reasons why I wrote my bilingual children’s book, ‘La Familia Cool: El tesoro más valioso/The most valuable treasure’ because I’ve seen first hand how helpful it is to use literature to help our kids learn a second language. Even if you are not fluent on the second language, reading a bilingual book with your children will help them feel that you support their efforts and encourage them to continue.
Help through music and media. Another fun way to practice the second language is having music that they can dance and sing to. In Spanish, there are hundreds of children’s songs available and YouTube videos that play traditional tunes and help your child with the listening and understanding. Another great resource is phone apps, there are many available for free or with very low cost, that will get your child to play while learning by listening and repetition. Also, when the kids are old enough to watch shows, make sure they do so in the minority language. I’ve done this with my children and even though they resisted in the beginning, after a short while (less than two weeks) they were used to watching Spanish languages cartoons and enjoyed the shows. Many of the shows available in English, are in fact available in Spanish.
Organize language play dates. Kids love to have things in common with their peers, and organizing play dates with children who are fluent in the second language your child is learning is one of the ways to support language acquisition in a inviting, natural setting. With the rapid growth of the Latino population in the US, it is easy to find groups that are already meeting to do that, or chances are you and your children have friends who are Spanish speakers. If not, you can start with your child fellow students where they are taking the Spanish lessons.
When you do this, keep in mind that children that are growing in the US will probably choose to speak in English with their peers. For this kind of play date, you have to find ways to motivate the kids to speak the desired language. It can be through fun activities, having prizes, playing music and giving prompts so they in fact utilize the minority language.
Travel or seek new local opportunities. We all know that travel provides several learning benefits, and that there is no better way to acquire a language than being immersed in it. So, travel if you are able to do it and reinforce everything your child is learning in a practical and fun way. However, travel is not something available to all, and even when it is, it doesn’t happen as frequently as we would like. Another option is to find out about the local churches and their volunteer opportunities. You can choose to go to a Latino organization and work as a volunteer with your child. This will get him close to the language, and present the chance to speak to the people around.
Let them teach you. Experts agree that when you teach, you also learn. Let your little one show off what she has learned by giving you lessons, teaching you words, songs, or even how to write! If you ask your child to teach you what he knows, he will not only be practicing the language, but you will also be nurturing confidence and high self-esteem. When children feel capable, they associate that with the task at hand in a positive manner. Let them be the teacher and see them grow in knowledge and confidence!