My Spanish husband and I live in England with our 5 month old son. My husband speaks perfect English and I speak fluent (though not perfect!) Spanish. Since the community language is English, we have opted always to speak Spanish to our son when my husband is present (except when we are all interacting with non-Spanish speakers, e.g. at someone's house for dinner).
However, I would love to hear from other people's experiences which language they suggest I use when I am alone with my son (I am the primary caregiver at the moment on maternity leave and will likely return to work part time). I want to give my son the best chance of being bilingual. We go to Spanish playgroup once a week and have joined a group of Spanish-speaking families. Should I speak in Spanish to my son all the time - in and out of the house? Or have people found a successful way of dividing the use of the native language (English) and minority language if they are not native speakers of the minority language? I am committed to keep learning and improving my Spanish, however, I do wonder if further down the line, to have the deepest relationship possible and to be able to converse about complicated matters, we would be best to do this in English. I also wonder if my son could lose out as my Spanish vocabulary will probably never be as deep and nuanced as my English?
I'm really interested in how others have handled this and what strategies they have found to be successful.
We are a trilingual family that switched from the One Person One Language strategy with the Majority Language (ML) as a family language, to the ml@h 18 months ago. Daddy speaks Spanish (ml1), I'm French but I speak English (ml2), and we completely banned the French ML at home; since all of us are trilingual in these languages we have no communication issue.
The switch was triggered by my then 4 year old being a passive trilingual. We were at a very low point, and the switch was a desperate attempt to get her bilingual journey back on tracks. We believe that this move saved our journey. After 6 months, my daughter had become a fully active trilingual. And her 2 year old sister seems (I don't want to count my chickens before they're hatched) to be on the right track - though I still have to see how the schooling will affect her journey.
Schooling in the ML has a huge impact on the child's willingness to use their ml, especially when they know their parents speak the ML. They are very pragmatic individuals and will go for the easy option: if Mummy & Daddy speak the ML then I'll just use that. That's why we always speak ml to our girls when we address them directly, and only use the ML when in a group conversation with a ML speaker. For us, it takes discipline to keep our daughters on track and get them to follow the ml@h rule and not fall back on the easy option of using the ML.
As to being a non-native parent, there are a lot of us around here, though I'm not the best example since I myself was raised as a trilingual child and am comfortable in any of my 3 languages to express myself, including emotions. My opinion drawn from my personal experience is that when it comes to languages, there is always a field we lack vocabulary in, even in your mother tongue. For example, technical work-related vocabulary, emotions...or baby talk (my husband is a native and didn't remember any baby/kid talk when our eldest was born). These are things that can be acquired over time, and they are not necessarily linked to you being a non-native.
Bear in mind that your own ml level will naturally improve over the years of speaking it at home (my Spanish bloomed beyond the level I had when I lived in Spain!). And if you take care of your ml skills like you would with a plant, it will definitely grow bigger and stronger.
Hope these thoughts can be of help.
***"Shoot for the moon. Even if you miss, you'll land among the stars" - Oscar Wilde***
My advice would be to speak to your son exclusively in Spanish. The positive will be you get to practice your Spanish and hopefully increase your vocabulary. I would read him Spanish books and give him as much exposure to Spanish as you can. Your husband can help with increasing vocabulary with your son, but you can help prepare him with the basics. You can also get a Spanish au pair when he is older perhaps or find a Spanish nanny to help part time. I know a few families that have done this.
Do you plan to return to work? Or stay at home a few years? The earlier your son goes into daycare, the earlier English will take over, unless you find a Spanish nursery. There is one not far from where we live in London, so you might want to check in your area. When your son is old enough for TV, only allow Spanish (you can access TONS on youtube).
Don't be concerned if your son is only speaking Spanish and no English, even if he is older, because once he starts school, the English will take over. It's amazing how fast the change happens. It takes a few months and then suddenly kids refuse the ml language. But you can prevent this happening by taking some careful steps to make sure your son continues by being committed and giving him as much exposure at home - Spanish music, TV, books. If you need to return to work, consider Spanish nursery or nanny (I know loads of families who have Spanish nannies). There is also a Spanish school in Notting Hill if you are in that area. Or if you live in an area with a lot of Spanish children, you will find that at least in the school there will be some Spanish speaking children and you can set up play dates etc.
