Saturday, February 14, 2009

Operation: Bilingual Baby, Take 2

A few months ago I wrote about my plan to speak to D in Spanish for a couple hours every morning. I think that lasted about, um, a week. Too often I'd wake up too dazed to even think, let alone in a different language, and so other than occasionally reading one of his Spanish kids books to him, the Spanish got put aside.

Then I picked up a book from the library called Bringing Up Baby Bilingual, and upon reading the first few pages I already felt my resolve for a bilingual household coming back. The book is written by a woman who is American, but learned French while in college and then living in Paris for a year or 2. Years later she had twin babies, and when they were 10 months old she one day decided to switch over and speak exclusively to them in French. By the time she wrote the book the kids were 6 years old and completely fluent in both French and English.

Her point is that you don't have to be a native speaker to enrich your kids with multiple languages, that anyone can do this. While I don't completely agree with her (she makes it sound like anyone who's even taken an Intro to Spanish class can raise their kids full-immersion in a new language armed with a dictionary and conjugation guide, but then again she also made a comment about hoe breastfeeding is such an easy thing to do b/c it requires no effort on the mom's side... um WRONG). BUT! I am inspired by her efforts, and agree with her that it only makes sense that if you have proficiency in a language you should share that with your children during that time when it will be so easy and natural for them to pick it up themselves.

I still hesitate to go all-out with Spanish, for a couple reasons. One, while my Spanish is pretty good there's still a level of discomfort and unfamiliarity that has grown out of a language lying dormant for so long, and I don't want that distance when speaking and interacting with my own son. Also, I've spent a lot of time carefully choosing (English) books, stories, poems, etc for D, and I hate to not get to share those with him myself.

At the same time, I know that having a structure to it is important, and that the best/easiest way to do so is to have one parent speak exclusively in that language. So what I'm starting to do is to bring back "Spanish mornings," starting when he wakes up and through his first nap time, and maybe even through lunch. When my dad was here a week or 2 ago we spoke Spanish a lot and already I've noticed a difference in the ease with which the language flows. I've also pulled out the small English/Spanish dictionary we have and using it to look up words I can't remember. I'd like to also find a verb conjugation book, too, for when I can't quite remember a tricky tense of those irregular verbs. My hope is that as I speak more, both D and I will get better with Spanish and as I get more comfortable it'll be easier to let it take over more and more of our days. It will also help to have family using Spanish with him, too, and we live in a great area for reinforcing Spanish-- for example, at Gymboree there's 3 other moms who come to the same classes who speak Spanish with their kids. So, I've got good tools and opportunities available to us.

Interestingly, while reading the book and noting the French words thrown in here and there in examples of the author talking with her kids, it struck me how much I do miss French, and how I would love to pass that language on to D as well. We have several French kids books that my mom and dad have given D, so I might just sit down with him a few times a week and read those in hopes of helping me retain some of my French, and exposing him to some, too, in hopes of his little brain having some sort of a framework to build onto if he chooses to learn French when he's older.

I would love for D to be fluent in Spanish. I don't know how realistic that is. I know that even with a half-day of Spanish every day, it is very likely he'll just speak English with me, and that if we don't keep it up into adulthood and beyond he will forget. But, I figure any exposure I give him now can't hurt and will most likely help. At the very least, I hope to give him keys to multilingualism, anything to make it easier later on.


  1. One of the huge benefits of living in California is the access to Spanish. It's everywhere! Perhaps when he enters preschool you could send him to a bilingual school?

    Right now we are intending to send Global Baby to a bilingual school (German/English). Although I will admit the annual costs of these schools in the Zurich area does make me gasp. (25,000 chf per year for preschool???)

    But the other option is to send him to the local schools, which would be full-time German. I'm not sure how I feel about GB getting his entire education in a language other than German. It's really important to me that he be educated in English at least partially. Just speaking English at home will not give him the same ability/depth of vocabulary as being educated in it.

  2. this is such a fascinating topic! I think GL's idea of bilingual preschool is great.

    If we are still in Canada when we have a kid I would love to send them to French preschool (English from me, German from DH and French from school).

