The Best Way to Learn Spanish With a Native Speaker: 7 Tips

The Best Way to Learn Spanish With a Native Speaker: 7 Tips

Inside: Tips for learning Spanish with a native speaker.

 

I’ve had several questions lately about children trying to practice Spanish with a native speaker (usually a family member). Families realize they have a great asset in the native speaker, but aren’t sure where to start. I often write about raising bilingual kids, but today I’d like to focus on families who are trying to teach an additional language, one the parents might not be fluent in.

Families often have multilingual relatives or friends, and would like to take advantage of that, but… it’s harder than it looks. For the rest of the post, I’m going to use a hypothetical situation as our example. Let’s say there is a family whose grandmother speaks Spanish and English. Her daughter speaks a little Spanish, and the grandchildren speak little to none. The grandmother would like to speak Spanish with the grandchildren and help teach them.

So, one day Grandma calls up on Skype. And… she suddenly realizes she doesn’t know where to begin. Should she just immerse her grandchildren in Spanish, and trust they’ll pick it up? How can she maintain the relationship and teach them something? How can she make sure the kids don’t get frustrated and give up on communicating?

Here are 7 Tips to help you navigate the situation!

 

1. Go for Comprehensible Input, Not Immersion as Input.

 

Immersion–just speaking the language without limiting speech– is great if you have massive amounts of time. If you can go spend every summer at Grandma’s, by all means go for immersion. In the situations we’re discussing though, you will have to be more intentional and use the time you have wisely. You will need to limit new vocabulary and focus on recycling, recycling, recycling the words they know.

Comprehensible Input (CI) is just that… input that is understandable. It’s language that’s comprehensible because of pictures, gestures, or because all the words are known. CI is actually the way people acquire language itself, so don’t worry about teaching grammar or having Grandma correct the kids. They need to receive rich, interesting, chunked language from her. Although some isolated vocabulary is okay (numbers, colors, food etc), phrases are even better (How are you?, My favorite food is pizza., etc.) Remind the native speaker as well to speak slowly and clearly.

 

2. Begin with Interesting, High-Frequency Phrases and Topics.

 

Start by learning and practicing phrases that are natural and interesting to your kids. Perhaps Grandma can begin the call every week by asking things like, What did you do this week? What was the best part? What was the worst part? If the children are beginners, they can begin with just isolated words: park, party, test. At a much more complex level in the language, it might later be, I played at the park with friends, I went to a party, and I had a test at school.

In fact, if you know she asks that every time, the kids can think about their week, look up the words they need and learn them before the conversation. They will also be more motivated talking about that than random words. Make sure grandma models how to say hello, good-bye, and questions like, Can you repeat that? or How do you say….?, in case they get stuck.

 

3. Use Visuals as Needed.

 

If your children are absolute beginners, they are going to run out of things to say really fast. Grandma is also going to be very limited! It may help to have something to look at together. Perhaps the kids can draw their weeks, and do their best to describe it. Because there’s a picture, Grandma can ask questions and help them find the words they need. She could also use a picture or an object and tell them about it.

Reading books over Skype could work, as long as they are appropriately simple. Repetitive books like Brown bear, brown bear work well, or perhaps something they know in English.

 

4. Use Questions.

 

It’s really best if most of the talking is done by the native speaker. After all, what your children primarily need is input. But you don’t want it to be a monologue, and Grandma needs to know if she’s being understood or not. Questions should be frequent, to check in with the kids and make sure they’re tracking. With beginners, low-pressure yes/no, and either/or questions might be all they can handle: Did you like the park? Was the test good or bad? Did the caterpillar eat an apple or an orange?

Language teachers also use circling to ask questions. If Grandma is reading a book Se Vende Gorras, she might ask, Did the monkeys steal his hat? Did lions steal his hat? Did monkeys steal his glasses? It may be helpful to learn interrogative words like who, what, and how, to ask and answer questions.

 

5. Learn Poems or Songs in the Native Language.

 

The advantage of learning poems or songs is that you can practice them between visits, perhaps online or on a CD. Make up little motions to accompany the poem or song and make it more comprehensible too. You might even ask Grandma if she’ll record some songs, poems, or read-alouds to use at home.

