Broken Spanish

In many occasions, I have used this blog to express my ups and downs in raising multilingual children. It is something that I’m passionate about not only because speaking more than one language in a globalized society makes sense, but because I want my children to have a deeper connection with their extended family and our roots.

Time and again, I have compared how my oldest daughter’s grasp on the Spanish language is far superior than my son’s -the middle child- or my youngest daughter who is only in preschool. My son is just not as interested in the Spanish language as his older sister, or so I thought.

As you have probably read, we recently relocated from Michigan to Pennsylvania. The move has obviously come with plenty of opportunities for the kids to adjust and adapt to a new environment. Nowhere has it been more evident than at school. Our former environment was quite homogeneous making us stand out as the mixed family we are. Here however, not only is the student body rich in diversity, but also the staff.

My children were welcomed in a warm way making them feel safe and empowered. My daughter has five classmates of Mexican heritage in her classroom. She was happy to discover that like her, they are all bilingual but English is their stronger language.

Among my son’s classmates, there is a boy from Puerto Rico who does not speak English (yet). To my surprise, my son has happily taken the role of an interpreter between his Spanish-speaking friend and the English-speaking ones.

You cannot believe the amount of joy this makes me feel! My son, using his broken Spanish, is experiencing first hand how bilingualism bridges the gap between two people. Furthermore, he’s the one building that bridge and helping his new friend become a part of the dynamic of the classroom!

I am thrilled at the opportunity that my son has to see the value of bilingualism but more importantly, to have a friend to learn Spanish from and to teach English to. I could not have imagined that such a relationship could spark my son’s interest in the language that so passionately I have tried to teach him since he was a baby.

We shall see how this friendship brings both boys closer to the relative unknown worlds that they now both share: this English-speaking one where we reside, and that of Hispanic heritage that is far away.


I Give Up

OK, I admit it… I can’t be solely responsible for my children’s bilingualism. There, I said it. I’m giving up. But not in the sense that you might think. 

I will continue to speak in Spanish to them, to encourage them to read in Spanish, listening to music in Spanish, and celebrating our multicultural traditions. Perhaps even device strategies to help them engage in conversations in Spanish in a more organic way (one that doesn’t requiere constant nagging on my part).

However, I have finally understood that I cannot do it alone -even by being a Stay-At-Home-Mom. 

So I’m giving up on the idea of doing it all by myself. I need reinforcements from the community and family and friends. So I have come up with an alternative plan. One where I model behavior and try to keep my kids’ bilingual and multicultural knowledge growing as they mature themselves.

I wish we had the option of enrolling them in a Spanish-immersion program but that isn’t the case right now. That’s why, I have contacted a tutor specialized in children to help me teach my children how to read and with whom they would only speak Spanish to -if only for a set period of time every week.

I encourage them to call their grandparents in Mexico as often as they can so they can practice conversation (even though they don’t know that they are doing it also for academic purposes).

I also joined a playgroup in Spanish so that my youngest one can increase the exposure to the language outside of the home.

This journey to bilingualism doesn’t stop here. It doesn’t end with the tired children who prefer to speak in their main language only. It may be a childhood-long learning experience in which breaks will now be allowed, but where the main goal of full bilingualism will always be in sight. 

I’m giving up direct control over the situation but I hope the combination of outside influences and constant modeling will rekindle my kids’ interest in Spanish.

Wish me luck! And as usual, I welcome any ideas and experiences in your own journey to raising bilingual and multicultural children. 

The Increasing Challenges of Keeping a Bilingual Home

Many of my posts have been dedicated to bilingualism but this is the first one I write after having experienced the process of learning how to read with my two oldest children.

When I only had my daughter in elementary last year, I saw how difficult learning how to read in English was. Spanish phonetics work much more with logic and intuition while in English, I feel we depend a lot more in repetition and memorization.

I had to learn how to teach my child while at the same time not giving up our goal of raising bilingual children. We had a learning curve but by the end of kindergarten, my daughter was caught up with the rest of her classmates. Now that she’s a more confident reader, I feel like first grade has been a lot easier to handle for both of us. She still practices her Spanish and has begun to read in both languages with almost the same fluency.

