Raising bilingual kids: papaaaaaaaa! I want leche!

Almost three, it is a magical age. Children learn to speak at this age and it is just adorable to hear them yell: ‘daaaaaady, I want ‘leche’ in the middle of the night. Adorable because we realized that that was a true Spanish word at the end of that sentence. A start of being bi-lingual. Since our daughter was born we also have been speaking Spanish with her in addition to the Dutch that is our own native language. Because of our traveling lifestyle she is spending more time in Spanish speaking countries than she spends in Holland. This is a blog about raising kids in two languages: Dutch and Spanish.

Both of us are born and raised in The Netherland and thus our mother tongue is Dutch. Nevertheless we both speak Spanish and we love our children to also speak different languages while they are growing up. What are the advantages of learning languages at young age? What impact does it have on brain development and how do you teach a second language to a child that is not your own mother tongue? We had many questions about this topic and it is such an interesting subject to write about and to share with you.  As our children grow older and their ability to speak (languages) grows, we will post on the topic of raising bilingual kids. So what does it mean for the brain to learn to speak more languages while growing up?

Bilingual brain development
Research done by the University of Washington shows that babies growing up in a bilingual environment, develop a sensitivity to foreign words up to their first birthday. Brains of babies who are being confronted with just one language, lose the ability to respond to sounds and words from a different language about eight months after they are born. “The bilingual brain is fascinating, because it reflects the ability of the human brain to be flexible”, explains main researcher to this study Patricia Kuhl. “Babies who are bilingual learn that objects and events have two names. They can switch easily between these different labels. This is a great exercise for their brain’, says Kuhl. Another study done by British scientists showed that people who were taught two languages in their early years, have two ways to look at the world. They can describe a particular situation in one language using a completely different set of words and sentences than they would in the other language. Because of this, it is easier for them to put their own views of the world into perspective. Speaking a second language has a positive effect on their ability to learn new things. Having a bilingual brain allows you to solve complex tasks of the brain more creatively and communication skills are often well developed. There are many advantages to allowing your baby’s brain to learn languages. When researching this topic, we have read that children who are raised in a bilingual environment and learn two languages at the same time, might need more time to start speaking (in the non native language). We asked ourselves: how can we stimulate our children to learn both languages?

None of us, parents, is a native Spanish speaker: so how to teach a foreign language?
We were taught Spanish later in life. At school and in the street. None of us is 100% fluent in this language. I would say we are about 70-80% in overall fluency of the language. Of course our spoken fluency is a bit higher after all these years in Spanish speaking countries. When choosing to raise children in two languages, it is important to transfer the language well. Prevent errors and literal translations from our mothertongue as much as we can. We decided that the parent with the best language skill would speak Spanish with our kids until they go to a Spanish speaking kindergarten or ‘maternal‘ (at 2 years of age). In the first two years of Isa’s life, Diana spoke Spanish with her every day, tell stories, explain daily tasks, ask questions. We both spoke Spanish with her when we were in a Spanish speaking environment, as people simply don’t understand Dutch. In those first two years, we read many Spanish stories to her (and now to our son as well) and sang baby lullabies in Spanish. Nevertheless, somewhere down this road, we realised we were going to need some help with transferring the second language. Ask help from native speakers. When Isa turned 22 months, she had spend all of her time with us, her parents. By then, the time had come for her to find extra stimuli besides what we could give her. We looked for a ‘sala de juegos‘ in Playa del Carmen, Mexico, the place we lived at the time (september 2017). Erica from Senses World in Playa del Carmen was the first person in Isa’s life who helped her with the Spanish language. At the time of writing this post (january 2019) we are visiting Playa del Carmen for two weeks and Isa returned to her favorite place: Erica at Senses World.

Bilingual development: how are we going to do this in the coming years?
It is common knowledge that learning a language is an active process that takes place over a variety of years. Introducing a child to a language for two years because it spends time in a Spanish speaking country and then removing it from this environment will hamper the language development. The seeds of the language will be in the brain for sure, but the skill of actually speaking the language will not be mastered. For us it’s a reason to choose Spanish speaking countries in the first five years of the lives of our children. The development of the Spanish language becomes an important criteria in choosing a destination to travel to or a country to spend more time in. Every year we spend 4 to 5 months in the Netherlands followed by a travel leg in Spanish speaking countries. Luckily for us Spanish is a true world language and there are many places to go if Spanish is the requirement. In 2017, Isa has spend five months at the playing circle of Senses World in Playa del Carmen from October 2017 to April 2018. After the summer we went to Tenerife in Spain where she has spend three months at a kindergarten Mundo Mágico, where she just a week before we left to spend Christmas in the Netherlands, at three years and a month of age, started speaking in Spanish, beyond the individual words. Magical! Now, between January and April 2019 ,she is at Las Semillas, a Waldorf-inspired kindergarten in Puerto Viejo de Talamanca, Costa Rica. Singing children’s songs in Spanish on the bike and wishing me goodnight in Spanish before she goes to bed. By the time of updating this article, Isa is 3 years and 4 months old (march 2019) and her Spanish is flying!

Soon we will travel to Holland where she will spend time in her kindergarten ‘De Speelboerderij‘ in Haaksbergen, at a farm. We are excited to explore ways to teach and develop the Spanish language outside of a classroom, in a non-Spanish environment and will keep you posted on how we do! Have you read all the way to this point? Then you must be interested in the development of a second language in kids. We are curious to learn from other parents who are raising multi-lingual kids. Or maybe you yourself grew up speaking more than one language. We are always curious to learn more and would love for you to contact us.

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