    GL, @ the German school, I do have friends who went to Spanish immersion from grades K-6 and the English still worked out just fine for them. Depending on how long you stay and if you want to send him to English school when he is older I know that in rural Austria where DH is the public school for grades 6-12 (the one that is the precollege school) now has an option for English only education, I wonder if there is something similar in Zurich.

  3. I'm thinking about a bilingual preschool option. I've had my heart set on Montessori for preschool, and one particular nearby school at that, which does not have a bilingual option. But there is a Montessori school in Oakland that does Spanish (and French!) bilingual classes, and the Spanish goes up through elementary school. It would be a long commute, but something I've started thinking about as a possibility.

  4. ok - I wrote a long reply and then it didn't work..

    Why not try a private school in the area, I went to a great one near you, but they teach French. Also take classes for both d and you?

    The commute up to Oakland would be foolish and too hard. I had to go to Hayward and that alone was too hard, and about half way there...

    Email me and I can tell you about the school I went to if you'd like.. IT's a good one and starts with preschool.

  5. Hi Marcy:

    Having been a professor of second language acquisition, I greatly admire your goal to make your child bilingual. I sympathize with the fact that you do not entirely feel comfortable with your own linguistic skills, however, not all is lost. You can still achieve your goals. First, you can play CDs of songs in Spanish. While your child listens to the music, act out or show pictures of the vocabulary in the songs. Encourage your child to join you as the music plays. According to the current language acquisition theory and research, it is critical that children not only HEAR the language, but that it be associated with MEANING as communicated in the pictures, photos and actions. Furthermore, a research investigation which I conducted demonstrated that this was an effective means of acquiring a second language. As you can see, you do not need to be bilingual yourself in order to do this. I also suggest that you visit a local church, pre-school or elementary school where there are large numbers of Spanish-speakers. Try to find Spanish-speaking parents who might be interested in setting up "playtime" sessions with their child and yours. If their children are struggling with English, then you might establish some rules- Spanish for the first half hour and English for the second. Of course this will be difficult to enforce with smaller children, but as they get older and will be able to distinguish the two languages and this will be easier. Keep speaking in Spanish to your child as you can, but don't feel that you have failed. That is very understandable. Later on, when your child is older, I suggest that you take a family trip to a Spanish-speaking country for two weeks or longer if possible. Encourage supervised interactions with children who are native speakers of Spanish. Try to take several trips before the child reaches 10 years of age, as the facility to acquire a second language will not be as great after puberty.I hope you find this helpful.

    There is still more you can do later on which I am happy to share with you if interested. If you have any other questions, please feel free to contact me at

    Dr. S. Medina
    Author, "Singing English Irregular Verbs"

  6. Have you asked the nearby Montessori school about their plans to expand and add a bilingual option? After all, you do have two more years before D starts preschool, right?

    I took all my Spanish CDs to Austin over Christmas and tried to burn them for you and Lindsey, but the computer decided it hated me and I stopped trying. All the CDs are still at the house... Did I tell you this already? Maybe someone there can finish burning them and send them to you. Or you can just ask them to send you the originals, since I won't be using them (then you can burn them and send Lindsey a copy, for R.)

    Seriously, if you want to get him an MP3 player, I'll read books to him.

    Also, to build up your fluency, read books in Spanish. Yes, I know, you have so much free time... but still! I can send you some (which I would need back). Or you can listen to audio books (I used to have an Audible account, but I never found that many books in Spanish. Maybe iTunes has a better selection?) You can listen to audio books in the car, or when doing other stuff, so that might be a more realistic option, time-wise.

  7. Definitely look at immersion programs in local schools. Our elementary school - which is a hop, skip, and jump away, has an immersion program for Spanish. I'm not sure I'll put A into it, it'll depend on how solid her French is by then, since French is the priority. Hopefully by then they'll have a French option. In addition to DH speaking to A in French exclusively, we also have many French DVDs and CDs. I'm learning more that way. And as I said elsewhere, I'm going to ask our friends to speak to her in Thai. I think I'm living vicariously through A, since I didn't learn languages so easily, I want her to have tons of exposure!

  8. You should def. give it a go. I am horrible at any second language and I hate that I can't pass one on to E. My neighbor speaks Italian and she speaks it to her daughter and to Eliza too. Also, sign language is a great too helpe kids make connections because between words in two different langauges-because the sign is the same!



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