 

6. Play Games.

 

It can be exhausting to practice a new language, both for the learner and the native speaker. Take some of the pressure off by having some games you can pull out during the visit or call. Try some of these:

  • Bingo. Send Grandma the word cards, or a list of them, and have the kids play against each other while she calls out the terms.
  • Guess Who. Mail Grandma one board, and keep copies at home too. This is great for practicing yes/no questions!
  • Slap-it. Put cut out copies vocabulary cards on a table, and make sure Grandma has a matching set of terms. Grandma calls out the words and the kids compete to slap the card first.
  • 20 Questions. The kids can take turns thinking of something. Grandma asks yes/no questions trying to guess what it is.

 

7. Be Sensitive to Everyone’s Needs

 

Like I said, language learning can be daunting. Start slow, and keep sessions short at the beginning. You don’t want Grandma to feel like she’s losing out relationally with her grandchildren, and to get burned out on teaching. You also don’t want your kids to get overwhelmed and shut down, either! You will want to have a regular schedule, both to stay consistent and have a boundary: we talk in Spanish to Grandma on Tuesday, and on regular phone calls we speak English.

Keep it fun and upbeat! You are giving an incredible gift to your kids. Make sure they feel the joy as well.

 

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7 Tips for Learning a New Language with a Native Speaker

Motivating Kids to Use the Minority Language

Motivating Kids to Use the Minority Language

Last night I was curled up on the couch with Janio (3), reading before bedtime. He brought some of his favorite books, one of them a book in English with little farm stories. I usually translate the stories into Spanish as I read aloud. It makes it less relaxing for me, but seems worth it. Last night I was really tired, and halfway through reverted to English. Janio didn’t miss a beat: “Mommy, no inglés. Quiero escuchar en español.” 

How does a 3-year-old know the different between me speaking Spanish and English? That I don’t know. His insistence on Spanish, though, confirmed that the hard work has been worth it. The stories and conversation and laughter in Spanish have produced a sense of affection for the language, an early sense that Spanish means family and warmth.

Rita Rosenback from Multilingual Parenting asked a group of bloggers our best tip for motivating kids to speak a minority language. There are so many things to say, but I’d like to focus on advice for non-native speaking parents like myself.

We decided early on against the OPOL (one-parent-one-language) approach, because I spend more time with the kids. Hearing Spanish just from their dad probably wouldn’t be enough. And so for the past three years, I’ve been raising my children in a language that isn’t my first.

As much as I love Spanish, there is a real sense of loss at times. Though it has become my go-to “mothering language,” I still wonder if my voice is less natural. I wonder if there is a loss of nuance and complexity, or eloquence. Like any good American mother, I doubt my parenting choices often. But at the end of the day, raising my children in Spanish as a non-native speaker is a decision I’ve never regretted. The gift of bilingualism is worth the sacrifice.

 

So here’s my #1 tip for non-native parents: Learn the minority language with your children.

 

How you go about this will depend on your own language skills. Here are some concrete suggestions for different situations:

bilingual kids

If you don’t speak the language at all:

  • Begin by learning what you can, especially with little ones. Instead of focusing on mastering grammar, learn phrases you can use right away. Label things in your home, buy some basic books, and listen to simple songs.
  • Learn the question words so you can actually learn from your child: What is that? How many are there? How do you say this in ______?
  • If your children are older, let them see that you are putting the effort into learning the language. Let them know you value it as well.

If you are somewhat conversational:

  • Consider setting apart certain times, days, or activities to speak the minority language. Without committing to parenting in the language, this allows set apart family time to speak it together.
  • Think of fun activities you can do in the minority language. Find a game or board game everyone enjoys and learn the vocabulary needed to play. Foster a sense of affection and fun around speaking and using the language.

If you are fairly fluent and plan to parent in the minority language:

  • You can probably speak comfortably with other adults. Raising kids in a different language will feel different: pay attention to terms of endearment, directions, and how parents speak to their kids in the language you are using. I had to listen to Hispanic mothers coo over their babies before I felt comfortable doing so myself, in Spanish.
  • Focus on studying the minority culture. Learn poems, nursery rhymes, and fingerplays when your children are young.
  • Allow language “breaks.” There are a few books in English I really love, and book provide the perfect boundary to speak English with my kids. I really do treasure these times. Allowing myself moments like this helps me stay committed to Spanish for the long haul.

