By Annie Dye – Cambridge Coordinator SGS
Being part of a bilingual family can present challenges and opportunities. Maybe you grew up with two or more languages; maybe you learned a second language in high school or at the university. You might want to use other languages now with your own children, but you are not so sure how.
What are some of the challenges? They are best posed as questions for each family:
- Who speaks what language in our home to promote bilingualism?
- How do we decide who speaks what?
- When do we speak different languages?
- Should we have books in different languages? Where do we get them?
- What if my children can’t communicate with someone in our extended family who speaks a different language?
- Do my children have to do homework in English? I don’t know how to help.
- What if I don’t know or I forget the right word for something? What if I make mistakes in my pronunciation?
- How did we get into this? As parents we understand these ideas, but it still makes us nervous to try.
It is kind of crazy, but the same questions actually lead us to these opportunities:
Who speaks what language in our home to promote bilingualism?
Each family – and each member of the family – has a different language profile. Your language profile depends on where were born and raised, what languages you learned growing up, what languages you learned or used in school and what languages are part of your work and career. For example, Anita grew up in Colombia, so Spanish was the main language with her family and at school. But after her university studies, she did a masters degree in the UK, so she lived and studied in English for several years. She married a man from Germany, so then she learned German, too. Her three languages – Spanish, English and German – each play a different role in her life at different times, depending on where the family lives and who she is talking to. In their family, they can decide when to speak Spanish, English or German as they wish.
The majority of SGS families speak Spanish as their first language. English is the most common second language, and with children at the school, it becomes an important part of day-to-day life for most families. The question to ask ourselves is how to create a little more space for English at home – through some conversation, books, music and sometimes TV shows.
How do we decide who speaks what?
There are no fixed rules. As a parent, think of yourself as the architect (engineer, designer, captain) of your family. You get to decide what is important and how things work. If one parent is more comfortable in the family’s “first” language (let’s say Spanish), and the other parent is more comfortable trying the family’s “second” language sometimes (let’s say English), then you can decide to divide communication down those lines. But it doesn’t have to be 50/50. Maybe one parent speaks Spanish nearly all the time, but before bed, when reading books together, there is always one book in English.
When do we speak different languages?
Take a look at your family activities and spaces. Reading books in the evening is a great time to try to use the second language. If you like to play board games, you might decide to play Scrabble or cards or sit down to draw in English. Some people try speaking a second language when they are in the car, or only at breakfast on Saturdays. Try and see what makes sense for your family.
Should we have books in different languages? Where do we get them?
Books an excellent way to promote languages, and they provide an amazing excuse to spend time together reading, laughing, learning and just being close. There are a few English-language bookstores in Bogotá and you can order books online from local or international sellers. The school sponsors a book catalog with pre-selected titles and authors by grade level and excellent prices. Even more fun, going to bookstores in other cities when traveling is a great adventure with kids. You explore together how to find a bookstore, then enjoy the time looking and choosing one or two titles. If a parent travels for work, books are a fun and memorable gift to bring back; even if it is in a totally different language! And books are very special gifts when going to friend’s birthday parties.
What if my children can’t communicate with someone in our extended family who speaks a different language?
At young ages it is less important to be able to speak and understand everyone in an extended family or network of friends, and more valuable to get to know people in our closest circles. In your family ask yourselves who you might know who lives in a different country or speaks a different language? Can you talk to that person on Skype and just share a little about the language that they speak and the place where they live? Can you “introduce” your child to family members or friends who live in other countries? When children begin to see themselves as part of a larger international and multilingual network, they are also more motivated to learn and use the languages around them.
Do my children have to do homework in English? I don’t know how to help.
It is not the responsibility of parents to do homework for or even with their children. Students are expected to understand and be able to do their homework without too much support from adults. Take a different approach by interacting with your child about prioritizing their afternoon and evening activities (snack, read book, maths assignment, go play, have dinner, go to bed); making sure they have what they need (pencil case, good lighting); and engaging with questions like:
- What was the best part of the day today?
- What were some of the things that you learned in class that you already knew?
- What are some things that you learned that are new?
- What kinds of things are you reviewing or practicing in your homework today?
- How does this homework assignment help you understand the topic?
- What difficulties did you have with this homework (in case there are any)?
- What questions do you have for your teacher tomorrow after this homework?
What if I don’t know or I forget the right word for something! What if I make mistakes in my pronunciation?
Remember that the goal in our communication is “successful communication,” not “perfect communication”. Even when two people have a conversation in their first language, they don’t always understand each other 100%. Think about it – sometimes we say, “I didn’t hear you.” “What do you mean exactly?” “Can you repeat that?” So in a second language, of course, we are confirming even more our understanding of the other person, but it is a natural part of communication. Everyone has their own voice, own accent and own way of speaking. In English you might hear accents from England, the US, Australia or Canada. This is similar to hearing different accents in Spanish. It is fun to try to understand and to talk about different ways of speaking. Another option is to use internet to find sample pronunciation. These kinds of resources are very helpful. (Try this: Google “pronounce watermelon” and you will see a small video with audio in both American and British English.)
How did we get into this? As parents we understand these ideas, but it still makes us nervous to try.
Becoming part of the community at St. George’s School is how we got into this. Yes, we are all part of something new when our children start school. It can be a little scary, and create uncertainty for parents. Yet languages provide us with an extraordinary opportunity to learn something together.
Speaking two or more languages brings us closer to more experiences and information in the world. Reading about other places, listening to music from other cultures, being able to travel and ask for what you need. All of these are benefits of being part of a bilingual family.
Creating a bilingual family is one of the greatest joys we will experience in our lifetimes. Learning together, observing your children as they grow with other languages, and sharing this experience is such a unique opportunity. At SGS, we also look forward to joining your family on the journey.