If you’ve been following this blog, you know that my children are currently 13 and 10 and that their majority language is Japanese and their minority language is English. At this point, their ability in each of these languages is comparable to their monolingual peers. In other words, they essentially have two native languages and can use both freely to communicate or to read and write.
What you may not know—since I haven’t yet mentioned this much—is that my kids are now working on a third language, too…but the circumstances of this additional minority language, Spanish, are vastly different from their acquisition of English.
While supporting their English side has been a huge priority for me ever since they were born, and my background as a native speaker and a longtime English teacher of bilingual children has helped me nurture satisfying progress in this language, I’m afraid I’m not doing nearly as well when it comes to Spanish.
My good intention
This aim to add Spanish began about two years ago when we met a lively woman from Madrid at a festival in town. When I learned that she now lives in Hiroshima with her Japanese husband, I asked if she would be interested in teaching Spanish to my kids—then 11 and 8—a couple of times a month.
She agreed, and so began our Spanish quest.
But here’s the thing: Because two lessons a month would hardly have much impact alone—in order to make more effective progress, they really had to have exposure to Spanish on a regular basis, too—I knew I would need to assume the responsibility for providing this input.
The problem is, I don’t speak Spanish.
In other words, I’m not only a non-native speaker of the target language; I’m a non-native, non-speaking speaker of the target language.
Of course, I could learn Spanish along with them, studying on my own to fuel both my acquisition and theirs. And that was my intention from the start because I love the idea of learning Spanish, too (which would probably be a lot easier for me, a native English speaker, than Japanese has been!). Yet I confess, two years later, that I still haven’t followed through strongly enough on this good intention. While it’s true that my days are busy with various activities and obligations, I think it’s also true that I really could establish and sustain a more regular study routine—even just 15 minutes a day—if I made this a higher priority in my life.
Ultimately, I think we follow through on the things that are truly important to us—things that we’ve made a higher priority—and when something isn’t made a higher priority, we tend to let ourselves off the hook too easily by claiming that “I’d like to do that, but I’m so busy.” As I get older, and now keenly see that I don’t have that many more years left to do the things I want to do in this life, I’ve become better about seizing the day and stressing action…and yet I still falter at times, and the past two years of insufficient efforts to study Spanish is a clear example.
So my first important step toward more satisfying progress in Spanish—both for me and for my kids—is to finally follow through on maintaining my own study routine. And by making this declaration in today’s post, I’m hoping to hold myself more accountable. After all, when I eventually offer an update on all this, I don’t want to tell you that I’m still stuck in wishful thinking; I want to tell you, instead, that I’m now faithfully sticking to a more effective study routine.
Exposure to Spanish
At this point, you’re probably wondering: Well, if you don’t speak Spanish, how have you been providing your kids with regular exposure to this language over the past two years? The truth is, this hasn’t been easy, not only because of my lack of language ability, but because I’m unfamiliar with resources in this language and their time for Spanish each day is limited to around 10 or 15 minutes, since Japanese and English continue to be our highest priorities.
Still, along with our lessons every other Tuesday—where the teacher comes to our home and bathes Lulu and Roy in Spanish for over an hour—I’ve somehow managed to sustain a modest amount of daily input in these three ways…
I’ve bought up just about every basic Spanish workbook I could find on Amazon, with some geared for children and others more suited to older kids or adults. These materials have been helpful, to some degree, but it’s also frustrating that there doesn’t seem to be a workbook out there that really fits our needs: a largely self-study book, for older kids, that would systematically help them develop a solid foundation in basic Spanish vocabulary and grammar.
I’ve found a few useful apps for our iPad—apps for children like Mindsnacks Spanish and Think Bilingual—and my kids have used these apps regularly, particularly in the first year. Then, when we finally got wifi at home, I added DuoLingo and Rockalingua, and these two are now our main resources for digital learning. The catchy music videos made by Rockalingua are especially appealing to my kids and have been very effective in getting them to speak (sing) in Spanish. The Rockalingua site (which includes some free materials but requires a fee to access everything) also offers worksheets to support the themes of the music videos and I regularly assign these worksheets as well. (But there are no answer keys so sometimes I’m not sure if my kids have completed the tasks correctly or not!)
While workbooks/worksheets and digital resources make up most of the daily 10 or 15 minutes my kids spend on Spanish each day, I have a small number of CDs, too, and I play this Spanish music for them from time to time as supplemental exposure. We’re all particularly fond of the lovely bilingual Spanish-English albums by Nathalia and, more recently, have also been listening to the lively music at the Basho & Friends YouTube channel.
Better efforts and progress
After two years of twice-monthly lessons and the exposure I’ve tried to provide each day through the resources mentioned, my kids now have a certain amount of passive ability in Spanish and can use the language actively when speaking in controlled practice or when singing along to songs. (Of course, since their Spanish level is now higher than mine, I can’t clearly judge just how high that level really is!)
