Today I stopped and figured out what my youngest (3 and a half) can say in and understand of Spanish.
Most students are pretty critical of themselves. Stressing because they can't seem to retain this week's grammar; verb endings, subjunctive; past tenses; reflexive... It's a torture he is mercilessly saved from! Unencumbered by self-doubt he is learning almost without me noticing.
Most adults also would benefit at these moments of self-doubt from taking stock. Questions like 'what could I do last year/month/week?' help us as students to feel more positive about our ability to overcome this newest obstacle.
I am often asked "Are your children fluent in Spanish too?". Learning a language is a marathon, not a sprint. I can't remember what I knew at 3 and a half, or even what his big brother knew at that age 20 months ago... it doesn't matter. Every individual learns at their own pace and fluency, like time, is relative.
Whatever age you are it has struck me there is a common thread running through learning a language and maybe it's, for me, the major benefit of learning a language. In order to learn a language you have to forgive. If the human race needs anything right now it's practice at forgiveness.
Forgiveness of Self
I taught a young boy in school a few weeks ago who has since dropped out of Spanish. It's a crying shame. He was selected because he was one of the brightest of his year and the school thought it would be good to give him a chance at Spanish. He quit because he didn't know any Spanish. After 3 sessions. He judged himself so harshly.
I'd say something in Spanish and the children would repeat it. We'd do it using clapping and rhythm, music and songs, dance and movement. Each time he'd say "but I don't know how". I thought he'd relax but instead he chose to enjoy his lunchbreak; fair enough!
The thing that paralysed him, as many of us, was the fear of commiting an error. Many who come to Spanish Club are too frightened to form a sentance without checking a word in their dictionary "in case it's wrong". But when we speak english we don't worry about errors. None of us speaks english perfectly yet we all communicate perfectly.
When we learn a new language we have to put ourselves into the unknown and have to forgive ourselves each time we slip up. For some that is a problem.
Forgiveness of Others
They correct us mid sentance. We have to feel gratitude for their help. They interrupt us with questions. We're supposed to wander along with them. They talk at every opportunity but don't give you your chance because it takes you longer to conjugate. We have to wait patiently for our opportunity. The people we learn Spanish alongside frame our learning experience. Some of them become our friends and allies and some... well, some are perfect for practicing the art of forgiveness on! I see this in Spanish Club sometimes, a certain reticense to sit next to certain people or resignation creeping into people's eyes as someone drones on displaying their wonderful technique. But we're all learning from each other because we forgive each other and laugh with each other and at the end, the world truly seems like a better place!
Everyone has a different learning style. In evening classes the current trend seems to be to be heavily focussed on grammar acquisition. Especially where the language teacher is Spanish native because they have come through a totally different, textbook based, educational system. I personally hate grammar, but some people love learning from lists or tables and that's great. So yes, you also (sometimes) have to forgive the teacher!
Forgiveness of Family
I used to hate being taught Spanish by my mum. There, I said it. Sorry mum... If it helps my son is re-paying me 10-fold...
"I don't want to talk Spanish", "Why do we always have to talk Spanish?" are phrases I've heard a LOT since he started school. I asked him for forgiveness the other night at bedtime. I said "I'm sorry I push Spanish sometimes a little too much. I'll try to listen to you more. I'm honestly just trying to be the best mum I can be". It's so hard to get the right balance and he's tired and stroppy at the moment. I desperately don't want it to be a barrier between us.
It seems he's forgiven me too, at least a little. He said a few unprompted words in Spanish the next morning which were greeted by me with huge enthusiasm and cuddles. Truce.
I get asked this question a lot at my Spanish Songs for Babies class. OK, so you're speaking one language at home, say it's English, but you learned a few words of Spanish at an evening class/GCSE/A Level years ago at school and you'd like to incorporate it into what you do at home with your baby. It seems like a great idea in principal, it's not as though your 6 week old is judging you. But the weeks pass by and the words don't come out. And then it's harder still. It feels like a barrier between you when you try and communicate in something other than your mother tongue. And English is so easy...
