19 October, 2013

You´ll never walk alone

One of the most overwhelming feelings when one starts a bilingual adventure like ours is the perception of being all on your own against the mainstream, the majority language. Even when you have the support of your partner and family, you tend to feel like a little boat lost in the middle of the ocean.

If you are not a native speaker like in our case, you are normally too busy with worries and insecurities about your skills and the whole approach, fearing that eventually you´ll fall short and so on… So looking for similar families is out of the picture for a while. Despite the loneliness your guts tell you to keep going and believe that somehow in the end all the puzzle pieces will match. I love Steve Jobs´ quote in that famous speech that has become a classic already: “You can only connect the dots looking backwards…” well, after 3,5 years of adventure, pieces are matching pretty well here and there, and it turns out that we weren´t so alone after all… Bilingualism has become part of our life as a family and our older kid speaks both English and Spanish with an astonishing level of accuracy (not “proud Papi” speaking now, as this was said by some unbiased native observers). I give most of the credit to the strategy of providing the kid with as many English experiences as possible, and this was in part thanks to other heroes we´ve met along the way.

Native friends visiting were a huge trigger as we saw in a previous post. Apart from that we have found a nice English playgroup here in Madrid, and once a month we join together to share activities and encourage the language, making the bilingual thing “less weird” for our kids. Also there are lots of activities organized by different associations and communities, even closer than we expected, like the English group we found right next to grandpa´s place. Apparently these things are like gnomes; you just have to look carefully to find them…

We have also bumped into similar peers in the school, which is even better so our boy finds more natural what we do. It happened the other day as we were playing in the lake near the school after class. Our kid was enjoying his juice and playing with his mates when his radar detected a mum talking to her son in English. He looked at me immediately like he had found the Holy Grail and said “PAPI!!! They are speaking English!!!”, then played together in English for a while. Now if we are good at scheduling things, we can practically have a bilingual activity every other weekend, and most important of all: the boy is enjoying every part of it so far.

I loved to read searched obsessively recommendations from others 3-4 years ahead of us when we started, so here is our contribution (it´s cheap self-motivation stuff but it works fine for the case):
-        Most important in my opinion: Make sure that all that involves the targeted language is FUN for the kid.
-        Being consistent is one of the gold keys.
-      Try things and be flexible to adapt yourself to the kid´s natural evolution. Don´t force things or your kid will rebel him/herself.
-        Whatever happens don´t let anyone tell you that it´s not going to work just because they think they wouldn’t be capable of doing it. Actually if they tried seriously, they´d most probably be capable too.
-        This is not mine, but I like it: “Stay hungry”, and yes you guessed it... “stay foolish”.

13 August, 2013

The power of relatives

In most of the books that I´ve read about raising children bilingually or growing up with several languages, there´s a common topic that is considered crucial or at least very important when it comes to fostering the acquisition of the targeted language. It´s said that having relatives/caregivers (native speakers of the language) spending some time at home or a visit to the country where they live is a great way to make the little ones improve their skills (speaking, mostly).

I always saw the value in this idea, but thought that the effect would be temporary and it would fade away when the kid is back to his/her usual environment. Plus, I tried not to give it that much importance, since we are a family of Spaniards with no native English relatives or the like, so we convinced ourselves that we´d just be ok without this. What we have experience recently has made me change my vision of the effect of having a native speaker in permanent contact with the kiddo.

