“¡E., mira! ¡Un perrito!” I exclaim. (E., look! A doggie!) Huffing and puffing, (I really need to get to the gym more often.) I push E.’s stroller up the hill, racing to catch up to the owner of said perrito.
I don’t know who gets more excited to see whom: E. or the dogs in our neighborhood park (or, now that I think about it, her mom. Note to self: pull it together, Audrey).
Without fail, E.’s entire body shakes with joy at the sight of every dog, or well, squirrel, pigeon, or cat. My husband, D., and I have become known as “those-parents-who-accost-every-single-dog-walker-in-the-park” people. (Ah, the shameless acts of love we’re willing to do for our children!)
Today’s blog post is inspired by a frustration that many multilingual families express: “my son/daughter just won’t speak ____ (fill in the relevant minority language here) back to me. How can I encourage him/her to WANT to use the language?”
Although E. is still a baby and isn’t yet talking, she can express her likes and dislikes. And she loves – absolutely delights in – animals. Her abuela calls her “mi animalera” (my animal-lovin’ girl). Our go-to bedtime books are those that involve animals. At almost nine months, E. is now able to recognize los perritos that she sees on the pages of her libros.
Being that Spanish is both the minority language in E.’s linguistic upbringing, as well as my second language, it requires effort and creativity on my part to encourage its use and to provide her with rich and varied input. So, inspired by this blog post on ways to encourage the use of the minority language in multilingual families, I recently decided to purchase a family membership to our local zoo, and I took E. last week with our newfound amiga madrileña, N.
E.’s face lit up and her arms shook as we watched a mother Chimpanzee groom her baby. She squealed with delight as the burritos licked her fingers.
Since this whole bilingual parenting adventure is also a learning experience for me, our trip to the zoo became a vocabulary-learning visit (thank goodness N. was with us!). Hipopótamo. Hocico (snout). Chivo (male goat). Pezuñas (hooves). Words I’d learned long ago. Words buried deep in the dark recesses of my brain, but that were finally seeing the light of day again. Others that I had to humbly admit to N. (aren’t we always trying to impress others that we’ve just met?) that I’d forgotten (or, some I didn’t know). Words that I am determined to remember so that my animalera y su mamá can look forward to many conversaciones in the coming months when she can verbalize her love for animals.
There’s no doubt: raising a multilingual child is hard. It doesn’t always come naturally to both parent and child. So, how can we encourage our children to speak the minority language? Although I imagine there are – and will be – many occasions in which they’ll refuse flat out (I’m sure my day is coming), we CAN tap into their interests and likes. We can make language learning fun. In my case, that includes books about animals and trips to the zoo.
Language also involves community; it is never learned in a vacuum. So, we can also (to the best of our ability and within our circumstances) surround our children with others from outside the four walls of our home who speak the minority language. In my case, that meant including our new friend, N., in our aventura al zoo.
What are some of your children’s favorite activities? What are they interested in? How do you and your spouse/partner tap into those interests in order to encourage their use of the minority language? How have you involved your greater community in the language-learning process?