Miranda González, Livemocha tutor and co-host of LiveEnglish with Livemocha on Facebook, shares her thoughts and advice for teaching your kids a second language.
In her words, Miranda
In 2012, it’s not just a nice idea to be bilingual – it’s crucial. There’s no need for me to lecture you about the benefits of being bilingual; after all, if you are reading Livemocha’s blog, you certainly have interest in other languages. But have you thought about teaching your children to be bilingual? If you want to teach your child another language, the sooner you get started, the better. As both a teacher and a mom, I’d like to share with you how I am teaching my kids two languages. I’m not saying that my method is right for everyone, but it will give you some ideas about how to begin.
I am a native English speaker, and my husband is a native Spanish speaker. We are both fluent in each other’s languages, but my immediate family only speaks English, and his immediate family only speaks Spanish. What does this mean? It means that our children must speak both languages in order to have relationships with both sides of their extended family. For us, there was never a question of “WILL we teach our children both languages?” The question was (and is) “HOW will we teach them both languages?”
When I found out I was pregnant with our first child, I went to our library and checked out every book they had on bilingualism in children. Then I went to a library in the next city over and cleaned out their bilingual section as well. I read and read and read. I discovered a lot of conflicting opinions. I found some great advice and some terrible advice. After sorting through various approaches and finding what worked best for our family, my husband and I mapped out a two-fold plan:
1. Speak the non-dominant language at home
In this case, the non-dominant language is Spanish because we live in the United States. (The non-dominant language will vary for you depending on where you live and what your language goals are.) The theory behind this is that children will learn the dominant language without even trying. Many of our friends’ children enter American public schools speaking only Spanish and within a year, they are totally fluent in and prefer to speak English. In fact, after kids start school, the struggle is then to persuade them to keep speaking the non-dominant language.
We have had to be really committed to speaking only Spanish in the house. Sometimes one of us will be talking on the phone in English, hang up and turn to the other and continue speaking in English. We used to shoot each other the “Speak Spanish” look, but now we have become so accustomed to speaking Spanish in the home that even if we get side-tracked for a moment, we will gradually get back in the groove.
This also means that as much as possible, children’s movies, books, music, etc. should also be in the non-dominant language. If a Disney movie has the capability for Spanish audio, you better believe my kids are watching it in Spanish! Whenever we go to Mexico, we bring back books and educational toys in Spanish. My son thinks that our city library only has two shelves of books that are available to be checked out because I always tell him to choose from the children’s Spanish section. Some of my friends think this is a little silly, but I know that this extra effort will pay off later on.
2. Outside of the home, use “situational language”
It is really important to me that our children learn two languages. But it is equally important to me that they be polite. When I used to work in the public school system, nothing would make me angrier than students who would use their language abilities to exclude others. This is why we are teaching our children that when you are around people that speak only English, you speak English. When you are around people that speak only Spanish, you speak Spanish. And if you are with people from both groups, speak both! (This may require you to do some translation!) Never leave someone out, not on accident, and certainly not on purpose!
This means that when we are at Grandma and Grandpa’s house, we speak English. (When my son was a little younger, we would occasionally have to clarify instructions for him in Spanish, but now he has no problem understanding exactly what is going on in English.) When we are with “Abu” and “los Tíos” in Mexico, we speak Spanish. Those two situations are obvious, but others are a little trickier. We go to church in Spanish, so we speak Spanish there. When we go to the doctor’s office, we speak English. When we go to the grocery store, we speak Spanish. (That is, unless we run into some English-speaking friends!) But you get my point. You choose your language according to situation. By doing this, children not only learn how to be mindful of other people, they also learn how to switch back and forth between languages, something that stimulates advanced brain function.
So, that is the plan that we are currently carrying out. It’s working great so far, though it certainly has its challenges. We’ve had our struggles, but that’s a blog for another day. (Stay tuned!) If you haven’t started teaching your kids another language, it’s not too late!