Who doesn’t want their children to be bilingual? Living in Miami, a city with such a strong Hispanic influence, it’s easy to assume that children are bilingual by default. But the reality is that there are more and more parents speaking to their children in Spanish and getting a reply in English. The struggle is real!
Parents try to keep the “only Spanish” rule at home and find themselves not being able to maintain it 100% of the time. As children grow up, English becomes their native language and if they don’t have a significant exposure to their language of heritage, they can drift away from it. Although some might mix it up speaking a very Miamian Spanglish.
The truth is that bilingualism doesn’t come as easy as it sounds just because we are raising our children in Miami. It requires effort, strategy, creativity and consistency from a parenting perspective.
Here are some of the tips and tricks to expose your children to your native language and encourage them to speak it and feel proud of it!
1. Speak your native language, all the time
This can sometimes require an adjustment. I’m a Venezuelan, married to a Brazilian. “Our love is in English” my husband used to say, meaning that English was the natural way for us to communicate with each other. Well, that changed when we had our first baby. We decided to switch back to our native languages at home, 24/7, and it was not easy. We both sounded so differently. Our personality and voice tone changed. It was like I was dating a different guy! But we conquered that awkward phase and are proud of our family dynamics nowadays. Today we are parenting two toddlers (3 and 1 year old) and we both each speak to them in our respective native languages, consistently.
2. Talk to your relatives and ask them to do the same
If the objective is to maximize language exposure, take advantage of the influence that family and friends have over your children and ask them to align with you on your goals. My parents speak English fluently. My mom works supervising schools and teachers with a special focus in early childhood education. English became natural when speaking with young children. When I noticed she had a tendency to speak English with our firstborn I had to remind her to switch back to Spanish.
3. Sing to your children in your native language
There is nothing like our classic lullabies to increase language exposure for our children in a very culturally relevant way. Those songs that take us back to our country of heritage, to that moment when mami rocked us to sleep with “a dormir, a dormir“, or abuela sang “sana sana colita de rana” rubbing our knee after an epic fall. Adult songs with positive messages are also valid. Music overall can generate a cultural connection, which can translate into love for a language and the ability to speak it.
4. Read, read, and read in your native language
My husband and I have experienced the power of books to teach our children how to speak our languages. Here are our top 3 recommendations as it relates to types of books that have worked beautifully for us as we infuse in our children a special love for and connection with our faith and cultures:
- The Bible for Children in both languages are the most important books we have gotten for our little ones. We read it every night with them and pray together, as part of their bedtime routine. Mami reads la Biblia en Español and papai reads a Biblia para Crianças em Portugués.
- Books that tell classic song stories. Going back to the cultural relevance of songs, Cánticos is my favorite brand of bilingual books. Their illustrations are super cute. My 3-year-old loves to read and sing “un elefante se balanceaba“. Check out their wonderful books for toddlers and preschoolers here.
- Animal stories and sounds. My children are still very young, so they are into all things animals. We have tons of books that tell educational stories about animals of all kinds. My 3-year-old identifies them all and imitates their sounds in Spanish, Portuguese and English! Yes, apparently, dogs bark differently depending on the language they speak 🙂
5. The earlier, the better
Start with your newborn. Although babies don’t understand the meaning of words, early exposure to sounds will help them learn to pronounce letters and words when they start speaking.
We exposed our firstborn to our native languages since he came into the world. As a result, today he understands and speaks both languages fluently. He also associates Spanish with mami and his abuelos, and Portuguese with papai and his avós. It is amazing how their little brains work. They are sponges that absorb much more than what we can imagine.
We are now practicing these tips with our one-year-old baby girl too. So I will definitely come back to share an update on this multi-lingual adventure I’m experiencing with my familia.