Last month, a good friend of ours (She is American, God bless u L), came to Spain to take a Spanish course, and she spent 2 weekends at home with us. What I´ve seen and experienced with our boy these days and after has been incredible. It´s been like some short of spell that triggered a brain switch in him. I started noticing the impact on the kid´s speech after only 2 days. After the second weekend it was even stronger, and what has been more puzzling for me is that it hasn´t gone after our friend left. The main changes that we noticed are:
  • He initiates ALL the conversations with me in English and answers me in English when I ask him something, so the OPOL model has been reinforced. Even in crossed conversations he talks to his grandpa in Spanish and then in English to me, much more often than before.
  • He plays alone and sings to himself in English much more often.
  • He has corrected naturally the structure of the WHY questions (i.e. “Papi, Why DO WE HAVE to go to sleep?”, “How DO WE GET to that bridge over there?”. He barely fails these ones now, and I haven´t insisted at all (like before) It just happened.
  • He uses past sentences much better, -ed forms and irregular verbs are used correctly and more fluently than before. He gets stuck less and knows how to go round things to express his mind. I see he feels much  more confident with the language now.
  • He gets things from TV shows or movies and applies them in regular situations, like:
    • Papi, this car is blocking the track of the train”
    • I see… And what are you going to do about it?”
    • Never mind, I´ll take the other way, Papi…”
    • To myself: wait a minute, I never use “NEVER MIND”, I normally use ”IT DOESN´T MATTER”, Where did he get that from?, “Dani, Who says “NEVER MIND?”
    • Daddy Pig (from Peppa Pig) says it, Papi…”
    • Ok…” in awe…
  • He tells me (in English) invented stories, things that have happened in Spanish or things that someone explained to him in Spanish (like how the brakes of his bike work), adapting the vocabulary and asking the words that he doesn´t know how to translate, sometimes getting me into trouble because I don´t know them either...
  • He seems to remember words that we haven´t used for a long time, so I expected him to have forgotten them, but apparently he hasn´t.
  • He talks to his baby sister in English when I´m around. She only drools back for the moment though…
I´m not saying that any kid spending 2 weekends in contact with a native speaker is supposed to experience this. Every kid is different, and in fact I think that in our case it has been due to a combination of factors, like my friend being awesome with kids, (an expert at storytelling), my boy getting on well with her since the first 2 hours (it was love at first sight, he even shouted “Papi! Don´t drive her home!!” When I was taking her back to her place. He didn´t want her to leave at all), me spending more time with him lately, holidays, English playtime…
What I say is that this short period of time has made a gigantic difference, it has occurred in the most natural way, and the effect hasn´t gone away after my friend left. I mean, my boy is reacting as if he had taken a step forward (short of magically) and has not stepped back after the trigger disappeared.
And most important of all, we see he is happy and enjoying it so much, he loves everything that has to do with different languages, he perceives it as a normal thing and loves playing with it.
I assume that kids with relatives/caregivers who are native speakers may have a huge advantage when acquiring several languages at the same time, and now I see the impact of it. In 2 weeks time my boy will be back to school, starting this year the dual immersion program (half of the day in each language Spanish-English), so let´s see how things go.

27 May, 2013

Papi got backfired when trying the “tooth fairy encouragement”:

I found myself between puzzled, amused and proudly surprised the other night when I got tricked by my own little cheeky monkey!!
We saw the episode of “Peppa Pig and the Tooth Fairy” before bedtime, and he brought up the subject during our storytelling session. He wanted me to talk about what happens when one´s teeth fall out. I had the idea of taking advantage of the situation and use an encouraging strategy: In Spain when a child’s tooth falls out, “el ratoncito Pérez” (Mr. Pérez the Mouse) comes during the night and leaves a coin or a little present under the pillow (same as tooth fairy). Therefore the encouragement was like “…as you speak 2 languages my dear boy, when your tooth falls out you´ll have a fairy AND a mouse visiting you! Double prize! Isn´t this cool?”. So he listens to my speech… silence… mulls things over for a while… I can hear his brain working… Then he goes like: “Papi, check this out: Comme stai? Grazie, uno, due, tre…  and Papi check this out too! Hallo, Wie geht´s dir? Eins, zwei, drei, vier, funf… I speak 4 languages (it´s not true, since that is the only stuff he knows in Italian and German…), so that makes 4 presents… Papi, who comes in the night in Italian? How do you say Ratoncito in Italian? Can we go to Germany… on a plain?”
There you have it Papi, in your face…

Correcting WHY questions directly: Mission aborted…

As an addendum to the last post, I must say that the direct correction strategy is not working very well. 
I was immersed in one of these WHY question rounds the other day and he was constantly using the Spanish order of words instead of the English one. I was trying not to be intrusive so I asked him some WHY questions in the right order but he wouldn´t get back on track, so I started repeating the phrases after him in the right order to see what happened… One try, he repeats the question in the right way, goes back to Spanish order, second try, he amends the phrase again but looks at me annoyed, third try he stops the conversation, hesitates a bit and then says “Papi, por qué?”.
I didn’t need to read between lines too much. The clear message is: If you want me to keep going with your English circus, don´t be too much of a pain in the ass or I´ll switch into Spanish…
Alright dude, I got it for now, no pressure man...

