Discoveries after 4 years of raising bilingual children

My eldest daughter, Martha, as just turned four and her sister, Malena, has just turned two. Both children have existed in a multilingual environment from day one. Martha speaks English and Spanish to more of less equal fluency and fully understands French, with a much lesser propensity to use it.

Looking back over the last four years, these are the discoveries I’ve found most interesting.

The bilingual siblings on the phone to Spain...

The bilingual siblings on the phone to Spain…

1. Being bilingual or multilingual did not significantly ‘stunt’ the age at which language was acquired. Some friends of Martha’s monolingual friends were very quick talkers so for a brief period I wondered but, looking at a wider selection of children, I realised she was just more average rather than precocious. And, of course, she was learning two languages. Malena, by contrast, is very much a ‘quick talker’ and frequently shocks us with the surprisingly elaborate utterances she sometimes produces in English, Spanish and even French. The important thing to note is that children develop at their own pace.

2. Bilingualism makes kids happy! It’s important to note that our approach to raising bilingual children has been about ‘exposing not imposing’. Through a mix of conscious language use in the home, attending play groups and social gatherings conducted in other languages, use of books, media and technology we have attempted to create a lively multilingual environment with no ‘drilling’ of language into the kids. Martha now wants to learn to and write, and is seeking support from us. Children are natural, avid learners and I feel that trying to force learning onto them merely interferes with their natural curiosity. She’s also asking a lot of ‘scientific’ questions so by using our small garden and books about the planets as illustrations I am trying to answer them.

3. Learning a THIRD language has worked. Lidia’s native tongue is Spanish but she also speaks English and French to a near-native level of fluency. She introduced French too from day one and Martha attends a French-speaking nursery school. I have to admit this was something I watched carefully. Would a third language be just too much? Would she be ‘lost’ or stressed by the French school? As it turned out it merely means that she fully understands French language – we believe as well as English and Spanish. Until recently she hadn’t uttered much French with us but is increasingly communicating in French with people she identifies as French speakers. In other words, she can identify the language of and English, Spanish or French speaker and speak the appropriate language, albeit with less ability in the third language. This is remarkable to me.

4. The children have a full and proper relationship with their Spanish extended family. Both girls talk more than once a week with their Aunt and Grandmother on Skype and when Martha visits Madrid she can talk to children she meets like a Spanish native speaker. It would have been terrible to have cut her off linguistically from all this by delaying language learning until later when it then has to be taught rather than acquired naturally.

5. My Spanish has improved and I’ve even picked up a fair amount of French. It was an eye opener one day when Martha asked me for something in Spanish and I had to quickly Google the word for a translation! She’s quickly outpaced my rather intermediate semi-fluent Spanish and I feel the need to keep up.

6. The kids already have a very global outlook. From birth the girls have existed in a multilingual and multicultural environment and know about other countries, different languages. It’s a world away from when I was a kid (I was probably 18 before I had a conversation with someone from the North of England) and I think the girls will definitely be much richer for it.

Baby: Don’t know a language? Make one up!

Language can take many forms.

Our sixth month old baby, M, might not know any Spanish or English words yet but that’s not stopping her from developing a language of her own.

For the first few brief months it’s hard to know what baby wants. Food? A clean nappy? A hug? Entertainment? Papa’s bad guitar playing? From this age they start developing their own system of utterances, screams, grunts and sign language to at least get a few things across.

Some bits of ‘baby language’ are pretty obvious. Early on, M would be in Papa’s arms but would often wriggle in the direction of Mama to suggest she be handed over for a change of scenary or boob (and because Mama’s probably just better all-round). Now she just outstretches an arm in that direction, perhaps adding a few grunts for emphasis. Another signal is the one for ‘pick me up’. She’s used to being plucked off the floor by her armpits, so will adopt a ‘parachutist’ pose, with armpits raised when that’s what she wants.