 

Bugs, Dirt, and Kids

Bugs, Dirt, and Kids

For Christmas, my mom’s gift was the book Lasagna Gardening, along with several promised deliveries of manure and mulch. Yes, I know– my nature and garden-loving mother is amazing. This week was another delivery of mulch, and we all got outside to work on getting our beds ready for springtime planting. We’ve been saving eggshells, coffee grinds, and all other fruit and vegetable scraps for compost. This is one of the layers for the garden, and also great for patting around our blueberry bushes and baby apple trees.

This is our first spring in a house of our own, and my first stab at actual gardening. We’ll see!

Here in NC in early March, not much is growing yet. Little signs are appearing and growing, though, and with them my resolve to take the kids outside more. I know Charlotte Mason encourages us to get outside in all weather, but I am a bit of a baby when it’s cold. I have started to think through preschool plans, and am reminded that loving and enjoying nature is at the center. One of my favorite Mason quotes (one I’ve referenced in another post) is this one:

“Let them once get touch with Nature, and a habit is formed which will be a source of delight through life.  We are all meant to be naturalists, each in his degree, and it is inexcusable to live in a world so full of the marvels of plant and animal life and to care for none of these things. ” (Vol. 1, p. 61)

let-them-once-get-in-touch-with-nature-and-a-habit-charlotte-mason (1)

Little ones needs tactile ways to learn about God, and what is more hands-on than admiring and exploring the plants and animals he has made? In this age of early academics and stressed-out seven-year-olds, I think we would be wise to spend more time with bugs and dirt. would be wise to spend more time with bugs and dirt.

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Why Your Bilingual Child Needs Poetry

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Inside: Why poetry is beneficial to bilingual kids.

When my son was two, it became obvious his English was more advanced than his Spanish. This wasn’t shocking (we live in the U.S.), but I wanted to figure out how to maximize our minority language. I began to watch what was happening in English.

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So why does your bilingual child need poetry?

Poetry paves the way for reading, writing and speaking– for mastery of BOTH languages

Celeste Cruz of Joyous Lessons explains poetry this way:

It teaches an ear for language. It models brevity in writing. It prepares one well for more sophisticated reading. It is the mark of an educated person in many intellectual circles. It gives one a sense for diction and rhythm. It aids in understanding the many cultural references that draw on the classics. It provides a sense for metaphor in writing. It helps with public speaking. It sharpens the powers of observation. It exercises the memory. And so on.

I suspect this is why in centuries past children who spent far less time in the classroom could be articulate speakers and good writers, even without the plethora of books we have today. Their oral traditions were strong, and in many families even young children could recite vast quantities of poetry and prose.

Poetry develops a ear for good language and speech.
It teaches children how sounds work together: how to distinguish between different sounds and what sounds are similar. Poetry expands their vocabulary and embeds patterns of grammar and speech.

Poetry promotes cultural literacy.
Most bilingual children are also bi-cultural, and knowing the sayings and rhymes of both cultures allows children fully participate. Poems often include clues into a culture’s history and traditions, or insight into their way of thinking.  Knowing the little rhymes everyone else grew up on helps you get jokes and literary references, too!

Poetry is beautiful.
Pragmatically, poetry is good for your child. But the actual reason we teach poetry is that it is delightful, and trains children to recognize what  beautiful language is. Every child should have a repertoire of rhymes and poems they know by heart (and love) by the time they go to school. Charlotte Mason wrote,

Older (age 9?) children should practice reading aloud every day, and their readings “should include a good deal of poetry, to accustom him to the delicate rendering of shades of meaning, and especially to make him aware that words are beautiful in themselves, that they are a source of pleasure, and are worthy of our honour; and that a beautiful word deserves to be beautifully said… Quite young children are open to this sort of teaching, conveyed, not in a lesson, but by a word now and then.

For very young children like mine, I never make poetry into a lesson. It’s just a part of life: we say poems in the bathtub, when we read Mother Goose or Pío Peep, when we’re putting a band-aid on a scraped knee.

To find poems in Spanish, see my poems page or follow my Pinterest board! Let me know if you have any favorites– I am always looking for more!

Follow Spanish Mama’s board Poemas y Rimas on Pinterest.

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