by Wendy V. Ash

One of my biggest frustrations is when parents allow an opportunity to teach their child a second language, slip past them. They may feel that it is an overwhelming task in addition to their busy work week. They may set the bar too high and decide if they can not raise a fully bilingual child, they have failed. Others just don’t know where to start or encourage their child to speak it. Let me relate three examples, out of many, that I have encountered in my career.

I met a high school Spanish teacher once at a playground. My daughter was playing with her children, so I encouraged my daughter to speak Spanish with them. She stopped me and said “Oh, they don’t speak Spanish. The last thing I feel like doing when I come home is teach my children how to speak Spanish.” I was stunned. One would wonder how this woman could have her kind of resources and not apply them to her own children. I did not. I knew she had become accustomed to traditional methods of teaching, and she felt overwhelmed to use the same formula at home. The thought of this process exhausted her before even attempting to undertake it.

I had a father, from Ethiopia, who was very concerned that his children were not speaking their native language at home. He said “They hear us, they understand us, but they refuse to speak it. How do I get them to speak it?”. My answer was: “Do they have things they want from you? Well, if they don’t ask for it in your language, they don’t get it.” He looked surprised. Yes, it can be that simple. It’s called bribery, and I’m not above using it. One of the most valuable early phrases my daughter learned was “puedo tener…” which means “Can I have…”. It worked surprisingly well for movies, candy, toys, TV, and any of the other one hundred things they want when they are young. When she got the movie, it was in Spanish. The beauty of it is they continually ask for things, so they must continuously repeat it, and therefore not only retain it, but become more comfortable while speaking it.

This last instance is the most common one. A parent (or are parents) speak Spanish and are bilingual. I’m not quite certain for the reason of this expectation, but they feel that their children will adopt the language seamlessly through exposure. Sometimes, they are not even speaking the language actively at home, but assume that they are being infused passively with the sound waves  from relatives. They are astounded when the child is 10 years old and does not open his mouth and start spouting poetry like Don Quixote. I am here to tell you, from my observations, exposure and input has far less of an effect on the second language equation than we would like to believe. If a child is only listening to the target language being spoken, he is not conditioning the proper muscles to enunciate the language or feels comfortable with its enunciation. If he is just being exposed to the language, he is not engaging in dialogue, which causes him to lack interaction where we learn a language best.

What is the answer for these dilemmas? If I were to provide a few it would be the following:

  • Some is better than none. Don’t overwhelm yourself with needing to teach them every word and them becoming immediately bilingual. Concentrate on common phrases you say around the house daily. I find commands to be a great place to start (such as “come here”, “put this on”, “go there”, etc.)
  • Dangle the carrot. Figure out what your child’s motivators. Use them to encourage your child to speak the target language and have their wants and needs met.
  • Output is outstanding. The more they speak the target language, the more likely they are to retain what they speak and be more comfortable in a social situation speaking Spanish.

Bilingual parents, let’s start applying the adage “Necessity is the mother of invention.” liberally and we can start taking ownership of why our children are not adopting our native tongue. • • like us • follow us