Well, turns out that's not unusual. Many mums (and dads) find it hard to pass on a second language to their children. There are millions of language graduates and not enough children learning a foreign language at school, so why isn't it more normal for kids to learn one at home?
The official advice is to have one parent speak only in Spanish and the other speak only in English to their children and then said child does not relegate one language to the position of being a second language and is truly bilingual. Fine. Except, if like millions of people (like me) you're not a native speaker.
I looked everywhere for advice on this and kept coming against the 100% suggestion when my first child was born. To make things more complicated my mum's first language is Catalan not Spanish so I was taught Catalan and English from birth and Spanish from about age 5. When baby #1 was born I kept wanting to say words in Catalan but my knowledge of that language is far poorer than my Spanish (which I have a degree in) so I kept backing off. Speaking only Spanish wouldn't work in my family as hubby speaks only English. SO here's what we're doing in case it helps anyone. My children are my guinea pigs... these suggestions are only tried and tested on them!
#1 Repetitive daily tasks. Learn the words for things you do like your washing routine or dressing etc. Here are a few examples
Cepillate los dientes, cepillate cepillate (Brush your teeth, brush, brush)
Cepillate el pelo, cepillate cepillate (Brush your hair, brush, brush)
Ponte la camiseta (Put on your shirt)
Ponte los pantalones (Put on your trousers)
Abrochamos el cinturon (Let's do up your seatbelt)
Sube la cremallera (Do your zip up)
#2 Accept that you are not trying to make your child fluent. That the best they may get is the knowledge that other people speak differently. And by being kind to yourself use it as a springboard to greater familiarity with the language. When your 3 year old watches Ice Age and asks you "What is sloth and mammoth in Spanish" admit you don't know. Teach him instead what is a dictionary and find the word together! Knowing mummy does not know everything is a good thing for your child, hopefully it'll show them that they need to stay curious at any age!
#3 Body parts
Again using repetition and rhythm, when putting on clothes you can say
Un brazo, dos brazos (One arm, two arms)
Una pierna, dos piernas (One leg, two legs)
Un pie, dos pies (One foot, two feet)
Other opportunities for practising your knowledge of body language comes after meal time as well as wash time
Limpiamos las manos (Let's wash your hands)
Limpiamos los dedos (Let's wash your fingers)
#4 Instructions and commands
As they grow and your Spanish grows with them you might be able to practise your commands. In Spanish grammar you learn commands but I never had cause to use them, practically ever, until I was a parent! All exclamations start with an upside down exclamation mark in Spanish (¡)
¡Ven aquí! (Come here!)
¡Siéntate! (Sit down)
¡Ten cuidado! (Be careful!)
¡Dámelo! (Give it to me)
¡Aguántalo! (Hold (on to) it)
If you're learning the subjunctive then negative commands are the absolute best practice you can get
No comas (Don't eat)
No bebas (Don't drink)
Obviously! There's your typical nursery rhymes of course which I use in. I also turn everyday tasks into songs. I taught J & D how to say "Vamos a..." (we're going to) in Spanish using the Here we go round the Mulberry Bush tune. As in:
Vamos a tiny tots a tiny tots a tiny tots vamos a tiny tots a pasarlo bien (We're going to tiny tots to tiny tots to tiny tots, we're going to Tiny Tots to have some fun)
Vamos a casa a casa casa, vamos a casa... a descansar (We're going home... to have a rest)
Another good song is a little more disco. You can say: "Follow the leader leader leader, sigame!" (See Soca Boys)
#6 Donde está? (Where is)
Asking this question ¿Donde está mi coche? (where is my car) every time we've parked anywhere has taught my children a) how to say 'where is' in Spanish and b) to remember where we parked the car!
#7 Gracias and Por Favor
You can teach them to say please and thank you in Spanish but I wouldn't bother until they're saying it naturally in English. English people get cross when people don't mind their P's Q's, Spanish people don't mind in the same way as they're more direct. It's up to you but I've chosen to get them to say thank you and please for a few years before even telling them what it is in Spanish!
