My dad gave us one rule for English class: “Don’t laugh at the teacher”. And believe me, this was sometimes easier said than done.
Having to study English at school as a foreign language when it’s your mother tongue is rather boring, to say the least. So if today I can speak my parents language, it has little to do with what was learnt in the classroom.
English lessons are compulsory in Spain. Yet despite commencing these at the age of 3, many Spanish students finish school having learnt very little of the language. It’s hard to make yourself understood when you’re taught to say “polar beers” instead of “polar bears” (true story!).
Most of the time I’d muffle a chuckle, make sure I knew the basic grammar coming up in the exam and use the time to finish other homework. It felt like knowing the names of tenses you could form in your sleep was only useful for linguists. And at that point, sat in a boring grammar lesson, I wasn’t interested in being one.
Choosing the bilingual way.
I have been fortunate enough to grow up bilingually, speaking fluently in both English and Spanish. But it would have never been possible if it hadn’t been for the efforts my parents made to teach me their language and culture as well as the one I was growing up in.
I’ve known families where the kids have refused for years to reply in their parent’s language. They would understand it and speak it with monolingual grandparents, yet refuse to speak anything but Spanish at home. It’s easy to give up when this happens. But putting in the effort is well worth it in the end.
Children are like sponges, they absorb information extremely easily, they learn by imitation. And who better to imitate than those at home?
But as a kid, if you’re trying to fit in, you use the language you’re surrounded by most. So if the rest of life evolves in Spanish, you have to make a special effort to use English at home. This will require a conscious decision and quite a bit of commitment by the parents themselves.
Mother tongue: how I learnt my parents language.
We spoke mostly English at home. And just as a monolingual child, I learnt from listening to my parents, receiving input as life at home evolved in this language. I’d also watch English TV programmes, read English stories and listen to English nursery rhymes. Mostly just the same things any monolingual kid would do. The key difference being that once you left the house, life happened in Spanish.
This combination meant both languages became second nature. In essence, I had two mother tongues.
Yet while I could speak good English, and read as many English novels as I could get my hands on, my English spelling wasn’t always amazing. For this reason, my mum-who is quite the expert English teacher – would set exercises for me to practice.
Some were disguised as fun activities, like keeping a holiday diary or writing handwritten letters to grandparents and other relatives. Other times they were not so much fun. There would be dictations or exercise books. And boy would I make a fuss!
I used to hate doing “extra homework” during holidays. But I am so glad my mum insisted. I wouldn’t be writing this now if it weren’t for her!
Spanish reading and writing, on the other hand, was simply learnt in school.
Are you considering bringing up your children bilingually (or multilingually)?
I am aware that living abroad is just one situation that favours bilingualism. But there are other circumstances that also make this a possibility, such as parents being of different nationalities. If bringing up a bilingual child is something you are considering I would strongly encourage you to do it.
But just in case you still need a few reasons, here’s a short list:
- Your children will thank you. Even if they don’t appreciate your efforts at the time, it’s a privilege to be able to speak more than one language. Years later, when they look back, they’ll be really grateful you insisted.
- It’s much easier to learn another language when you’re young. If you have any experience in this area yourself, you know how hard it can be. For bilingual children, it’s second nature. It also makes learning subsequent languages easier.
- It helps maintain relationships with extended family members. If grandparents are monolingual in a language other than the one your kids habitually use, communication can be tricky at times.
- It opens doors and provides more options. When it comes to choosing their futures, the more languages they know, the more options they’ll have.
- You’ll regret it if you don’t. You’ll also regret it if you give up half-way through. It’s not always fun, it’s definitely not always easy, but it will be worth it. (Promise!).
It’s true I’m yet to be on the other side of this equation. And I’m certain there are as many different stories as there are bilingual people. But one thing is certain, I am so very grateful my parents decided to raise bilingual kids!
What is your experience of language learning? Are you raising bilingual kids? Drop me a comment, I’d love to hear your story.