19 May, 2013

Transferences and other milestones

I read some time ago about transferences from one language to the other as bilingual children grow to 3-4 years old, and now that we are experiencing it I can say they are both fascinating and also really fun. In our case transferences usually take place in Spanish, when our boy refers to a word that he is normally using more in English (i.e. speaking with “Papi”), here are some examples:
  • “Blanca” instead of “manta” because of “blanket”: “Papi no se moja en la moto cuando llueve porque lleva una BLANCA”.
  • Lanchar” instead of “lanzar” because of “to launch”: and he conjugates the verb in Spanish “Voy a LANCHAR estos coches con el LAUNCHER”.
  • No me DESCUBRAS!”instead of “no me DESTAPES”, as a direct translation of “uncover”. He said that while playing in bed, although it should be “don´t take my covers off” or something similar…
  • Carpeta” instead of “alfombra” because of “carpet”. This is an old one, and he is still stuck here, but we don´t put any pressure on correcting him directly so far.
  • “Ella ES 0 años” instead of “ella TIENE…” . Direct translation for “she is 0 years old”. In Spanish we use the verb to HAVE X yo.
  • “… y voy a GIRAR en un monstruo!!” instead of “…y me voy a convertir en un monstruo!!”. In fact he is translating directly from “I´m going to TURN into a monster!!”. He always translates TURN as GIRAR in Spanish, and he does the same with words that are used for different purposes. I guess this must be confusing for him, but once he hears me use TURN again he goes with the flow without questioning, so I guess it´s ok.
I´ve been more at home lately, therefore his daily exposure has increased, and I think this is one of the main reasons for these events. We also see that he switches into English and initiates conversations in English from scratch more often, and also more easily every time. Another thing that has progressively changed is that he doesn´t take very well when mummy speaks English, so we could say he is becoming stricter when it comes to sticking to OPOL. Either I read one story in English or Mum does it in Spanish, but he rarely accepts Mum reading the same story in English. When he asks about something in English and Mummy answers he sometimes goes like “No Mummy, not you! I´m speaking English with Papi!!”, meaning that if the question is in English, it´s me who must answer.

Reverse story telling:

I´m very glad to see that another milestone has been accomplished in terms of speech production!! Our little punk has started to be the story teller in our daily storytelling session at bedtime… I had to hold myself back for not to crack up laughing.

Last night as I was tucking him in bed, we were going through what we had done during the weekend, and he came up with “Papi, I´m going to tell you a story: This time it is about a shinny car, and he was going very fast along the road, and suddenly he got a flat tire, and then he called the tow truck, and it came and it hooked him up and took him to the repair shop…” and he went on and on, using different plots and situations recently played with his cars. He had done this before but only with random sentences, not building a whole story by himself and never at this speed. 

I thought it was very remarkable as he was keeping a very good fluency. Something interesting as an observation is that he has started stressing the –ed words (in past) and polishing his pronunciation, as he speaks more clearly now in English, getting closer to the level of clarity that he has in Spanish, which everybody says is really good. His accent is somehow strange, and the poor thing is not obviously the one to blame. I trust in his future exposure to native speakers at school and some reinforcement that we will provide with summer camps and other resources.

Another observation is that he is also figuring out the grammar rules, for instance “…and then the plane run along the runway and TAKED off!” I read on a book about bilingualism, that this type of constructions reveals a step forward in language awareness. Even though he normally said “the plane took off” in a sentence, this “correctness” was a result of memorizing the set of words, and now he is building the language by reasoning the structures and figuring out the grammatical rules. As always I don´t correct him directly, but I use the same structure in the correct way one or two sentences after.

Correcting “WHY” questions: 
As I mentioned before, our boy is constantly asking “WHY… everything imaginable”, and he connects every answer to one further question. So far so good, only that he uses the Spanish structures (order of words) for English questions. He is having some difficulties integrating the auxiliary verbs here; and he uses them right in other cases, but apparently not in this one. A typical conversation goes like:

- Papi why is that car going so fast? (he is 100% into cars now…)
Maybe the driver is in a hurry.
- Why HE IS in a hurry? (instead of “is he”.
- Maybe because he wants to pick up his children from school and he is late.
- Why HE WANTS to pick up his children from school? (instead of “why does he want...”)

And it goes on and on… Seriously, it can last 12 rounds! I think this routine is a great field to promote the right use, since he reformulates naturally everything one says. What I do here is that after some “wrong” sentences, I ask him a question with the right structure, and if he insists on the Spanish pattern then I explain him briefly that we have to say it differently in English. I think he appreciates these explanations because immediately after he stumbles a bit but tries to follow the right path, at least for 2 or 3 questions after coming back to the Spanish structure (sigh)…

Have your children gone through a phase of transferences between their languages?
What patterns does your family use to "correct/redirect" wrong grammar, and how strict are you applying them?

10 April, 2013

3 years recap

Almost 3 years have passed since our boy came to our lives and with him the bilingual project that we promote in our family.

