People often ask me this question. I often ask myself this question.
One of the main reasons we moved down here was so our kids could learn to speak Spanish.
Growing up I remember my mom encouraged my dad to speak to us in Cantonese (he lived in Hong Kong for 2 years). So my dad would repeat common phrases throughout the day. My mom ordered language programs that we did together as a family. I still know some phrases, but not enough to communicate. But perhaps because of their efforts I always thought that if I learned a foreign language I would teach it to my own children.
Fast forward to being a mom. I quickly realized how hard it is to speak to your kids in a minority language, especially when the minority language is not your native tongue. But I knew it was best to start young and that any effort I invested would be worth it. And so I’ve perused foreign language blogs, joined facebook groups, read books and research papers on the subject of raising children bilingually, and constantly tried to speak Spanish with our children.
Should your kids learn another language?
Researchers used to think it was detrimental to a child’s development to learn more than one language at a time (strange, as children have been learning multiple languages at once for hundreds of years, right?) But still, studies pointed out that children growing up with two languages often experienced a delay in speech, and possibly less vocabulary in both languages.
But the current thinking has shifted. Just last night I was reading a study showing that bilingual students have an advantage in general creativity and problem solving, among other areas of learning. And while there may be a language delay, children eventually do catch up with their monolingual peers in both speech and vocabulary.
And let’s not forget the core benefit that bilingual speakers can actually communicate with someone in another language (a concept which becomes even more fascinating to me the longer we live here).
Arriving in Nicaragua with the kids
When we got to Nicaragua, the kids had a few words and phrases in Spanish. But they could only use them when prompted, and certainly not in response to a spontaneous conversation with a native speaker. The arrival in a Spanish speaking country was quite overwhelming, but it had rapid results.
If you’ve ever tried to teach your children a foreign language you know they usually stage a rebellion. It’s really hard for the brain to hear a different language and be expected to decipher what it means. Our brains, especially young brains, are wired to learn language when we see the necessity.
Living in the United States, I would often try to fabricate “necessity”, with varying success, such as giving out points to my kids for choosing to listen and respond to me in Spanish.
Once we moved to Nicaragua all of the sudden their brains saw the need. They wanted to know how to say certain phrases, they tried saying things themselves. And one week I told the kids I was going to start speaking only in Spanish at home and NO ONE COMPLAINED!
Okay, let’s be honest, there was some complaining, but much less than ever before. And also, for me, speaking only in Spanish means I go about 65% espanol. It’s hard!
English kids in a Spanish country
The first few months were really hard in the language department. The kids did not like church. It was 3 hours of understanding nothing. And they also went to a neighborhood school, where no one spoke English. We rehearsed the word “bano” every morning for the first week. But they, to be quite honest, were miserable. Culture shock, including the heat, the dirt, the smells, the lack of friends, lack of language skills, etc, were almost too much.
One day at the school I snuck in during the Monday morning devotional (parents are not typically invited into school grounds like they are in the US) and sat next to a missionary volunteer from the states who looked to be in her 50s. She said she had lived in Costa Rica for a year when she was 5.
“Did you learn Spanish?” I asked her.
“Yes, but I don’t remember any of it.”
That did it. What in the world were we doing? We had been happy in beautiful Michigan. Why did we come all the way out here and put the kids through this experience if they were just going to come back 50 years later and be totally non-conversant? I tend to be an idealist, and the reality of moving to a foreign country (especially a third world country) was *maybe* not something I had *fully* realized.
But after contemplating forgetting it all, I felt re-convicted that the goal to learn Spanish was still a worthy goal. We shouldn’t give up. It was going to harder than I thought, but whatever progress we made would be valuable.
Still, after three months of attending this school, we determined that the current situation was not going to work. We had to go back to the states for Mark’s medical scans and when we came back, we told the kids we would not put them back in school. It was almost the end of the Nicaraguan school year anyway. We would try again later.
Since then I keep trying every day to teach them. I speak to them as much as possible in Spanish. I study Spanish daily out loud, in front of them. I have ordered Spanish plays for them to memorize (analomba.com), I try to take them with me wherever we go for errands and strike up conversations with everyone so they are hearing Spanish in meaningful context. We have play dates with our friends from church, and Nathan goes to soccer. We have a Spanish speaking maid who comes twice a week, and I probably bug her by striking up as many conversations as possible as she cooks and I homeschool the kids at the kitchen table. (And yes, to you homeschool moms, having a maid who cleans and cooks while you teach definitely solves 80% of your struggles). I found a library in Managua with a couple hundred books that you can actually *check out*!!! And I read those to myself and to the kids.
And I often think nothing is happening. Apart from some words and phrases, they don’t speak Spanish spontaneously even after being here for 5 months. And that can be discouraging to me.
Glimmers of Hope
But we’ve had a few encouraging moments:
One day a couple months ago I was getting my church lesson ready in the same room as my daughter (I teach the children). I asked her if she liked church any better now.
She replied, “It’s fine, but I don’t understand anything.”
“That’s okay,” I said, “it probably doesn’t matter because all I’m really saying is, “donde esta tu silla, busca tu silla, sientete en la silla.”
She looked at me and said, “I know all you say is where is your chair, find your chair, sit down in your chair.”
Yay! (Don’t worry my lessons are going great, really, I just have to remind them to sit down a lot… 😊)
About a month ago, our 18 month old said her first word (yes it’s a bit delayed). We were walking the neighborhood, me saying “hola, buenos dias” to the various neighbors and construction workers that pass through each morning. And she lifted up her hand in a wave and said her first word, “hola,” with her little toddler tongue at the top of her mouth to pronounce the spanish “L” sound. I think I started crying. Since that time she has added, “bye” “gracias” and “book.” I feel proud because we are at 50% English, 50% Spanish. (Also, “book”? That would make any mom proud). And while she doesn’t say much, I’ve begun to notice that she can actually follow most of the commands I give to her in both English and Spanish.
The other day we visited a lookout over Laguna de Apoyo (a volcanic crater lagoon) and the guard there struck up a conversation with Nathan. Mark and I watched in amazement as Nathan listened and responded to all of his questions in Spanish.
But are we taking full advantage of the immersion opportunity?
Yesterday Mark and I made a huge decision. The politics of trying to get the kids into a Spanish speaking school here have been more difficult than we thought. The school year is now over, and won’t start again until mid-February, about when we will be heading back home. There really isn’t a chance for immersion here, and even though I have been working on my own and seeing some progress, deep down I keep thinking we are missing an opportunity.
Monday morning this week I woke up early and couldn’t shake the feeling that we needed to act. I had heard about a couple schools in Granada (one of the main ex-pat towns in Nicaragua) that have bilingual English/Spanish programs that serve both expats and Nicaraguans. These were schools that other expats said their children had enjoyed. The school year follows the US schedule, so school just started in September and will go through next spring, when we leave. By day break, Mark and I had decided that we needed to give it a serious chance. By 8 we had called the school, by 9 we left Diriamba for Granada, and by 10 we were visiting the school grounds. I still didn’t know. We love where we live and have made wonderful friends here. But we decided since we have tried for years to make this trip happen, and learning Spanish was one of our main goals in coming to Nicaragua, we wanted to do it.
It means we will have to move an hour away (only 20 miles, but with bad infrastructure, it takes forever to get there), pull up our hard earned and still tender roots, say goodbye to kind friends and our ward, and face the heat and humidity of Granada (it’s bad). But in the course of one day we decided to make it happen. I’m really excited to see what happens in the next 6 months.