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.