With my son, who is now in kindergarten, English phonetics and the reading process have been notoriously easier. Not necessarily because this is my second time around but, he just prefers to communicate in English. He has shown a preference for this language since he started to talk. When I would ask him: ponte los zapatos, he would respond, as if he wanted me to switch languages: I will put my shoes on.

I did not know how much understanding of Spanish my son really had until we visited Mexico when he was about three years-old. There he spoke Spanish because he had no choice but he definitely lacked the vocabulary as he did not practice his skills as much as his older sister. Limited language ability or not, he was able to get his point across and to play with his cousins.

Now that both children are in elementary, I am starting to notice many differences in their language acquisition and reading abilities. I have come up with a theory in relation to how bilingual each of the children are.

My first daughter is the most fluent in both languages, enjoys speaking Spanish with me and though her vocabulary is much more extensive in English, she can communicate her ideas in Spanish (or to my dismay, ahem, Spanglish).

My son has an extensive vocabulary and great diction in English. He reads with ease above his grade level and though he can read a little in Spanish, he is behind his grade level in this language. He prefers speaking and interacting in English but can understand Spanish. When we talk, he usually replies in English so him and I sound more like an episode of Dora The Explorer.

My toddler is just starting to speak with more complex sentences. While at the beginning, her vocabulary was a mix of English and Spanish, depending on the ease of a particular word, she is now showing a preference for English over Spanish.

So what did I do different? Why is my first born the most interested in Spanish?

My theory is that when I only had one child, everything we did, from reading books to listening to music to interacting with each other, was done in Spanish. As she grew, we were part of a playgroup where English was spoken and other activities outside of the home, such as swimming or gymnastics were done in English as well. However, the majority of the time, she was surrounded by Spanish and thus she preferred to communicate in it. It was not until she entered preschool that she decided to use English more. A way to assimilate better, it’s my guess.

When my son came along, we continued speaking in Spanish at home and the majority of the music and TV we watched was in this language. However, we were already involved in many activities outside of the home, which of course, happened in English, so little by little, this language gained a stronger presence in our daily routine. By the time he went to preschool, we were spending much of our days out of the home so he was involved in more activities conducted in English than his older sister at that age. I struggled for him to say anything in Spanish to me.

Lastly, my third child was born. By then, our days were spent between summer camps, field trips with playgroup and taking her siblings from one activity to the next. My little daughter was surrounded by English 90% of the time because by now, even her older siblings were speaking it at home. I was so curious to see how her vocabulary would evolve. As I mentioned earlier, she too prefers English.

So now there’s a challenge in front of me: How to increment the exposure to activities around the Spanish language and culture? The only answer is discipline. I have to catch myself not addressing my children in English. I have to plan our traditional Hispanic festivities and encourage my children and their little friends to talk to each other in Spanish (if only for part of the event). I have to find something of interest of each of the children and try to learn/do/practice that activity in Spanish.

Whatever it takes, I’m not giving up. Even when it seems that I’m constantly battling English from taking over more terrain in our house. I know, one day, all these efforts will pay off.


Kindergarten Progress Reports and Bilingual Goals

Progress Reports for the month of January have been sent home and I was very nervous to receive them as I did not know what exactly to expect from my kindergartener who had been struggling in the area of English Language Arts.

As I have said before, all the books about bilingual and multilingual children that I have read, encourage parents not to give up when the children find it challenging to keep up with more than one language. But that is certainly easier said than done.

For starters, the planning one must do selecting media and books for the children can be overwhelming. It is also very hard to try diverting conversations from the main spoken language to the one that is only spoken by the parents at home. The lack of vocabulary in the home language is sometimes frustrating for young children who are just eager to share whatever exciting thing they learned about in school.

Lastly, like it was in my case of course, children often face difficulty grasping the phonetics of one language. Having more than one language to learn at the same time, can be very challenging -especially as children start learning how to read in the main language and continue to speak the secondary languages at home.

When my 5-year-old faced the problem of sounding out the correct phonetics in English as she started to learn sight words and how to read, she found it confusing to read our books in Spanish at home. After talking with her teacher, we decided to stop reading in Spanish to push the learning process in English.

