By Alice Lapuerta
What to do about that Other Language? The third one.
The one that is definitely under-represented in our household, because the native speaker who is supposed to represent it, aka The Hubby, is not always here to speak it, on account of a very demanding full-time job that includes frequent business trips abroad.
This, in addition to our decision to undergo The Great Language shift several years ago because of various reasons (switching from one-parent-one-language (OPOL) to minority language English as family language@home) resulted in Spanish taking the position of the poor Cinderella stepchild. It gets acknowledged only now and then.
Trips to Ecuador to visit the abuelos are rare, and even though we try to compensate by traveling to Spain instead, those trips aren’t any more frequent, either. Spanish resources here in Austria are as good as nonexistent. Our DVDs are dubbed in English and Swiss German, but not in Spanish. There are no other Spanish speaking kids in our monolingual Village with whom we could meet up for playgroups. And no, we don’t want to have an au pair, so that option won’t work for us, either.
I worry that we are fake trilinguals now, wanna-be multilinguals, bilinguals parading around as trilinguals, because we have a pretty decent command over German and English, but Spanish, alas, is doomed to go down the drains. It’s frustrating to say the least.
So what can one do?
Such is life: you’ve got do the best with what you have. So when hubby’s not here to speak Spanish, I do.
I know that some say if a language isn’t your native one you probably shouldn’t speak it. Because, oh horror, what if the kids end up with your accent? Or your bad grammar? What if they end up as semi-linguals as a result? Terrible!
As far as I am concerned I will listen to all those arguments and theories politely, and then pull up my sleeves and get down to the reality of OUR situation. Because it all looks very different in every-day life.
Our breakfast table at 6:30am: Either one of us speaks a language that is not his or her native one (English for The Hubby or Spanish for me) – complete with accent, bad grammar and poor vocabulary. Or, if that is just too dreadful to behold, the only other option left for us is that we just don’t communicate AT ALL. Period. This second option is rather ridiculous – some language (even rudimentarily spoken) must be better than none at all.
Our goal is not to create little Einsteins who speak several languages perfectly before they hit the age of six just because we want them to. No. Our goal is for our kids to obtain a certain level of aptitude in Spanish so they can communicate with their abuelos and cousins when they visit, or when we visit them.
Our goal is for them to realize that Spanish is FUN! And to motivate them to learn the language on their own, one day. Since we are realists, we know they probably won’t be fluent in the language unless there is a real need for them to speak it. Thus, as far as we are concerned, their Spanish need neither be perfect nor fluent.
We go with what we have. We cross our fingers, toes and tongues.
How does one go about doing this? How does one convey a minority language that oneself doesn’t speak very well?
Easy: I sing!
Oh, and how I sing! I sing Los pollitos dicen, Elena la balena, La mar estaba serena, Arroz con leche, Mambru, Pin Pon and many more songs and nursery rhymes. And let me tell you, I am good at this!
Let me explain why: when I attended a one-on-one Spanish intensive course in Ecuador several years ago, I did something clever. I told my language teacher to pack away her grammar books, and to teach me Spanish nursery songs instead. The ones that are popular in Ecuador. The ones that she herself sings to her children every night. The ones that abuelita sings.
I sat in that classroom, 4 hours each day, 5 days a week, and learned how to sing those songs. And then I’d go home and sing them to my baby. Yes, I also kept singing La, Le, Lu, Alle meine Entchen and Fuchs Du hast die Gans gestohlen as well, after all, these are the songs that I grew up with and so my kids should, as well. But the emphasis was more on Spanish. Because I knew they’d learn all those German songs in playgroups and kindergarten here anyway. And I knew that once we returned to Austria, there would no longer be a Spanish speaking abuelita to sing Spanish songs. So if I didn’t sing them to our kids, no one would.
Is this going to turn them into fluent Spanish speakers? I doubt it.
So I read.
We have tons of children’s books in Spanish, because I asked, no, I begged, I beseeched on my knees! – all our relatives and friends to please, please, PLEASE send us Spanish children’s books, because if they didn’t, I told them, they would be invariably responsible for my kids not learning Spanish.
This worked like magic. Our bookshelves are now overflowing with books, from Don Quixote to Elmo teaching good manners in Spanish. We read them together. It happens often that I don’t understand certain words, or my kids ask me what this or that means, and I have no clue.
I turn the question around, craftily: “What do YOU think it means?”
We try to decipher the meaning from context. When I am in a particularly clever mood, I look it up in a dictionary. Most of the time I tell them, “We’ll ask Papi later.” It is understood, of course, that when The Hubby is around, that particular treat of reading in Spanish falls on him, of course.
A great help are also DVDs like Speekee, Fun with Colors, or Bilingual Fun. My kids love these! My son, especially, is crazy over them. Whoever said that kids can’t learn a language from TV and DVDs should move into our household and observe my kids. Because they are soaking up the language with a speed and ability that amazes me.
My son, especially, has memorized entire scenes in Spanish and acts them out when he thinks no one is looking. The question that presents us now is how to break out of that basic level? How can we propel them onto the next level?
It also helps, certainly, that at Isabella’s school they offer an “español para niños” class after school. If you ask her what her favorite subject is, she will answer “IT and español!” I peeked into her homework book and am pleased to see that she is learning how to write in Spanish, now!
Our playful approach towards Spanish led to the result that my kids think that Spanish is a fun language. It is a language for singing, playing and vacation time! Sure, their ability is very basic, but they seem to understand, they know their colors, counting, and basic sentences. When they absolutely have to they suddenly can communicate with the abuelos and the cousins over Skype.
In fact, am counting on the abuelos to come visit us soon. I hope we can implement a “Spanish only” time for as long as they are here. We have even talked about having one of The Hubby’s nephews or nieces come over and visit us as an exchange student. We are still discussing this option.
The birth of our youngest in April of this year triggered yet another Language Shift in our Family! We are discussing whether we should revert from English as family language back to strictly OPOL. Or maybe a mix of both: OPOL when we are alone with the kids, and English when we are all together?
At any rate, The Peeps is definitely motivating all of us to speak more Spanish.
The Hubby is crooning to him in Spanish. My daughter is singing Los Pollitos dicen to him. And Dominik has found in him the perfect audience for his chanting: “azul, verde, amarillo yyyyyy… morado!”
It looks like Spanish won’t go down the drain after all.
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