While it’s true that Spanish is a lower priority for us than Japanese and English—and, accordingly, we’re unable to give more than a modest amount of time to it each day and the expectations for their progress are more modest as well—I think it’s also true that my efforts to nurture this third language could be made more effective, and their progress could be improved. Ideally, I’d like to strengthen and sustain their development in Spanish so that their ability in this language can grow steadily over the years of childhood, forming a firm foundation that could then be fully activated through more concentrated study, or an immersion experience, at an older age.
First of all, Adam, congratulations! Your children are bilingual! Don’t be discouraged with their progress in Spanish. With two languages, your kids are primed to learn a third.
It sounds as if you are doing an excellent job of consistently exposing your children to Spanish. I understand their time is limited, but you have established a routine and can build on that.
You mention that your goal is for them to form “a firm foundation” they can draw on later. Have you thought specifically about what you mean by “firm foundation”? Having a clear goal will help you get there and limit the distraction of thinking about the grammar of a language you don’t speak. Of course, some basic grammar is reasonable, but I would encourage you to focus on communicative language. The ACTFL can-do statements might be helpful as you think about what your goals are.
The materials you’re using now
I certainly understand wanting a bigger picture, more vocabulary, and a program to give you some structure. Rather than workbooks, I would suggest a homeschool curriculum.
All Bilingual Press Español para chicos y grandes An Interactive Spanish Course for Children and Parents is geared toward upper elementary and middle school, and there are two levels. The website is difficult to navigate, but there are links to sample lessons on the product pages.
Spanish for You is another option. It is inexpensive, available digitally, and would provide some structure. There are lots of free mini-lessons on their website, so you can see if it works for your family.
For independent practice, I would also recommend Mi Mundo en Palabras, a free interactive website from the Instituto Cervantes.
Kids do love apps! Your children can get valuable exposure with beginner apps that use complete sentences supported by images. Check out Stories by Gus on the Go, Endless Spanish, Feed Me (Spanish), and the oraciones option on Lingo Cat. These apps may seem below their level, but they can provide essential repetition of high-frequency vocabulary.
Music is huge! You have already discovered Rockalingua, and I would suggest using YouTube to explore other artists such as Baila Baila and 123 Andrés. 123 Andrés puts the lyrics in the video description and on his website.
What I would add
I would add stories and books to what you are using now. Reading is by far the easiest and most effective way to expose children to vocabulary and the structure of the language.
Of course, choosing books is hard when you don’t speak the language, but it is worth the effort. Look for books with audio, and ask for your teacher’s help to read to your kids and record books.
I would suggest starting with TPRS novels from Fluency Matters. Brandon Brown quiere un perro, for example, would be perfect for your kids. There is a audio download of the book if your teacher isn’t available to record it. In addition, you can find many activities for the Fluency Matters books online. Be sure to check Teachers Pay Teachers.
For additional books, I would suggest early readers. Early readers have a smaller range of vocabulary than picture books. They also have a close text-to-picture correspondence. The early readers on our book list will give you a place to start.
At some point, when it fits their schedule, I would suggest your kids begin to keep journals in Spanish. The goal is to engage with the language in new ways that interest them. They can label pictures, record song lyrics, illustrate words or a sentence, or keep lists of language chunks they want to master. The form the journal takes is personal, so really anything goes.
So little time
You have been clear your family can only dedicate a short time to Spanish, but I would encourage you to look for places to add language minutes to the day. Can they listen to music on the way to school? Can you incorporate Spanish into household chores? Short routines such as organizing for the next day, cleaning up the kitchen, or saying good night are opportunities to have the same conversation repeatedly, and that is the goal. You can find a list of common Spanish phrases to use with children here, and ask your teacher for more phrases you use on a regular basis. You can find example sentences for common household chores here.
Another option is to schedule larger blocks of time periodically to provide mini-immersion experiences. You could set aside time to watch a movie in Spanish or meet your teacher in a different setting such as the zoo, grocery store, or at a park for a picnic.
Be sure to take advantage of your teacher as a resource. Consider asking her to Skype, talk to your kids on the phone, send texts, or write letters. She may also know other Spanish speakers who would be willing to provide input. Again, I understand the time pressure, but even a small increase in exposure is beneficial.
Finally, my best advice is to embrace the new and different role you play in their learning process. Rather than providing input, you will have to invest time in finding resources and setting up opportunities for your children. Because you don’t speak Spanish, the whole endeavor requires a leap of faith on your part. Have confidence they are learning. They are!
Jenny, thanks so much for your very helpful guidance! Your good suggestions will surely help strengthen our efforts and our progress. Again, muchas gracias!