I felt like I was loosing some kind of war at that time. I did not want my child to loose interest in speaking my native tongue -especially since she had acquired a larger vocabulary in the recent months. However, I knew that reading in the main language is an imperative need in order to succeed in school and elsewhere.

We have focused on reading only in English, the prominent language, for about three months now and this is what I have seen:

  • A more confident child in the area of English Language Arts. She now allows herself to make mistakes as she tries to sound out words. Most of the time, she can read them on her own.
  • An increase in vocabulary and in the number of sight words she knows.
  • A better understanding of the text. She is able to explain what the text is about, even when I ask her to tell me in Spanish.
  • A much better performance in her evaluations.
  • An increased interest to learn how to read also in Spanish. This came as a pleasant surprise to me. I’m very excited that now that she has the theory of how to read in English down, she’s feeling confident and is curious to apply it to Spanish. I’m going to hold off on that until perhaps this summer of maybe in the Fall when she starts first grade. I want her to get one language down before we move on to the next challenge.

To summarize, books and advice from other people who have raised bilingual children is a great tool to have -even when it seems impossible to overcome the challenges of keeping both languages at equal levels of fluency. They are a good reminder that other people have been able to succeed at the task and they can also be good encouragement during the times when our children seem like they are ready to leave the second language behind.

There will be times when we will have to push one language over another, but the most important thing than one can do to promote bilingualism, is keep modeling it ourselves. Luckily for me, I have plenty of opportunities to speak in Spanish in my daily life and my profession as a translator always allows me to have an opportunity to talk to my children about the advantages of knowing more than one language fluently.

We are taking one step at a time but after the initial hiccup that kindergarten presented in my goals toward bilingualism for my children, I feel more confident that with a little patience and more planning, I can teach my children how to be bi-literate as well.

Family (Members) Who Are Like Friends

I love the anticipation and excitement that welcoming visitors over our house brings. The food planning, the sprucing of spaces in the house, the rehabilitation of the toy room turned into the guest bedroom. It is all very fun for me -especially when those visitors happen to be very special.

My cousin recently moved to a city about three hours away from us. We haven’t had much contact for a while because we both were living in countries other than Mexico and when I went back home to visit, we seldom crossed paths.

I remembered him kindly, however. His parents are my godparents and growing up his house was basically a second home for me. Him and I were always dreaming or debating about something and then our different interests landed us in places far away from home.

It wasn’t until I heard he was living in the U.S. that I reached out to him and learned of his move closer to me. We decided to meet up in person next time I was over by him. When we did, we each had a whole set of people attached to us. I didn’t know how things were going to be, but him and my husband seemed to hit it off so well that we ended up making plans together for Thanksgiving.

I struggled to hold back the tears of excitement when his little family came through the door of our house. It was the first time ever that we had welcomed any family for a holiday since I had lived in the States. I wanted it to be perfect and for everybody, young and not, to have the funnest of all times.

There is only so much you can do as a hostess for the group dynamic to flow gracefully: the linens were clean, the guest bathroom had all the major necessities, and I made sure the four new people in our home had a space that they could use as their own. I included my cousin’s wife in the food planning and preparation and tried for everyone to feel just at home. But even if you plan everything perfectly, if there is no chemistry between people, there isn’t any welcoming cocktail that could replace it.

Luckily for us, we found ourselves enjoying the holiday in great harmony. The kitchen was the center of the main interactions. Where I got to know my cousin’s wife and discovered just how much we have in common. As the aromas of the food surrounded us, also the air of emerging friendships invaded the kitchen. My cousin and I reconnected and found common ground in parenthood. My husband and my cousin’s wife chatted over wine and cheese. The kids ran around the house playing together as if they had known each other for a long time. It was a scene worthy of a postcard!

We debated politics and the need for winter gear in the Midwest; we exchanged parenting tips and questioned the same practices of disengaged parents at playgrounds; we laughed and shared stories that made us teary-eyed. Three languages danced together to make great conversations as we shared a common identity of being multi-cultural families racing children in a country foreign to us all.

We talked and we ate and we played and we enjoyed the comfort of being in great company. So I start this holiday season with a big smile on my face and the pleasant taste of having family nearby vibrating all over me. I’m thankful for magical and unforgettable moments surrounded by great people and for realizing that while there are friends who are like family, there also are family members who are like friends.


