We had high expectations for the linguistic benefits that our family trip to the United States would have on our children, but what actually happened far exceeded those expectations.
Rémy, the youngest of our four children, was born and raised in France. We’ve also been raising him with three languages, just as we have our three older children. Well, just like the other children in the number of languages, but since each child is different and family circumstances change and evolve, we can’t say that everything has been exactly the same. The most notable difference is that as his three older siblings speak to each other in French, he has also chosen French as his language of choice. And since he hears me speak French in our community, there has been little motivation to speak to me in either English or Spanish (unlike my older children who speak to me in English or Spanish only). I know he understands his minority languages well as I have often tested his linguistic comprehension through play. However, Rémy just wasn’t producing very much language in English (or Spanish).
The situation didn’t alarm or concern me. I knew that if I continued to provide fun, rich, meaningful language input in English (and Spanish), that he would continue to acquire language and in time express himself orally just as his older siblings. However, just to make things clear, even though what happened during our family vacation felt pretty miraculous to us, there was a lot of prep work that happened prior to him learning how to speak English in a month!
PREP WORK BEFORE THE TRIP
- Quality language input. As I mentioned earlier, from the time Rémy was born, I have done my best to immerse him in his minority languages (English and Spanish). This has included reading and singing together, explaining everything to him in the world around him, cartoons, movies, apps, Skype calls with family and trips to the U.S. (he had already been twice – once when he was 7 months old and again when he was 1 1/2 years old).
- Gentle encouragement. Of course we wanted Rémy to speak English (or Spanish) with me, but I never forced him to. Nor did I ignore him if he spoke to me in French. Whenever he expressed himself, I kept in mind that the most important thing was to communicate meaning and express needs and wants… I would always listen no matter the language and gently encourage him by rephrasing in the target language and sometimes asking him to repeat.
- Mental preparation. Long before our flights were booked we were excitedly talking about this important and special trip home. We talked about each member of the family that we would get to spend time with and the different things we’d be able to do (places to visit, things to see and do, etc.). Rémy had already developed a close relationship with his Abuelita and Abuelito (his grandparents) and felt a special affinity for his cousin Marcelo who is about his same age.
- Focus on one language at a time. Although we are raising our children with three languages, we try to focus on just one minority language at a time (2 weeks in English, 2 weeks in Spanish). However, in order to make the most significant linguistic progress during our trip to the U.S., we decided to speak only in English during our one-month vacation. We wanted him to reap the maximum benefits in English.
So when we planned our trip to the United States, I had in mind that it would be wonderful authentic language input for him, but I had no idea that he would assimilate phrases and begin to regularly produce utterances in English in such a short time! Is there anything special we did during the trip? Not really, but here are a few pointers anyway.
WHAT TO DO DURING THE TRIP
- Explain, encourage and provide simple tools. As the date of our trip approached, Rémy asked frequently about his cousin Marcelo. And when we were on the plane his excitement grew and the frequency of his questions intensified. I explained to him that Marcelo only spoke English. Rémy grew very quite, almost gloomy and at a certain point I even thought he hadn’t heard or understood me and that he had moved on to other thoughts. But then he suddenly turned to me and asked in French how he could possibly play with Marcelo if he didn’t speak English. “Oh, that’s easy,” I responded. “Just tell him, ‘Let’s play!’ and everything will be okay.”
- Allow time for play and then sit back and observe! I heard Rémy repeating the words “Let’s play” over and over during our flight as if he were practicing. The first day he spent time with his cousin Marcelo, he’d often interject their play with the words “Let’s play” for lack of anything better to say. However, a few days later he had made a discovery. “Let’s play. Let’s eat. Let’s go. Let’s jump…” he excitedly told me one day. He had taken that small phrase I gave him on the plane and had learned a simple manipulation that allowed him to express his own meaning in a very basic way. By week 2, he was using these phrases frequently during his interactions with his cousin Marcelo.
- Resist the urge to giggle at the cuteness! We loved to observe his progress and “eavesdrop” on his play just to hear how he would say things in English. We were absolutely delighted! I would often giggle out of pure delight and my husband would remind me not to laugh for fear that Rémy might think we were making fun of him and that this would halt him in his progress! But it was just so cute! It was hard to resist, but my husband had a good point! On the flip side, I took every opportunity I could to tell Rémy how proud I was of him!
- Continue to observe the progress! By week 3, his répertoire of vocabulary and phrases had significantly expanded. And not only did we hear him mimicking words and phrases spoken by others, especially his cousin Marcelo, but he was also quickly adopting a very American accent! And has even learned to whine and be sassy in English! In our final week in the United States, we witnessed an additional phenomenon. Somewhere along the way he started speaking to me in English as well. And not just the memorized vocabulary and phrases, but his own meaning. Some of it is choppy or halted, the syntax is sometimes off and a few words are of his own creation, but it is intelligible and it is always so, so adorable!
- Expect and encourage permanent changes once you’re back home. Once home again, I thought he would revert to his old ways and begin to speak French to me again. He speaks French with his Papa and siblings but to my utter astonishment, he continues to express himself in English and speaking French with me has quickly become the exception more than the rule.
This experience has reinforced my belief that quality input, gentle encouragement as well as creating a need to use the target language are important ingredients to use when raising bilingual children. I also realize that I could not have done all of it on my own, especially not without the help of those key players who motivated Rémy to want to use English. They say it takes a village to raise a child and I can affirm that this is especially true when raising bilingual children! Loving grandparents, affectionate aunties, playful uncles and cousin playmates were all key players in Rémy’s remarkable progress. They helped fuel his motivation to transform his more passive knowledge of English into more active use of the language.
Do you have a child who is hesitant or refuses to speak the minority language? Have you ever considered a trip abroad to help motivate him to speak the language in question? If you don’t have family who speaks the minority language, how would you take advantage of such a trip to help your child progress?
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