Why Bilingual Families Need Books
When I was pregnant with our first, I would confidently pat my expanding belly and share with friends our plans to speak Spanish at home. We were right to make this plan: our little ones simply wouldn’t get enough Spanish time only speaking with Papá, a native Spanish-speaker. If we truly wanted them to be fluent they’d have to hear it from me too. Because I really do enjoy speaking Spanish, what I’d forgotten to consider was my love for my native tongue, English. Along came baby, and I wanted to coo over him in English, the way I knew how, and sing the lullabies my mother sang to me. Speaking Spanish with my kids, while an amazing gift to give, was going to take more out of me than I’d considered.
Being a monolingual or non-native speaking parent is quite unique. Sometimes I envy my Latina friends here, who know their kids will naturally pick up English and can relax into their native Spanish at home. But if bilingual children are in fact the goal, parents like me simply have to be intentional: we have to get creative, and we have to put in extra legwork. If you are a monolingual and don’t speak the target language you will be especially reliant on songs, technology, or other people. For me, as a non-native speaker, children’s books have been my saving grace, and here’s why:
1. Books help ME, as a non-native speaking parent.
As we read books in Spanish, my own vocabulary expands. Reading together takes the pressure off of me: we are still speaking in Spanish, but I am not having to think or second-guess myself. And of course, my language skills are being strengthened along the way. One of our current favorites is El mejor libro de palabras de Richard Scarry, which has even the tiniest of illustrations labeled in Spanish. When my son points to “diesel switcher” (“la locomotora diesel de maniobras,” obviously!) on the trains page, we both learn a new term. Although technology can be helpful, there is no substitute for reading to your children. It should be a focus if possible because the language is coming from you—it’s your voice, your intonation, your lap—even while you, thankfully, are getting a break mentally.
2. Books provide natural boundaries for fitting English into the day, too.
We are living with family right now, an interesting language situation. Everyone upstairs speaks English; here in the basement it’s our little family speaking Spanish. From what I’ve researched, it really IS important to have perimeters for language: when our family speaks which language, with whom, etc. At the moment I want to keep it simple and not constantly mix when it’s just us, though later we might flex more. Since there are certain stories and poems in English I want to share with my children, books seem to be the perfect, natural, boundary for that. When we open our board book of Robert Louis Stevenson poems, it’s English time, and when we close it we’re back to speaking Spanish again. Books give me space to share English literature near and dear to me, without creating the confusion switching mid-conversation might.
3. Books can be translated.
Thank goodness for this one, right? I always think good books originally written in Spanish are a great find, but most of the books I come across are translations. Some translations are badly done, but there are more and more classics coming out in a variety of languages. Sometimes I will translate simple texts like “the cow says moo” as we go (which is great for mommy or daddy’s brain!), but it’s much nicer to find books already in Spanish. Many of my childhood favorites I want to pass on are available in other languages. I insist on the original Goodnight, Moon because I prefer the more lyrical English version, but how fun is it to read El Cuento de Ferdinando in Spanish, as the story takes place in Spain? If you are very new to the language you’re teaching your child, familiar stories are great because you will get more out them.
4. Books create an emotional bond to the language.
Technology and flashcards may have their place, but nothing compares to the emotional and cognitive processes that occur in both of us when I cuddle up with my son and we get lost in a good story together. Reading a story we love, or a poem that sounds just right, subconsciously deepens our love for the language itself. My son loves Cinco Monitos Subidos a un Árbol right now and squeals with delight every time we get to the “Krak!” part. As we read it (over and over again) he is forming an attachment to that story in Spanish. Children need to feel affection for what they are learning, if they are to learn it well.
Even though there is something of a loss for me in not speaking my native English at home much, it is not certainly not all sacrifice!– we are developing our family culture and adding to what we know and love. One day my children will sing our family lullabies and say silly rhymes with their children, too, with one lovely difference: for them it will be the most natural thing in the world to do so in two languages, not one.
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