I Just Can’t Help Her

Parent-teacher conferences were last Thursday at my daughter’s kindergarten. If you read my post from last week, that was the cause for great anxiety. Part of my stress was that I had been doubting my approach to raising bilingual children. I was having second thoughts about introducing the phonetics of the Spanish language along with the English language learning that was going on at school.

I knew my daughter had the need to visit the intervention teacher for help learning her alphabet. Something that sounded to me like the kid was basically flunking kindergarten. After I calmed myself down, not on my own but because I received my child’s progress report before the above mentioned conference, I realized that she was on track on every aspect that was graded there.

So why then, did she need to be pulled out of the main classroom? And, was that still happening? So as you can probably expect, I showed up at the conference with my questions written down and ready to jot down any advice the teacher would provide.

What I learned that evening was nothing too worrisome. My daughter is still being pulled out of the main classroom to help getting good phonetic basis before pushing her to learn how to read. She has made progress and now instead of being in a group of 2-3 students per teacher, she’s in one with up to 5. The challenges she’s facing -and working on overcoming- are identifying the different sounds of the English language and learning to use them in different syllables and words.

Now, it is people’s instinct to blame her bilingualism for the confusion, but all the linguistic books I read on raising multi-lingual children, said that the exposure to more than one language had nothing to do with the obstacles that a child learning how to speak, write or read may experience. I do not think, in my experience, that I can blame my daughter’s bilingual skills for her delay in learning the phonetics of the English language. I think the problem is her parents’ pronunciation as second-language-speakers.

I have a pretty good domain of my second language, after all, I do have an American high school diploma and a degree in Public Relations from an American university. However, it doesn’t matter that I had started learning English when I was a young girl or that I have lived in the U.S. for the last 13 years, I speak with an accent. A much milder accent than when I first moved to Michigan, mind you. But my inability to pronounce certain sounds may be a greater cause of confusion for my children than the exposure to the Spanish language.

Now, you would think that because I speak to my children in Spanish 90% of the time, their accent in that language is as good as a native speaker. The truth is that they speak English much more like native speakers, even though they may have learned it from their parents who speak it with an accent. It is all fascinating to me. In the end, children learn the main language spoken in the place they live and one must fight to keep the other one alive.

So yes, my kindergartener needs extra help in the English Language Arts department now, but in the long run, her ability to speak, read and write in two languages from a young age, will enrich not only her academic path, but her life as a whole. I just have to constantly remind myself that the challenges she may be facing right now, are but a speckle in the kaleidoscope that her academic career would become.

I am thankful that my little girl attends a school with caring teachers and with the resources to help her master the skills she needs right now, to succeed later. Teaching her the phonetics of the English language is one area where I just can’t help her.

School, Academics and Bilingualism

When I had my first baby I had many convictions of the type of mother I wanted to be: loving, involved, strict, active… the list can go on for a while. I have adjusted some expectations in part because of my children’s different personalities and in part because of life just being different than what I thought it would be. Sometimes I have had to think twice about carrying on a certain plan being aware that my Type-A personality may be asking too much of a young child.

Now that my 5-year-old is in kindergarten, I have found that many expectations that I had for what school was going to be, do not really fit with reality. For starters, I thought that mastering one skill after another was just going to come easily. I thought that because my daughter loves to tell me all of the social aspects of school, she was going to be as open to share what she was learning and what she was having trouble getting. I thought that bilingualism was going to come just with exposure to both languages, but I have come to the conclusion that if I want my kids to be bi-literate also, it is going to take much more than just keep speaking to them in both languages.

I must confess that raising bilingual children has been much harder than I had anticipated. It is especially hard when I’m trying to get them to tell me about what they learned in school as all the new vocabulary is in English. It would be so much easier to just carry out the conversation in English but then, I would lose the opportunity to give them what I consider an amazing gift.

I had thought that when my daughter went to school full time, I was going to teach her the alphabet and how to read and write in Spanish simultaneously as she learned the skills in English. In reality, that method proofed to be a little harder than what I had anticipated.

