In this post, guest blogger Micah Bellieu will share her tips on ways to expose kids to the Spanish language.
Whether you speak Spanish or not, it’s incredibly challenging to surround your child with the target (or sometimes called ‘second’) language. Over my 15-year career as an English and Spanish teacher across the globe, I’ve talked with hundreds of parents who struggle to enforce the second language (also called the minority language, or language not spoken in the country where you’re living).
It takes daily (sometimes hourly!) focus to ensure that your child hears the minority language. It can get tiresome encouraging your kids to speak Spanish, especially when all their friends and their school teachers mostly speak English, but all your efforts will be so worth it.
In this article, I will be giving tips on how to make sure your child gets enough Spanish exposure because this is how the second language fluency battle is won!
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THE FORMULA FOR SPANISH FLUENCY FOR KIDS (OR ANYONE)
Consistent exposure + motivation or need to respond in the target language + hundreds of hours = progress with fluency.
WHY YOUR KIDS CAN’T/WON’T RESPOND IN SPANISH (WHETHER AT HOME OR AT SCHOOL
Exposure alone will likely give your kids the ear for Spanish, but it will not ensure their ability to respond in Spanish. This is one of the biggest complaints I hear: “My kids understand almost everything I say, but why won’t they respond in Spanish?” or for parents who do not speak Spanish, I hear, “My kids have been in a Spanish school for years, and the teachers say they understand, but I never hear my child actually speak Spanish!”
Easy: they haven’t ever REALLY been in an environment where Spanish was ‘a must’ in order to communicate their needs. Whether in a bilingual class with 30 other kids who speak English as a first language or in a home where you know your parents speak English too, it’s hard to make kids respond in the minority language.
Imagine you’ve heard your parents play the piano for ten years, but your parents have never sat you on the bench, put your hands on the keys, and insisted that you play for 10 minutes a day. Just because you’ve heard the piano every day doesn’t have anything to do with being able to play it. Understanding a language and being able to speak a language are two completely different skills.
MOTIVATION TO SPEAK SPANISH IS EVERYTHING
That’s where the motivation to respond in the target language comes in. In order to have a peaceful family life and not ignore your children if they don’t speak Spanish, it’s optimal to find an environment where it’s easier for the kids to choose Spanish over the majority language.
No one, not even adults, will choose the challenging task over the easy one unless there is a little motivation.
I took French classes with a group of 6 other English-speaking adults for four years, and every time the teacher left the room, we all started speaking in English with each other.
Talking in the majority language is human nature, and it’s extremely hard to fight. Imagine if I— a motivated adult paying for French class— insist on speaking English once the teacher is out of the room, how can one expect 30 kids in a dual language classroom to talk to each other in the minority language when they can more easily converse in English? Hard to do.
But when I was in Japan taking an immersive Japanese course, I rarely found people who spoke English outside of the class. While this was frustrating because I could not always find the words, I often got very creative and had to find similar words or synonyms for the words I was trying to express.
This creativity pushed my brain to form new pathways in Japanese, and these paths are created when you are trying to express yourself in your nonnative language. I improved in my Japanese because I ‘had to’ in order to speak with others and communicate my needs.
That month in Japan, I made many new pathways. I wanted to cry sometimes, but I got more fluent and confident in my ability to communicate. So, if we don’t have to speak the language, we often won’t, so we need to find situations where we have to in order to be immersed.
HOW TO EXPOSE KIDS TO SPANISH CONSISTENTLY (AND MAKE SURE THEY SPEAK IT!)
Here are some of my ideas for both kids that understand a lot but don’t speak, and also kids that are complete beginners:
Listen to music in Spanish in the car. Music is an entertaining way to expose your child to a second language. Again, you can learn the songs if you do not speak Spanish, remember the words and what they mean, so that you can help your child understand with hand motions, just like you did with English songs. Make car time, Spanish music time!
Make friends with a family that only speaks Spanish in the home. Arrange playdates at their house. Try to encourage the kids to only speak in Spanish. Doing this will also normalize Spanish. Sometimes kids don’t want to speak the second language because they feel they are different from their friends. So, find friends that also speak Spanish so that it feels normal!
Regarding technology, kids cannot gain fluency from Spanish TV alone, but if you are doing many of the above activities, and you put the TV on in Spanish, then it can help. I recommend real Spanish speaking cartoons. If you make a rule from day one that all TV is in Spanish, then that is all they will know. (Yes, I know this is hard, because they will see other shows at their friends’ houses, but you must be strong.)
Read bedtime stories in Spanish. Again, this is all about consistency. If you start with books in Spanish from day 1, then that is all they will know. Even if you do not speak Spanish, you can learn the books and point at the pictures for certain words.
Watch a Spanish teacher’s YouTube video reading a book in Spanish, and then mimic the teacher. If the book says ‘corre’, then pretend you are running. If the book talks about farm animals, point at each one as you say the names. If the book says, ‘triste’ make a sad face. Try to incorporate a context while reading, so they connect the words to actions and pictures, just like you do in English!
Online Spanish classes are a great resource for fun and extra exposure. Online immersion classes can be cheap and give an extra hour or two of Spanish per week. Again, it’s hard to make your kids speak to you in Spanish, but it is easier with a teacher in a class with other kids that also want to speak in Spanish. This allows your child to see that others want to speak in Spanish, and your child is more likely to be respectful with the Spanish teacher and respond in Spanish in an encouraging environment.
Will you need full-time childcare? If so, do your research and see if there is a Spanish-speaking daycare center near you.
You could also look for a nanny that speaks Spanish. Try not to talk in English with the caretaker in front of your child. Your child must get used to only Spanish with this person. Aim for a consistent routine schedule each week. I want to note that this does not need to be a tutor. Fluency does not derive from studying only, but from being exposed to the language with the motivation to respond in said language.
If you have the means, take a trip to Latin America or Spain, and sign the kids up for camps. It could be soccer camp, art classes, cooking classes for kids, free events at the libraries, concerts, etc. This immersion will skyrocket their fluency. You could make this a yearly habit, if possible.
The older your child gets, the harder it will be to enforce all of the above, but if you create a strong base, you can keep it up with the online Spanish classes, Spanish speaking babysitter, nanny, or childcare facility.
One thing is sure, you’re doing the best you can, and that’s all that matters. Fight for your child’s bilingual education, but don’t make yourself crazy in the process.