That's enough to get you started! Adios y hasta pronto!
I am always looking for covert ways to sneak language learning into my boys life because otherwise they might catch onto the fact that I'm trying to teach them something. As soon as they catch me out there's only a few responses available. Either be honest: Yes I am teaching you Spanish, I taught you English too didn't I? what's the difference? Now answer me in Spanish or breakfast is off... Or there's make them laugh. If I have some energy I can be quite enterprising. The word cosquillas (Spanish for tickle) is invariable funnier than its English translation. Or I can match them huffiness for huffiness until they can't help but laugh at me. There's no point trying to retain any dignity as a mother-teacher. Asked the question (envision it spoken in super-whinge) "Why do I have to say everything in Spanish" I retort "because your mother has had 36 years to perfect being annoying. That's a lot of practice!" and grin at him maniacally. He bursts out laughing and answers the question in Spanish and in good humour.
Sometimes I resort to fairly complex games requiring preparation and thought. Like the balloon popping game we did at Spanish Club. I drew a picture of a dinosaur and sellotaped balloons over it. No mean feat when the kids are popping said balloons... Then I had put the body parts written on small pieces of paper, one in each balloon. Finally I blue tacked safety pins under each balloon. Each child chose a different coloured bean bag (in Spanish of course) to throw at the picture. When they popped a balloon (with a great BANG!) they'd stick the name of the body part to the right bit of the picture. Thereby learning body parts such as garras - claws, dientes - teeth, estomago - belly, etc.
But the best thing I do, and by far the easiest, is leave a Spanish picture book lying around of the breakfast table so they stumble across it. And they often ask me to read it. Peppa Pig se va a Dormir (Peppa Pig Goes to Bed) is a good one at the moment as is El Gato y el Perro (The Cat and the Dog) which is all about friendship. Diez Perros en la Tienda (Ten Dogs in the Shop) is a fantastic read with plenty of repetition and great pictures. We have also enjoyed one kindle book Un Montón de Coches. Anything by Eric Carle seems to work in any language!
The trick is figuring out which books to buy. There is invariably a lack of foreign language books in even the larger libraries, especially children's books, so yes you have to buy. And I often go to Amazon for ideas and prices even though I like to compare elsewhere (eg Casa de Libros). Sometimes the same book is available for far less in euros on Amazon.es than in pounds from Amazon.co.uk, that's even when factoring in the cost of postage. And if you're not fussy, not looking for one particular title, can you can scoop up some real deals. But many kindle books don't seem to be formatted right for use in a classroom context with text spreading out wrongly and I would just pause before pressing the buy button unless you've had a recommendation (or it's super cheap!)
Finally, getting the little man to show off seems to be a winner. Reading a book to him and a friend or his brother and asking him questions brings out the show off in him and he can't help himself but try to answer! And despite his protestations, it turns out that the little guy has been listening to what I've been teaching him!
"I don't want you to speak in Spanish mummy, stop it." These were the words of eldest son, aged 4 and a half this morning. Along with "Take that towel off your hair, mummy! I don't like it!" Both phrases seemed intertwined in his opinion, and both seemed equally reasonable. The logic of a 4 year old can be hard to follow. But it, in my opinion, should not be fought. You can't teach your child that his opinion has no place in the world, Yet I can't be constantly subject to his tyranny! I have to teach him that other people have their own way of living their life, speaking words, thinking thoughts, and drying their hair... So what did I do? I carried on talking in Spanish and wearing my hair in a towel of course! I responded to his demands each time with the words "Por qué? (why)". Cue toddler meltdown.