It was that first teacher evaluation in kindergarten with an annexed note stating that she needed extra help, what made me realized that I was probably pushing my little girl too hard. She was getting the phonetics of both languages mixed up and needed extra help at school to master the alphabet in English.

I have stopped actively teaching her Spanish but continue to draw a very defined line between the languages. Outside of the house and with school-related activities, we speak English, everything that is exchanged between the family members, must be done in Spanish -even when it takes a little prompting from me. Once she masters how to read in English, I will start my quest of teaching her how to do the same in Spanish. In the mean time, I do not want to impose on her something that she has shown me she’s not ready for.

I have come to realize that school is more than just the academics, and though I would still prefer my children to be at the top of their class, what is most important to me at this point is for my daughter to feel confident, to learn how to maneuver the ups and downs of friendship and to have an overall positive experience at school. That is why at the parent-teacher conferences this week my questions will center around her well-being -I’m sure her teacher will focus on the academics in all cases.

Wish me luck at the conference!

Festivities and Traditions as the Perfect Ways to Teach Multiculturalism

One of the things that my husband and I totally agree on is the fact that we want our children to be raised in a multicultural environment. This means that we purposefully include bits and pieces of the Lebanese and Mexican culture that we each were raised in but also of the US one that we have adapted to live in (and the one our children were born into).

Aside from food, music and books from these three main cultures, we also include things from other cultures that for some reason have a meaning in our lives. So we read to them about the world and the different traditions; we eat at many different ethnic restaurants; whenever possible we point out a traditional dress or language. We try to make them aware as much as possible that there are different ways to live and act and that they can chose the parts that they like to include in their little worlds.

Being a spectator isn’t enough, however. For multiculturalism to flourish inside of our children’s hearts, it is indispensable for them to connect with each of the different cultures we have at home so that later is them who are using more than one language in their speech, or ask for a specific dish to eat, or for a certain song to be played (we can only influence them so much, right?).

I think that one of the best ways to offer that connectivity with a culture that isn’t the mainstream one, is to celebrate the different festivities around traditions. The food, music and actions involved into celebrating a tradition are easy visual things in which children can participate and enjoy, giving them an opportunity to be a part of something that they will remember.

The last three months of the year bring the perfect activities to start mixing cultures as we celebrate festivities like Halloween and Day of the Dead, Thanksgiving and Christmas with the traditional foods of different places. Going to pick apples and decorating pumpkins while eating Bread of the Dead and drinking Mexican hot chocolate or having a Lebanese meal after decorating sugar skulls for Day of the Dead. Thanksgiving dinner is filled with nontraditional dishes around the important turkey. And during Christmas we take turns baking and cooking traditional dishes from Lebanon and Mexico but listening to songs in English and including some classic movies that both my husband and I have adopted into our traditions.

It sounds like a lot of planning, but it really isn’t because once you have become a multicultural couple, adding and including parts of different cultures is just as natural as being together.

The Competition is Winning

It started to happen as soon as the school year started. My fear of loosing my Spanish-speaking mini ballerina became a reality. Although I had prepared myself mentally for this moment, my heart is still not ready to let it happen. My little girl is now an English-preferred bilingual child.

What did I expect? It is only natural that now that she is in preschool and more involved in activities outside of the house that the English language would become the more prominent one. She’s learning more vocabulary in what, until this August, had been her second language and she’s picking up phrases and the grammatical structure of the English language faster than what she currently is in Spanish.

I almost want to say that she’s replacing her language abilities in Spanish for English ones, but that, I know is not true. It is just that at this moment, all the new and exciting things that she is learning, she’s learning in English at school. I even tried doing her homework in Spanish at home today but when I thought about her sharing what she learned about fire safety from her assignment, I realized that she needed to have the vocabulary in English in order to succeed in the classroom. I made the hard decision of stop playing Dora the Explorer and quit repeating the vocabulary in both languages. If the assignment was sent in English, then I should stick to that, after all, it would be impossible to keep up doing assignments in both languages throughout all her schooling.