I can still remember how I felt when we decided to raise our child/children bilingually. Now as his 3rd birthday is almost here, and with his little sister just arrived, I think it´s a good time for a recap.

The way I´ll do this is by starting with the positive things collected along the way, and then go through the weak points where I think we need some kind of improvement.

Great outcome from this bilingual adventure:

  • My boy is about to turn 3 years old and he speaks Spanish and English!!! (Yet his English lags logically behind Spanish, but he´s grasped it in an awesome way). 
  • I´ve proved that I´m able to do this. I never thought I´d get this far but I´ve done it, and that feels pretty good and encourages us to keep going.
  • I have the wonderful support of my extraordinary wife who jumps into the English side from time to time joining our world of English fun.
  • The family has not only respected but supported the project from scratch and they see the effort and the value in it.
  • My boy has accepted our family language approach without questioning the model so far. He could have rebelled himself against it or just refuse to speak the way only his father does, but he´s gone with the flow extremely well.
  • I´ve been able to keep track of the process on this blog. I barely have time to re-read old posts (I´d say even to write new ones…), but when I do it brings me lovely memories that I´m sure I´ll enjoy more with time.
  • Despite the lack of exposure, since I work long hours, he has got gramar, structure of English, and fluency, not only vocabulary. This morning on our way to school he came up with "Papi, why is it foggy this morning?", and IT WAS a foggy morning indeed, and we had just talked about what "foggy" means once!!
  • Now I´ve come this far I feel much more confident about replicating the model with our baby princess, and of course involving her old brother in the process.
Things to be improved:
  • I see my own mistakes and inaccuracies in the way he speaks:
    • Prepositions: Many times when I feel insecure about which preposition I should use (in/on/at???) I just go for one and move one, but I´m concern with my lack of consistency on this. When I face the same structure againg I know I might use a different preposition, so it´s confusing for him and he hesitates when he wants to use the same sentence.
    • Phrasal verbs: I try to stay in the confort area and use only those that I´m sure of, but this makes my speech limited, and clearly less rich than the one of a native speaker.
    • Movement/action verbs/expressions: What seems natural for a native is really not natural for me, so I try to nurture this kind of stuff through movies, Peppa Pig-s and the like, but again I see a weak leg here...
  • I still have to work on how to react consistently when I´m in the need of saying something in Spanish in his presence, so I don´t go against my own rules.
Now my boy is in the WHY phase, he fires me thousands of questions per minute, WHY..."everything imaginable”? and WHAT is… “everything”?. So this is kind of a stress test for a non-bilingual father like me. Added to this, I´ve been ultra-loaded with tons of work lately, and therefore the exposure time has dropped a bit affecting also my dedication to my own improvement in those areas where I find my English weak.
The next big challenge ahead of us is including our baby girl into this adventure, and hopefully with the same results (fingers crossed).

11 March, 2013

Counting in German and Italian

It turns out that he loves counting now and especially in Italian!!!

He likes also German


18 February, 2013

Multilingual - Multinumbers

In relation with our previous post about useful tools to promote bilingualism among children, I´d like to share what´s going on in our home lately. We have started improvising mind games that have turned out to be a great way to encourage awareness as well as enjoyment towards languages, always trying to keep it fun!!!

Last week we started a really fun game that I call “Multinumbers”. As I have mentioned in previous posts, my son finds really fun when I speak some German, and although I don´t have a great knowledge (let´s say my German is at an intermediate level) I sometimes drop German words or expressions here and there, just to talk about languages with him and reinforce the idea that there are different ways to speak in the world, and that it´s enjoyable, fun and useful knowing different languages to be able to communicate with other people.

The fact is that after hearing me count from 1 to 10 in German several times, he has not only learnt how to reproduce it, but he´s established the match between the numbers in the languages he knows (Spanish/English/German numbers so far…), so now he is able to say there are “cuatro coches”/”four cars”/”vier” (4 in German).

Having said that, the rules of the game we have made up are as follow:

  • It works in turns; Player 1 says a number in one of the languages in scope (Spanish/English/German).
  • Player 2 says the following number in the language that Player 1 has used.
  • Player 1 says the following number but then he/she has the option to continue with the same language or switch into a different one, which Player 2 will have to follow again.
A typical round would go like:
  • P1: “uno”
  • P2: “dos”
  • P1: “three”
  • P2: “four”
  • P1 “fünf”
  • P2 “sechs”
  • P1 “seven”
  • P2 “eight”… and on and on…

You can add players with the same scheme so Mami joins the fun at times.

