Some might say that starting a bilingual parenting blog when my daughter was only nine months old was jumping the gun a bit. What are you going to write about, Audrey? Your daughter isn’t walking, much less talking!
Well, I would argue that the decisions parents make and the language habits they form those first twelve months as parents are some of the most important.
Today, I’d like to share with you seven practices D. and I have implemented this past year, steps that you, too, can take to lay a strong foundation from which your child’s language can take off.
Be encouraged, amig@s!
1. Define your goals.
I confess, I’m not a big picture kind of person. I’m more of an attention-to-details chica, but with the help of my global thinker husband, D., I was able to envision the ultimate language goal for our daughter, and I encourage you and your partner to do the same. You both are bilingual (or, perhaps multilingual) and you both want to pass on each parent’s language and culture to your children. To what extent? Is it important that your children read and write in both languages, or just that they can understand and speak them? Perhaps what’s most important is that they have a broader cultural understanding of their world, and so language is secondary. Or, maybe your goal is that your children are as balanced bilinguals as possible.
If you need help conceptualizing and setting a goal, check out the list of books for parents under the resources tab. Virginie Raguenaud’s book is a great place to start, as is the book The Bilingual Edge.
2. Do your research.
Over the course of my short 13 months of bilingual parenting, I’ve heard several families, farther along this journey than I, admit that they were initially “ignorant” about how to raise their children in more than one language. Their advice has been to read and research what it entails before your baby’s born or during baby’s first year.
Fortunately, there are numerous books, websites, blogs, and other resources to help parents understand the ins and outs of multilingual parenting. If you’re not sure where to start, let me recommend the following three books on bilingualism and multilingual parenting: you can click here, here, and here to read my reviews. Also, check out the resources tab here on the blog for more ideas. The more you read on the topic, the more questions you’ll get answered, and the clearer your linguistic goals will be for your children. Once you and your partner have defined your goals and done your research, you’re ready to take on the following five steps to maximize your bilingual baby’s first year.
3. Narrate your life.
My husband, D., and I have found that the most natural way to provide E. with language input – besides reading to her – is to narrate our daily routines. Ahora voy a vaciar el lavavajillas. Después, voy a guardar los vasos aquí y los “tupperwares” en este cajón. (Translation: Now I’m going to empty the dishwasher. Next, I’m going to put away the glasses here and the tupperware in this drawer.)
Since babies can’t talk their first year of life, things can get a little boring when we’re the only ones talking. There are days I get tired of hearing the sound of my voice, and only my voice. I wish E. could talk. What will her voice sound like? I wonder. That day does inevitably come, but until then, the words parents say and the frequency with which we speak them are crucial in laying a strong foundation for our children’s future language development. So, take advantage of those times when you have your baby’s full attention: during diaper changes, car rides, bath time, and getting her dressed.
4. Music, music, and more music!
Did you know…?
- “The ear is the most fully developed of the sense organs at birth…” (Hannaford 1995)
- “Exposing children to music during early development helps them learn the sounds and meanings of words.” (Program for Early Parent Support)
- “Music benefits children’s oral communication. They learn to be attentive listeners, which is a skill that helps their phonological awareness, phonemic awareness and overall fluency.” (Listening and Spoken Language)
- “…Language and music are deeply entangled in early life and develop along parallel tracks. ” (Music and Early Language Acquisition)
Maybe it’s because D. and I have always been music lovers (I grew up playing the piano and D. used to play the electric guitar) that we’ve always played music at home, so this practice comes naturally to us. Regardless of your musical skills or inclinations, the research is clear: music and language development are closely related and the former facilitates the latter. So, take advantage of those car rides to the grocery store, or the time spent cooking dinner to put on some music and sing (and, dance!) with your baby.
If you’re looking for quality children’s music in Spanish, here are some excellent recommendations:
- Rosa León
- Canta y Rie 3, La Salvación Llegó (Christian music)
- MiniMúisca (both Spanish and Catalan)
Looking for children’s music in other languages? Check out these blogs and/or contact these bloggers for suggestions:
5. Read to your baby daily.
Literacy begins at birth! We know from research that reading to and with our children from the very beginning of life is crucial to the success of their future language development.
But, what if my baby won’t sit still? How can I get her to pay attention? I have experienced the same challenges with little E. One technique I’ve found helpful is to read out loud while E. plays nearby. So, while she may not be sitting on my lap, she is still listening to me read in Spanish. Occasionally, she will wander over and point at pictures on the page. I then take advantage of her proximity and brief attention to engage her with the text, asking questions or making connections between our life and the characters on the page.
Check out the “books for children” section under the resources tab here on the blog for some ideas on children’s book in other languages.
6. Get connected, both far and near.
We cannot do this thing called bilingual parenting alone. We need support and encouragement from our partner, from our extended family, our neighbors and our community. Why not hop on your neighborhood list serve and ask if there is an organized play group in your family’s language? Or, perhaps there is a group of expats in your city that regularly chats and gets together via Facebook. Or, maybe there is a bilingual story time at your neighborhood library; this is where I met a good friend of mine last summer. She is from Madrid and a nanny to two babies the same age as E. We now get together on a regular basis for a Spanish play date.
Parents can also find support and encouragement from likeminded families who live across the ocean or on an entirely different continent. I’ve been fortunate to virtually “meet” Spanish/English bilingual families in California, Wisconsin, Oregon, Spain, and Finland. I’ve learned from the years of experience of trilingual bloggers in France and Germany Check out the blog tab Blogs I Follow for a list of some great multilingual and multicultural blogs that will help you build a network of support.
7. Increase your OWN input.
Finally, bilingual parenting isn’t only about teaching our children another language(s), it’s also about our own learning journey. You may remember this previous blog post in which I wrote about a realization I had during D.’s and my “baby moon” in Spain: I lacked the vocabulary of mother in Spanish. (In case you’re new to the blog, I’m a non-native speaker raising E. exclusively in español. While I may have a Bachelor’s of Arts degree in Spanish (that was a long time ago!) and while I may have lived in Spain for two years, and while Spanish may be the “idioma oficial” of my marriage, my language skills have gotten rusty over the past ten years D. and I have lived in the United States. So, since the birth of E., I have made a serious commitment to daily increase my Spanish language skills. That has meant reading each day in Spanish, making flashcards of new words, watching the news from Spain, and pursuing relationships with Spaniards in our city. If my daughter is learning, then so is mamá!
Are you a parent farther along in your journey of bilingual parenting? If so, what advice or suggestions would you give to an expectant or first-time parent for their bilingual baby’s first year? I’d love to hear your comments!