It is a rough transition to go from having wonderful conversations in Spanish at home to notice how every day she uses it less and less. Even when I ask her about her day in Spanish, she recounts what she did in English. I guess my husband and I have experienced a similar situation when trying to explain something about business or a class we took in college in our native tongues. Since we didn’t learn the information in Arabic or Spanish, we find it difficult to explain our knowledge with the same ease that we can if we speak in English -the language that we acquired the information in. However, this doesn’t mean that we aren’t fluent in our native tongues anymore.

I cannot help it but to think in some of my husband’s relatives who have been raised outside of Lebanon in homes where only Arabic is spoken and though they understand the language, they refuse to use it in any kind of conversation. I just don’t want that for my family. But how to take back some of my linguistic influence over the children?

Maybe I should think about a different approach and start planning more exciting learning opportunities in Spanish that would help my daughter (and son) to acquire more vocabulary in a way that doesn’t seem like a competition with what she’s learning school. Perhaps is time to get new books and media or maybe establish a firmer time and day for the Skype dates we have with my family. Maybe this is only a stage in her life where she’s catching up with the “other” language to later come back to a more balanced use of both of her main languages.

Whatever it is, it’s very hard for me to cross my arms and wait patiently for things to unfold so I think I’m going to have to contact my friends who are teachers for young children in Mexico and ask for learning materials. Even though my competition is winning right now, I can’t just quit and forget about my goal of raising bilingual and bicultural children. There must be a way to keep increasing knowledge in both languages in a harmonious way.

I welcome any advice, suggestions and book recommendations that you have. In the mean time, wish me luck (and lots of patience as I attempt to redirect English conversations into Spanish).

TV as a Tool to Raise Multilingual Children

Back when I was working for a group of charter schools and was up-to-date with research about the negative effects of TV viewing for young children, I swore I wasn’t going to put my baby (not even my preschooler) in front of the TV longer than half an hour every day.

Then, when I got pregnant with my second child and was too tired to entertain his older sister, Sesame Street and Hi5 helped me to keep her happy as I had some time to recharge batteries. After the birth of my son and all the changes that went on, I used TV viewing as a distraction for my then toddler daughter. I felt really guilty for using the TV as a sitter while I nursed the baby or made dinner. I thought I was the worse mom in the world and that I was ruining my children or at the very least, depriving them from precious active time.

But then, I started noticing that my daughter was learning many things from her shows and movies. Her vocabulary was increasing every day, she started recognizing colors and shapes better, she was even better at recognizing emotions. I knew this because I was watching all those shows with her so I knew exactly where the new skills were acquired.

I have to add that I was very intentional selecting movies and TV shows in Spanish with the idea of helping with language acquisition; after all, I learned a great amount of English vocabulary from TV while learning the language. I just didn’t expect that by watching the same shows (like Sesame Street) sometimes in English and others in Spanish, I was helping my children recognize language differences and increase their skills in both of them.

Now that my daughter is three years old and can communicate clearly, I can really say that watching TV shows in both English and Spanish has been a great tool for me to help my bilingual child to recognize differences in sentence structures and even cultural nuances. She now is able to recognize the languages as two separate ones and is able to determine whether a conversation is going on in English or Spanish. She’s also pleasantly surprised when we had been watching a movie in Spanish for a while and then play it in English (it is as if it was a brand new movie for her). She loves recognizing both languages and is quick to point out which one is being spoken.

So if you ask me, despite all the research against TV viewing, I will still recommend it. Of course, I’m talking about watching the TV with your children, selecting age-appropriate shows and being an active participant by asking your children questions about the plot and practicing the new vocabulary.

Unluckily, there aren’t any TV shows or movies in Spanish on cable television or sites like Netflix but you can buy almost any TV show in Spanish on the Internet. I also only buy movies that come available in English and Spanish. It can be hard and more expensive to add bilingual titles to the family’s DVD library, so make sure to visit the public library -you’ll be amazed of all the titles they have available in Spanish (and many other languages). In my case, I also ask anyone who comes to visit from Mexico to bring DVDs, CDs and books in Spanish for us.Some of our favorite shows to watch in Spanish are:

  • Hi5
  • Plaza Sesamo (the Mexican version of Sesame Street)
  • Baby Einstein DVDs
  • Disney movies

What are the shows/types of movies your children watch in other languages?