After he calmed down/got so hungry he decided he needed his porridge he came downstairs in a quieter mood. We cuddled and I said "Darling I will not ask you to speak Spanish, that's your choice. And you're doing really well with it, trying really hard. I am proud of you. But you can't ask me not to speak Spanish. I grew up talking three languages, Catalan, English and Spanish. I don't use my catalan so as not to confuse you with too many languages all at once. But asking me not to use my Spanish as well is like if I said to you you couldn't ever use any dinosaur words ever again. How would you feel?" It hit home. He smiled, we were friends again. And within a minute or two he was getting his cuchara (spoon) out and saying "es para mi" (this is mine). Children speak in terms of forever. They say stop it and I don't like it. But do they mean it or do they mean right now? Right now I can't handle this, and I need your guidance. If I believed every complaint my child made we'd never leave the house...
But still the mummy guilt and worries come back. Am I pushing too much? Teaching anything is a fine line balancing your desire to teach with their desire to learn. I am still feeling my way. But that's all mummies, isn't it?
Most people say things about language learning that I hold to be complete hogwash. Like, for instance, "Oh you're teaching your children? Yes well it's easy at their age, isn't it?". And that other classic, I'm no good at language, I'm just not a natural. Let's be clear, there are many languages which many people use every day that have nothig to do with speaking Spanish. There's the language of written music, algebra, braille, sign language...
I have absolutely no memory for names. I have often wondered why that is since if I'm given a noun to learn in spanish I usually manage but sit next to someone for an hour and I never trust myself to remember their name. For me, I think, it's the social pressure that gives me anxiety, then doubt, then the information just vanishes. For some people it's maths. I'm just no good at maths they say. So why bother trying? Why do we write off whole sections of life for ourselves?
For many children when I first do Spanish in their nursery their reaction is the same as that of an adult. For instance they say, no you're wrong! That's not the right word. It's Hello not Hola! Or they look at me agog, blank faced, too surprised to say anything. Or they get the giggles. They almost never join in first time!
Even when I get a Spanish child in my class it's no guarantee of immediate success. They understand that Spanish is their secret language with mummy or daddy. Then this stranger breezes into the class and begins using familliar words in an unfamilliar context. Singing songs that mummy doesn't sing. It can take even longer to win their confidence!
But learning a language is easier for children, you cry! Ah, well is it? I have seen the fury of a child unable to communicate at all. If you have had a child yourself you will have seen the crazed fury of a child unable to communicate their heart's desire to an increasingly confused parent! Now take that same child some 6 months later. They have aquired, even mastered a good few thousand words in their native language. Then drop that child into an environment where everyone in their nursery, road, local shop etc is talking a different language. Is their new language acquisition seamless, painless and fun? Like hell it is! They learn because they have to. If adults were forced to learn in the same conditions they'd learn too! Fortunately children have short memories and they forget the stupefying, aching levels of frustration along with the pain of teething, the potty accidents, the growing pains etc.
On the theme of potties I knew we were approaching an unexpected success when potty training my LO. We'd been speaking spanish around the house since he was born and he accepted most words and I had never experienced any rejection of Spanish from him until now. When he was doing a poo on the potty I said "Ooh que bien, haces una caca!". Understanding full well what I meant he said (mid strain) "No mummy! No! It's not caca! It's a poo!" After a few weeks of this happening every time he sat on the potty, he said in a proud voice: "Mummy look... I done a caca!" I could have danced, I was so proud!
It's been an interesting 4 years... When I had my first baby it felt weird talking in Spanish to him I literally had to practice. I had to practice my Spanish, and practice resisting the temptation to speak in english. How much spanish should I speak? How much of a balance could I strike? Should I speak only Spanish? What about English and even Catalan? How could I have a natural relationship with my child in a language that, just then, didn't feel all that natural?
When you have a baby, at least in my case, nothing came naturally! Instinct, I felt was cobblers! I had to learn everything. Including how to teach Spanish. With an extra child a couple ofyears later a lot came more naturally, but it still wasn't clear exactly how to proceed.
But singing, for me, was always natural. Singing, in any language, was how I spent some of the happiest hours with my two little ones. Singing and dancing. So that's how it started. I began singing in spanish and in english almost all the time. And once I could sing in Spanish I didn't mind chatting away in spanish while pushing them in their pushchairs.
And so it began..!
Spanish Gemma is a mum living in Kings Heath, Birmingham, UK.