So, babies will happily make up language any which way they can to make their point. We all do. When I reach the limit of my Spanish with a Spanish speaker, I may gesture or mime or imitate a sound and usually the message will be understood and communication can continue. Still, when a baby does it, it seems pretty clever. No one’s taught them how to do it. It’s innate.

With M increasingly mobile and able to commando crawl across the carpet like a pro, we’ve had to invest in her first playpen, which we’ve dubbed ‘baby gaol’. We’ve only given her short bursts of it as we don’t want her to turn against it (she still has a few problems with going to sleep in her cot, making a huge fuss, even if clearly exhausted). She quite quickly cottoned on to where the gate of the pen was located, pawing at the hinge and lower latch as if trying to figure out an escape before falling back on the ‘pick me up’ signal.

Her babbling is increasingly coherent in the sense it sounds more like proper talking than ever before. It’s easy to hear real words in there – I’m sure I got ‘Daddy’ the other day, although it was undoutedly a fluke. One day an obvious, bona fide real word will leap out, though. I wonder if it will be in Spanish or English?

Being a new Dad, six months on

Six months on the pace of baby M’s development is astonishing. She’s suprisingly agile and athletic – don’t know where she gets that from – and now just starting to ‘commando crawl’ a little. Arms are longer and able to grab at more objects. We need to be much more vigilant now but she’s now so much more interactive and aware.

She’s superfun and you can begin to teach her silly skills like how to shake a maraca or drum on the tabletop. A reading session with a simple book will hold her attention for quite some time and she’ll stroke the pages and point at the images.

Actually becoming a Dad, while giving a big sense of responsibility, is not quite as stressful as I thought it might be. There’s too much goofy nonsense to entertain us going on, too much outright fun. The only sad thing is having to go to work when M’s at her most energetic and delightful.

M’s just enjoyed her first experience of Spain and the searing summer heat of Madrid. I’m not sure whether her latin genes will make her a sun-seeker or her celtic genes a sun-avoider but she did suffer a little, poor mite.

Although Mama has been speaking to her in Spanish from day one, the rapid faster-and-faster conversations of people in Madrid clearly confused her – as people spoke there was a curious look on her face. She stopped her periodic babbling sessions as if unable to mimic her Spanish relatives like she could her British ones.

The famed latin love of children is no myth. Everyone we met wanted to have a hold of M and she was passed round half the barrio on numerous occasions. That she didn’t seem to mind – loads of extra attention and fun. It’s when everyone’s left the room that the grizzles start. He much older cousins took to a huge shine her and she repaid one by yanking a dangling earring as hard as she could – a hand she can yank with some force now.

Spain was an opportunity to pick up some Spanish children’s books, DVDs and music and she’s certainly enjoying a DVD of Spanish Children’s songs. I’m not sure the telly should be used to babysit a 5-6 month old, but, heck – it’s a way to add in more Spanish back in the UK.

Lidia has hooked up with various bilingual new mums back at home. M has little half-German, half-Russian, half-French chums to interact with. Lidia’s also met some parents who homeschool their children. Foreign people – whether Spanish, French, Polish – who have had any experience of UK state education at all seem quite stunned by the low standards, the lack of respect, the bullying. Poor education seems another ‘UK special’ along with excessive prices for key living costs and binge drinking. It seems foreign parents would have no problem sending their children to the nearest school back home, but here want to homeschool or, if funds allows, go private. It’s rather sad.

It’s a few years off, but the benefits of homeschooling seem to grow bigger in our minds the more we think about it. As there are many networks of homeschooling parents and kids, the detractor’s main argument against it – that children become isolated from their peers – is meaningless. In fact, homeschooled kids seem to interact regularly with a far wider cross section of the community, rather than be couped up in arbitrary age groups.

In terms of bilingual learning, we’ve largely used the ‘one parent, one language’ method with M so far, although I’ll quite often use my intermediate Spanish with her just for fun and because, living in England, M will get plenty of opportunity to hear English spoken. It’s also an opportunity and an incentive to improve my Spanish and take it to the next level. Surely all I need to is stay one grammatical conjugation ahead of the kid, right?