Monday, January 18, 2016

9 ways to jumpstart your bilingual child (and 3 that didn't work)

When my boys were little, it was pretty easy to run a bilingual household.  I suppose was lucky to have such compliant little boys who were able to switch from Spanish to English and back again enthusiastically and without any problem.

When my boys started school, and spent more time learning in English with English speaking friends, their Spanish level began to stagnate and even decline a bit.  Far from worried, we continued using the OPOL method and the boys did fine.  

This past summer, we were unable to go to Spain for the first time since they were babies.  Without these weeks of immersion into the Spanish language and culture, my boys began to struggle.  Words were forgotten, and (gasp!) English was spoken with Papá.  Something had to be done!

I am happy to report that after a few painful months, we are starting to get back into the groove of things.  Below are some things that worked for us:

1.  Have an activity that only occurs in the target language:

This can be anything from making dinner to grabbing a quick snack after a soccer game.  Just make sure that it always occurs in the target language.  For my boys, we find it easiest to have mealtime in the target language.  We play games such as Two Truths and a Lie and other games we found at the Family Dinner Project website.

2.  Read lots and lots of books:

My eldest is a bookworm and has the vocabulary to prove it.  Unfortunately, this vocabulary seemed to be limited to the English language.  As he showed interest in different series such as Amulet and Harry Potter, I lied (!!) and told him that the next book in the series was only available in Spanish.  We also found some V.O. books that were pretty fun to read together and learn Spanish slang, etc.  In another post I will review several steps you can take to make sure that your child is really benefiting from the books he is reading.

3.  Listen to music (and sing along!):

My middle child loves music.  I learned a lot of Spanish from Salsa music (love love love Victor Manuelle!) and my husband learned a lot of English listening to The Police and Sting, so it just made sense to use music to reinforce Spanish learning and improve my boys'  vocabulary.

My husband likes to listen to music as he prepares breakfast for the boys.  We made sure that it was in Spanish instead of English. When Christmas rolled around, we started playing Villancicos on rotation.  We did sing alongs, karaoke, and my boys even performed for us!

4.  Play games together:

We have several Spanish board games and card games that we play in Spanish.  In fact, was only until my youngest's seventh birthday that he realized that "Clue" could be played in English as well.

At restaurants, we bring along Spanish Fill-Ins (such as this one below) which are fun for the family.

Click here to to purchase Fill-Ins

5.  Watch Videos in the target language:

Yep.  We pulled out the big guns! We rented videos from the library, such as "La Leyenda de la Nahuala", and watched old favorites such as "D'artacan" and "Mike el Caballero" on YouTube.  When your kids are as screen time deprived as mine are, they begged to see more episodes and even started imaginary playing the characters after the shows were over.

6.  FaceTime with the abuelos:

When the kids know that they do not have an alternative to speaking in Spanish, they seem to rally.  We set up weekly FaceTimes with their abuelos and other friends in Spain for them to talk about their day, answer questions, etc.  Not only is this a great way for the kids to improve their Spanish, but it also strengthens the family bond (isn't that what this is all about anyway?)

7.  Use baby as an excuse:

My boys were super excited about the arrival of our newest Casado.  Like any good mamá, I looked for ways to take advantage of this enthusiasm (**cue evil laughter**).

I told the boys flat out that they could only speak to the baby in Spanish.  While I was pregnant, we spent time re-learning rhymes and songs that the baby would like as well as talking to the belly.  Now that the baby is born, they practice reading simple books to the baby as well as playing and singing with him.  The coolest part is that they REALLY enjoy it!

8.  Take advantage of holidays and cultural events:

We used every excuse from Reyes Magos to my kids losing teeth to get them to write in Spanish. 'Nuff said. 

9.  Don't forget academics:

Click here to see verb conjugation technique
Unfortunately, it was not all fun and games.  A bit of tutoring was in order.  We cracked the Spanish text book and made up some worksheets to review grammar.  Not much, and not very often, probably about 30 minutes twice a month.

What didn't work for us:

1.  Online learning: We tried a popular online program, and while I have found it to be an awesome resource for older children and adults learning Spanish as a second language, it did not work for my bilingual boys.  My 8 year old's spelling and grammar is not perfect (even in English), and he found it frustrating to be marked incorrect for these mistakes.  We will keep looking for a better fit.

2.  Reward Charts: Perhaps my boys are getting too old for reward charts and prize boxes (although they still love them at school) or maybe they just have too much "stuff"?  Either way, they were not motivated to speak more in order to earn a trinket or outing. (I'm secretly happy about this as I would like for their Spanish to be more organically motivated).

3.  Playdates: While I think this would be a great motivator for younger kids, at 7 and 8 my boys know who their friends are and did not want to have new playdates "only in Spanish".  That said, they were more than motivated to speak in Spanish with their classmates from Spanish class and I think enrolling them into a Spanish soccer league or swimming class would work well (if I could find such a thing in NYC).

I would love to hear:  what activities work (and don't work) for you and your family to promote bilingualism?

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