Now he looks at me sometimes, and out of the blue he goes like “Papi, FÜNF!!” and starts smiling to get the game started.

He has also began to play the game of inventing words and then ask people what that means just to pull their leg, which I attribute to this new language awareness. There are other interesting things related to this new awareness:

  • He pays a lot of attention at the mouth of the people when they say something and he doesn´t know how to pronounce it, as if he wanted to learn how to move his tongue and lips to reproduce it. He is intrigued by German words as he activates his "pronunciation radar" when we play Multinumbers.
  • Although he positively knows now that I understand and speak Spanish he has never requested me to speak Spanish so far. On the contrary, he prefers English storytelling rather than Spanish, and he gives me Spanish words, songs and expressions, even Spanish names for me to translate them into English, which is really fun – Papi, How do you say “Leticia” in English?
Here´s the boy warning the piggies because there might be some wolves prowling around…

I think these kind of games and routines are resulting very beneficial, in terms of creativity, fun, and mainly for the positive attitude towards the whole idea of learning languages and using them on a regular basis.

Have you come up with any games or other similar strategies to keep your family languages up and growing? Which ones have caught on best?

24 January, 2013

Christmas boost and useful tools

Christmas time has left us a great step forward in English. I took almost 2 weeks off from work and Junior hasn´t gone to school all these days. As a result, the huge increase in exposure has made a great difference in the way he speaks. At the end of these 2 weeks he initiated many more conversations directly in English with me, and he reported many more things in English, even though they occurred in Spanish. After everyone´s back to real post-Christmas life he has clearly lost some of the ground gained, but I´m glad to see that some dregs are left, and now the difference between Friday afternoon (lowest English skills) and Sunday night (highest peak after all weekend of extra exposure) is smaller.

It´s been also really fun to observe how he gets sometimes puzzled when his granny doesn´t understand something he says in English, (like “muddy puddles”, as he prefers this expression rather than the Spanish “charcos”, even when he speaks Spanish), or she is not able to reproduce the names of his toys (“Frightening Mc Mean” is way too difficult for a Spanish granny!!). I think he is every time more aware of the fact that he possesses an ability that not everyone has. I try to explain him that there are others in the world who speak other languages, and then I try with some German and Italian, and he finds it very amusing.

Tools to increase/retain English: Some of the tools that we are using are working extremely well!!!

Peppa Pig: I try to limit the passive exposure as much as possible, but we have found a very good and enjoyable middle term with our beloved friend Peppa Pig!! We watch episodes and then comment afterwards about the stories and his favorite parts. Then I also use the episodes as bedtime stories. He is acquiring lots of new words and expressions and Papi finds many references to use afterwards in daily life. Peppa, I owe you a big one!!

Storytelling: He is absolutely mad about stories now. And the best part of it is that he clearly prefers stories in English!! The only thing that I have noticed is that he prefers to see the pictures and follow my descriptions rather than listening to some elaborated prose. I think it´s a matter of age, but I´ve noticed that he hardly keeps the interest if I read the prose literally, even if I try to emphasize and use different voices for the characters. Anyway the classics are working super fine (3 little pigs, Snow White, Cinderella…)

Theatre: We act the stories that he likes assigning characters to everyone, and then switching, so we all can have all the fun and use different registers, and yes… Papi has been Cinderella, and yes again, Papi had to scrub the floor on my knees weeping because I hadn´t been invited to the ball (which I found totally unfair being the prettiest girl in town!!!). This is one of his favorite things to do now as he enjoys so much dressing up and representing what he sees in the storybooks.

Language awareness: Other milestones regarding language:

Pronunciation: He asks for correction and he is starting to correct people. He is more likely to mispronounce English words than Spanish one, as expected. But every time he perceives that he sounds differently he stops and says:”Papi, I said…”, and then shuts up waiting for an answer, then when I repeat the word he says it again and if he doesn´t get it right he moves on, but I know he takes some short of mental note. My only concern is that he takes ME as the reference in pronunciation, and even though I do try to sound as close as I can to a native speaker, I´ll never be one. I guess this is something that we non-natives have to deal with and although it doesn´t keep me up at night it´s still there…

Vocabulary: He asks for the name of things in English, i.e. last night:

D: “Papi, what´s for dinner?”

Mami: “Lombarda”

D: “Papi, cómo es lombarda en inglés?” P:”Cabbage my boy”.

Now like always, I´ll be glad to hear what tools you all use to increase/retain the minority language of your children.