Tips for bilingual (and trilingual) families

My husband and I are from Spain, he speaks fluent Spanish and English, and I speak fluent Spanish, Catalan, and English. Our daughters where born in California, and the oldest (almost 3) understands English and Spanish perfectly, although she mostly speaks in English. Grandpa keeps on asking ‘when is she going to start speaking Spanish?’. (Note: this has changed since I first started writing this blog post, a few weeks ago).

Of course we’d like our daughters to grow up bilingual – English and Spanish – but getting them to not only understand and speak but also properly learn the grammar of the language is not as easy as it seams. Like they say children are sponges and the sooner they get started learning a language the better but that doesn’t mean that it isn’t going to take a while for them to speak fluently the different languages they’re being exposed to.

How to encourage her to use Spanish at home? Is she going to speak Spanish or English with her sister? How much extra work is it going to be for them to learn Spanish grammar? Those are questions that I don’t have answers for yet. But I can share what we did and a few things that worked and didn’t work for us.

Languages

  • Spanish: at home and with family
  • English: at school
  • Catalan: books, songs, and a few times a year when we visit family in Barcelona
  • Mandarin: during her first year at day care

Chronology

  • 16 months: she says three words, ‘agua’ in Spanish, ‘ball’ in English, and ‘thank you’ (xie xie) in Mandarin.
  • 17 months: we spend a month in Spain and she starts gaining more and more vocabulary, mostly in Spanish.
  • 18 months: back to the US, she starts gaining vocabulary in English.
  • 24 months: we start pre-school (no more Mandarin, just English). At this point, she starts talking more and more, only English, and eventually she would start making full sentences.
  • 24 months to 32 months: she still only speaks English but perfectly understands Spanish as well. Starts being able to explain things by using multiple sentences together.
  • 32 months: we switch to watch TV only in Spanish. She starts repeating a lot of Spanish words.
  • 34 months: we spend a month with family (Spanish only) and two weeks in Spain (she doesn’t go to pre-school during those two weeks). She starts making full sentences in Spanish. She’s able to switch between English and Spanish when family talks to her in Spanish. She’s able to translate things when you ask her to. She still only has a few words in Catalan.

Tips

  • If parents speak different languages, stick to one language each.
  • Always speak in the same language to your child, like that’s the only language that you can speak. I have an American friend living in Barcelona whose son once asked him why his mom didn’t speak English like they did. Fun fact: she not only speaks English but another six languages.
  • Use TV and/or screen time to expose them to the language they get less exposure during the day. We saw a dramatic change!
  • If you speak to them in one language and they answer in a different one, translate what they said first, and then continue the conversation. This way they will hear it in the language they’re using less, and eventually will pick it up.

 

 

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