Don't worry about your lack of vocabulary, at least you can speak it. I managed to teach my daughter over 200 words/phrases in French before she entered her French bilingual school and I didn't know any French until we started. After, I learned a lot of French myself from practicing on my children. I made sure to get a French native speaker a few times a week to make sure my children could hear the correct accent. I know a lot of advice would say if you aren't a native speaker don't do it, but you have to work with what you have and if you are the main option for your son's exposure, then so be it. It's better for them to get more exposure then none during the day.
In one year my daughter (now age 6) is completely fluent in French. Of course she still has a lot of vocabulary to learn, but this will come in time. She knows enough that she has no problem to communicate entirely in French with our au pair, her French speaking friends etc. My son has been at the school 6 months and he's now starting to speak French. We are an English speaking family so we have to rely on getting outside help to increase the French exposure.
I'm in a similar situation to you with my 11 month old son although our circumstances are slightly different. My husband is Norwegian and we live in the UK. I speak Norwegian reasonably well although I'm not sure I would class myself as fluent yet. I've been working really hard to increase my fluency over the last few years as my husband works long hours and I don't think our family time would provide enough input for my son to be an active user of Norwegian. It's fantastic that you have access to a Spanish playgroup and have joined a group of families. There are a lot of Spanish-speaking opportunities where I live too but hardly anything for Norwegian (I have found some families but they don't meet regularly and only a few use Norwegian with their children).
I made the decision before my son was born to speak (and sing and read) as much Norwegian as possible but to use English if I felt it was preventing a close attachment between us. I haven't found any problems with our relationship using only Norwegian so far. I still find it hard to use it when in public with English speakers but I'm working on that. Sometimes I doubt myself that I'm not expressing a wide enough vocabulary and I have the same worries you do about complicated conversations in the future. So far I feel like I'm making it work well and, just because I don't use English with him now, doesn't mean I can't use it if I need to in the future.
I know English will become his dominant language very easily, possibly even before he starts preschool but definitely once he's there. For this reason I feel this is the best choice for our family right now. I have a thread on the Track Your Progress board where I post weekly if you want to see more about the ups and downs of how I'm managing. It's called "Baby steps for a non-native mum".
I think you'll have the best chance of your son being actively bilingual if you use as much Spanish as you can with him. You also have the option of the "time and place" strategy where you choose certain situations where you only use English if you decide that 100% Spanish doesn't work for you.
I would be interested in hearing how you get on with whatever approach you decide to take so I hope you will continue to update us on your situation.
Thank you so much for your responses - they are so helpful and encouraging. I will definitely then proceed with speaking to my son in Spanish and I'm going to act on your tips - seeking native speakers to play with him, looking into a Spanish nanny for when I return to work and flooding the home with Spanish books and songs etc.
Alison, it's brilliant what you are doing. I will definitely be following your thread as it sounds like we have a lot of the same thoughts and concerns! I really like your point that even though you speak Norwegian now, it doesn't mean you can't speak English together in the future. How do you find your English-speaking family reacts to your decision to focus on Norwegian?
There have been a few comments which let me know my family are all worried my son won't speak English but nothing too bad. The worst was probably when my aunt asked me if I spoke English to him and I said no, because he hears plenty of English every day from everyone else around him. She then said she knew a Spanish family living near her who were very good because they were always careful to repeat everything they said in Spanish in English straight after so their daughter learned them exactly the same. I decided to smile and nod rather than explain to her that this would be unlikely to lead to active bilingualism and probably wasn't true anyway because who has time to say everything twice?!
Alison, I agree with you on wondering if that story is true? I don’t think repeating everything in both languages would help long term. Eventually one language would be ignored or not used. Also, would the child then learn to respond and repeat everything?
I also think repeating everything in the ML would most likely lead to the children answering in the ML. It can be however that this family was repeating the things in English because your aunt was there and they didn't want her to feel left out. I don't repeat things in ML for my children except when they have a friend over at our place who doesn't speak the ml. In that case if I talk to my children I do it in Spanish as always but then I repeat it in German, so that the other children understand what is being said. I don't do this with adults but I do it with children. And a few of my children's friends are interested in Spanish and try to pick up words from me repeating the things in both languages and then ask me if they got it right.
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