Coming from a bilingual family it’s easy for me to see how manageable and beneficial it is to speak two languages at home. My dad would always speak to us in Italian and my mother in Portuguese while we lived in Brazil.
Much of our interpretation of the things around us come from our vocabulary and our understanding of the world is trapped by our language. If you speak more than one language, your perception of things actually grows wider. Anyone who speaks two or more languages can relate to this statement.
With this in mind and with my background, I decided that since I’m fluent in English (I’m actually Brazilian), I should teach my daughter the language myself.
My method was simple: use as much English in our routine as possible. This meant: reading, singing, playing, speaking and watching videos. Studies have shown that pre-schoolers learn faster, so I know now is the best time for Luísa to really learn it.
I started reading to her when she was a tiny baby, reading my own books in English aloud while rocking her to sleep or breastfeeding.
When she was around two, I started to read children’s books too. Almost all in English.
We sing songs in English all the time. She also quickly learns the ones I’m playing by myself on the guitar.
Sometimes we play with dolls and I speak for my doll only in English. She seems to understand everything as she answers everything my character asks.
As we ride our bike through town, we might say the color of the cars in English, or count the steps down to the beach.
I keep at it several times during the day without a strict schedule, rather than all the time. I try to do ordinary daily activities, while speaking in English, like calling her to brush her teeth or put her shoes on. Motion talking works great too, like raising the juice jar and asking in English if she wants juice.
Like in many bilingual homes, sometimes we mix the languages like this:
“Luísa, põe o seu maiô and let’s go to the beach.” (Luísa, put your swimming suit on and let’s go to the beach.)
“O que você está fazendo, let me see.” (What are you doing, let me see.)
“Olha lá! A horse!” (Look over there! A horse!)
I know this must look a bit freaky to a regular passerby, but for us inside the multilingual world, it’s completely normal.
Some days I focus on introducing just one new word and use it in the middle of our normal chatting in Portuguese.
Since she turned two I started to put videos on for her to watch entirely in English (on my laptop, since we don’t have a TV). Sometimes I watch them with her and repeat some words or phrases and she might repeat them as well.
I also ask questions about the video in English. Most of the times, she ignores me and keeps watching, but sometimes she does answer (in Portuguese).
IS TRYING TO SNEAK IN A THIRD LANGUAGE TOO MUCH?
Sometimes, I speak in Spanish to Luísa too. Especially after we spent two months in in Chile in 2009 (on different occasions). The second time she was going to a kindergarten there and had finished our trip having learned many Spanish words.
She made me really proud at a park in Santiago one day when I saw her saying “Permiso” (Excuse me), politely playing in Spanish with another kid!
I don’t know how mixed up this all can be (Portuguese + English + Spanish taught by the same person – I’m pretty sure regular parenting books don’t recommend this), but I can tell you that she understands both English and Spanish (and speaks Portuguese, obviously).
However, to simplify things a bit, I decided to take a break from Spanish for a while, except for a couple of songs we like to sing, and focus on English. Spanish will wait for Costa Rica next month, where she will learn the best way, the way Benny learns all his languages too: by speaking and connecting with natives .
These past few months we were practicing in a more structured way, almost like a lesson. I was going to her kindergarten three times a week to read stories and sing songs in English to the kids. And since I practice the songs on my guitar at home, Luísa can already sing big chunks of them.
Of course, to apply this method I have been using, one needs to be fluent in that second language. But I really believe in the power of music and movies in the learning process.
WHAT IF I COULDN’T SPEAK ANOTHER LANGUAGE, WOULD I STILL DO IT?
Well, it’s hard to see myself as not speaking any other language (as far as family and personal interests are involved), but what I did for three months, starting in April, was start a self-teaching course in French.
I would listen to a CD and repeat the phrases for 15 to 20 minutes a day, five days a week. This was not only teaching me another language, but was making Luísa see me studying and eventually she would repeat some things as well. (I dropped the French lessons after I finished this basic course and I forgot most of it already).
So, I guess that if I happened to not know another language, I would try to learn and teach at the same time. Like keep my French course for a whole year and start looking for French speakers in my town to converse with.
I know from experience that it’s much easier to have parents speaking different languages, but not having a foreign husband (or daily access to a native) is not keeping me from doing it. The bottom line here is: YOU CAN DO IT TOO.
It’s hard to keep focused and speak to my daughter in English, it doesn’t come out naturally, but I make myself do it and because of this, some days it does come out more naturally. It’s a matter of practice. When I realize we haven’t been practicing our English at home in a few days I just push myself back into it.
One thing that is crucial for success in teaching a child anything is HAVING FUN with it. Reading, speaking, singing and watching movies together is really fun, why not do it all in another language as well?