I have always liked the scene in the Disney movie “Big Hero 6” where, in a moment when the younger brother was feeling hopeless and out of ideas for a big project, the older brother carried him on his shoulders and turned him upside down to shake him and move him around their bedroom, encouraging him to look at things from another angle.
Every now and then I feel like I need that kind of shaking up to reset and look for inspiration and encouragement to keep working on helping my kids (8 and 5) to become bilingual. It is challenging when one has to do it in a community with very few resources to add exposure to the minority language and when all their world seems to be speaking the majority language, in our case English.
The most common advice I have heard from other parents raising bilingual kids is to try to find a community of speakers of the target language so they can practice and have that sense of culture. Every day, on social media, I read cases of parents asking for help and ideas on how to raise their children bilingual in Spanish, and every day I also read things like: enroll them in a dual language or immersion program, find friends that speak Spanish, attend events for Spanish speakers, go to parks where Spanish speakers gather, hire an au pair, move to a Spanish speaking country, among others.
Well, that has not been an option for us. There are no dual language or immersion schools in our school district, there is no Spanish story time at our local libraries, there are no Spanish classes at their school or nearby. With the few friends we have that can speak Spanish, they won’t play in Spanish, and no, we won’t move to another country and we can’t hire an au pair. So what did I do? I decided to look at things in a different way. I decided that we were going to promote Spanish in our community, and we were going to be the ones teaching Spanish to our friends. If there were no Spanish resources, we were going to facilitate some of them and share our gift with others. In that way we could also get to know people that appreciate other cultures and languages, whether they were bilingual or not.
Hosting a bilingual story time
Since the libraries in our area did not offer and were not ready to offer a Spanish story time, in 2015 I decided to start a bilingual story time at home, which was also kind of a mommy and me class to introduce Spanish to children and enrich my kids’ bilingual environment. The first woman attending with her daughters was a mom I met at my son’s preschool. She was thrilled listening to me speak Spanish to my son and asked me if I could teach her children. When I told her I was not a teacher but I was starting a story time at home she loved the idea and we started from there. I gathered some books, planned some easy craft activities, and started looking for songs to make it as fun and interactive as the story time I used to attend in English with my children.
Well, it was more challenging than I thought. I needed short and simple songs that also invited the kids to participate, move, and try to sing along. Since I did not find anything that really fit all my needs, I decided to take my guitar and start composing my own songs for the classes. My kids were part of the entire process.
When my son entered kindergarten I stopped doing the story time and started to volunteer to introduce Spanish to his classmates. He became my assistant, and my songs became my teaching tool. Being the only one able to speak Spanish and seeing how important it was to help others to learn our language has been key to empowering him and my daughter and to help them to appreciate their bilingualism as a gift and something to be proud of.
The following year his teacher, a non-Spanish speaking American, volunteered her classroom and time so I could do a Spanish Club and give more kids in our school the opportunity to benefit from the classes as well. By then the parents were asking me for the songs to play at home, so my husband encouraged me to record them and that is how the album “Short + Fun Spanish Beats” was born. My initial idea of a story time evolved with the recording of the songs into a whole initiative to promote bilingualism and Spanish in our community.
Music to connect with the minority language
When I was expecting my children I used to sing to them in my belly and even play a little bit of guitar for them. I knew music was going to be important to teach them Spanish, but never imagined it was going to be such a powerful tool to do that.
Singing and dancing together are those kinds of memories our kids can treasure forever. If those memories are also related with the target language, then it really ignites the emotional component that will help them to also associate the language with good moments, with family time, with fun.
I discovered how by singing our simple songs they were memorizing and using more vocabulary as well. As I was using the songs to teach others, my own children were becoming more confident in their Spanish language skills.
But it was composing songs for them and with them that became one of the most powerful activities to connect with my children and also to keep Spanish alive in our household. Now, you might be thinking, “That’s easy when you’re a singer.” But let me tell you that I am not a professional singer or a professional musician, either. I play a bit of guitar and used to sing in the school chorus. I guess I just decided to believe in my idea, and partner with a very talented friend of mine who is a musician and took my songs to the next level, but nothing more than that. I am not saying anyone can compose and record an album, but anyone can find inspiration to do different things to empower their kids to love their mother tongue. Some parents write books, others design apps, others start podcasts, others create games, others organize story times or meet up groups, others sing. Not all the ideas need to become a product, a project, or a business. You can compose a song to your child that can pass from generation to generation, write a story and ask your child to draw the pictures, create a character and make up stories based on your own family stories. The opportunities are endless and the benefits for language learning and family bonding, priceless.
Raising bilingual kids ignites parent’s creativity
I am not a trained Spanish teacher or musician. But somehow, I have done bilingual mommy and me story time/Spanish Class, I volunteer for the Spanish Club at their school, and now I go around our town promoting bilingualism and the Spanish language using short and fun songs that I composed and recorded in an album with my kids. My children have been part of all these activities, and it has been helping them to feel proud of being bilingual and has acted as motivation to keep trying to learn more Spanish. It has also helped us all to find new friends that might not be bilingual, but value bilingualism, that are open to other cultures, and that appreciate that we promote our language, not looking to impose our culture but in the words of Francois Grosjean by being “the bridges between the cultures they belong to.”
They are still young, and I am not sure how long this family adventure promoting bilingualism will be the motor of our bilingual journey, or if they will really end up being bilingual as adults, but I know that the memories that we have gathered by doing it together will always be in their hearts, to remind them about the importance of trying to keep alive the language that their mom taught them, the one that during their first years of life has encouraged them to promote understanding, communication, and connection between both the cultures and languages that define and shape their identity as bilingual-bicultural American children with a Colombian heritage.
Raising bilingual-bicultural kids, in my opinion, is not about raising kids that need a specific community in order for their bilingualism to flourish; it is about raising kids that can find a community anywhere.