ForeignMom's Blog

Bicultural mom adjusting to motherhood in a foreign country

I Give Up April 4, 2017

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. 

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The Increasing Challenges of Keeping a Bilingual Home February 28, 2017

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 February 2, 2016

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 December 2, 2015

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 November 15, 2015

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 November 9, 2015

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 November 21, 2013

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.