Raising bilingual kids in Spain: How to make it work

Europe

She shares her experience about the struggles she is facing bringing up her children to be bilingual.

“When my older son was born I only spoke to him in English, naturally. What I didn’t realize, until a couple of years and many doctor appointments later, is that he wasn’t hearing me (or not very well). What I was shaking off as him being too interested in his games to turn his head when we called him or just taking longer to hopefully sing back to me or repeat things was really actually related to a medical issue. When possibilities of autism started being thrown out there it was pretty scary.

For a period of about a year, when my son was 2-3 years old, I was speaking to him only in Spanish (although not very happy about it), as recommended by doctors. My American family couldn’t communicate with him, and I was afraid he was going to learn my accent in Spanish.

Flash forward three years, three surgeries and a lot of effort later, and I’m very proud to say that fortunately both of my kids are healthy and both are (or hopefully will be) bilingual without accents in either language. Fortunately, it turns out that the problem Nico had was actually related to ENT (ears, nose and throat) issues.

After getting his adenoids out, then tubes in his ears, and finally tonsils (the main thing causing him to have bad apneas and breathing/hearing issues) he was now able to hear properly. These are not uncommon surgeries, but the degree of the problem can vary from slight issues to very severe cases that can cause breathing/oxygen issues, hearing, etc. problems (this was our case). After the first surgeries things got a bit better and he started hearing and talking, but it wasn’t until the last one where he was finally healthy (and finally sleeping) and able to hear 100 percent.

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Suddenly I was faced with the question of what to do? He was hearing only Spanish and saying quite a lot now in Spanish. Should I continue talking in Spanish until he’s a lot better or make the switch to English and see what happens? I’ll be honest; I complained a lot when I was recommended to talk to him only in Spanish. It wasn’t at all natural for me, and it hurt to not speak to my son in my native language. But I wanted to do what was best for him.

So, one day in July, about a month and a half after his last surgery and despite some doctor recommendations, I made the switch. Cold turkey. This meant I only spoke to him now in English. I can imagine this must have been confusing for him, but as he was already used to pictograms from support lessons, I kept up with pictures as support, used hand signals, pointed to things, etc. I’ll never forget one of the first days in the elevator heading to school when I was talking to him and he looked up and said sadly, “Mommy, no te entiendo”  

That was really hard, but I didn’t switch. Meanwhile everyone else around me was speaking to him in Spanish – at school, my husband (who is Spanish), all of his family closeby, etc. By the way, both of my kids go to public (state) schools in Majadahonda which are primarily in Spanish. (note: don’t believe what a public school says about being “bilingual”).


Michelle Amato enjoying the northern coast of Spain on a family holiday. Photo: Spanishized.com

Little by little, over a period of about a year Nico started saying more and more things in English and was understanding me better day by day, but he was only answering me and talking 95 percent of the time in Spanish.

The following July, one year after I started speaking to him in English we sent him to a one-month English summer camp with native speakers. Suddenly he was immersed all day long with native American speakers. Also, I had the “jornada reducida” at work, so I was picking him up from camp and spending the rest of the afternoon with him. THAT was when there was a click. Maybe it was just a question of time, or maybe it was the fact that suddenly there were other people also speaking to him in English as well, but whatever it was it worked. Little by little he started talking more and more in English.

Now, a year later he only talks to me in English – and even tells our Google machine “to talk to mommy in English” (Google doesn’t listen). Spanish is still for sure his prominent language, but I’m convinced that every day his English will keep improving. During the school year he went to English school for 2 hours on Saturdays at the same place we sent him to summer camp (just a little reinforcement). And now, in a few days he’ll be back in summer camp with native speakers and then we’ll be in Boston for a month. It will be interesting to see how things have progressed by the end of the summer!”

Michelle has summarized three key points to make bilingualism work:

  1. Consistency. Once I decided that I was going to speak in English I did not go back to Spanish. Even though it was really hard at the beginning and my son didn’t understand me. If you switch back and forth it’ll be clear that Spanish is an option, but if you “don’t understand” in the other language and they want something, they’ll figure out how to say it. Also, in front of other people and friends, even if they don’t understand what you’re saying don’t change how you speak to your kids just because of the people who are around you. To others it’s fine to speak in another language, but don’t switch with your kids.
  2. Insistence. If I had a nickel for every time I’ve said “I don’t understand” …. For more or less a year, every single time my son said something in Spanish I would repeat it, translated in English (“oh you mean…”), and then answer in English. Every time. It was definitely tiring and would have just been easy to skip this, but I’m determined. Another thing I did was start speaking to my husband in English. When we’re alone we switch to Spanish, but since there is almost no one else who speaks English around me, I think it helped to have more of an English environment at home.
  3. Patience. This was probably one of the toughest parts, but nothing happens overnight. My second son was born a couple months before Nico’s last surgery, so for a while I was speaking to the baby in English and Nico in Spanish. Now I speak to both of them in English, but it’s actually the baby who answers in Spanish (although this is more natural with kids that hear two languages from the start). All in good time.

A version of this article first appeared on Michelle’s blog, Spanishized.com. For more, follow her blog or on facebook.

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