A Spanish teacher’s tips for building a bilingual home
Naomi | @ninos.and.nature | Mom of twin girls & Spanish teacher
Grew up in the US | Learned German, Portuguese, Russian & Spanish
Raising bilingual Spanish & English kids
Tell us about yourself; where did your multilingual journey start?
I like to start with my “why” – “why” learning languages is important to me. My grandfather is German, and every year on his birthday I would call him and sing him a song in German (usually Edelweiss), even though I didn’t speak German. And every year when I called and sang, he would cry. And that just stayed with me … it touched me deeply and was how I learned at a young age, the power of speaking in someone else’s mother tongue. I guess you could say I fell in love with making people feel at home.
That’s so beautiful. But you’re a Spanish teacher now! How did you go from your German grandfather to being a Spanish teacher?
It certainly was not the plan, and it was not a straight line path! I was the “bad” student at school, but I always loved my German class. I had a teacher who was this tiny, energetic woman, and I remember as a sophomore in high school, watching her dance around the class and thinking “This is totally going to be me, too (I’m 4’8”). I am totally meant to be a language teacher.” But I was a rebellious teen, and my father was a teacher, so I ignored that passing thought and said … I’m going to work for the UN or I’m going to be an anthropologist.
When I was about to graduate, I didn’t have anything lined up, and I remember crying to my German teacher about not knowing what my next step should be. She suggested I live abroad, so she helped me apply to this incredible program. But because I was late to apply, there was no German-speaking country available. I could only choose between Portugal and Brazil, and I just chose Portugal.
My experience in Portugal, like my relationship with my Grandpa, touched me deeply and reinforced my love of language. I then took Russian in college because I thought I wanted to be an interpreter. Finally, at 21, I said, “I’m ready. I want to be a language teacher. And so I got my Masters in Education in Spanish language.”
Let’s go back to Portugal. Tell us more about how it impacted you…
I remember stepping off the plane at 17 years old, not knowing any Portuguese but then picking it up through my stay there. My relationship with my host grandfather reminded me of my connection with my own grandfather. One day towards the end of my stay – this powerful, rugged 60-year old man who worked in construction and usually showed no emotion – broke down crying and said, “You were the best surprise in my life … I never thought I would love an American girl so much.”
It was these two elders in my life … first my grandfather, and then my host grandfather - that really solidified the power and depth of language for me.
And when you got your Masters degree in teaching - why did you choose Spanish over Portuguese, German, or Russian?
For practical reasons – for job and employment. 13% of the US population speaks Spanish, and especially in our country, I just think it’s so important given where demographics are heading.
I also saw the impact first hand. I worked as a TA in a Kindergarten classroom. In the parent-teacher conference, everyone would pull me in and say, “Naomi, come interpret for me.” I wasn’t great at speaking then, but still … the relief that would come on parents’ faces … when they didn’t have to have their 5-year old interpret for them … You feel the impact you have on people. (And Spanish was an easy pick-up from Portuguese!)
Love it. And how has the experience been – teaching your own kids Spanish?
Well with my twins, there has never been any question that they were going to be raised speaking Spanish. It was just a given for me – if I spend my days teaching other people’s kids, I should of course teach my own.
And in the beginning, my life circumstances really supported this. When the twins were 6 months old, we all moved to Vermont for the summer while I finished my Master’s Degree and the program I was doing had me sign a contract that I agreed to only speak in Spanish. That was such a perfect and easy motivator to get me into the flow of speaking Spanish to my children for the first time.
That’s so great! Have you experienced any challenges?
Yes absolutely!! Just because I am a Spanish teacher, doesn’t mean it has been smooth sailing - especially because I am still a native English speaker. There were so many times where I almost gave up because it is so exhausting. But, I just try to give myself a break sometimes and remember that it’s a marathon and not a sprint.
The other hard thing for me was that - I feel like I’m different people when I speak different languages. So in Spanish, I feel like I’m sassy and more direct - versus in English, I’m more gentle. So when I had my babies, I found myself speaking the language I wanted them to be exposed to (Spanish) but in a tone that I felt uncomfortable with as a mother (more direct). It felt so forced and inauthentic in the beginning, but now the twins are 3 years old, and it is so much more natural. It has been amazing to see how Spanish has become such a bigger part of my personal life since raising bilingual kids. For so long, it was primarily tied to my job, and now it is truly a part of every moment of my day.
Given your experience - both as a teacher and now a mom - what advice would you give parents who are looking to raise bilingual kids?
Hm, a few principles I’d share include:
- Start early: There is no time too early to start - even when you’re pregnant. At 20 weeks, a fetus can start to decipher sounds!
- Be consistent: It won’t happen overnight - and it’s ok to take baby steps every day. Even if it’s just 5 minutes. Those 5 minutes will add up.
- Keep going: It’s going to be exhausting, sometimes frustrating. This sounds trite, but it’s true. Remember it’s a marathon and not a sprint - and it’s ok to have a day off. Just keep going.
- Parents also participate: It’s not something just for the kids - parents should show effort too. In the Spanish course I started, sometimes I think I’m teaching the parents more than the kids … because it is about building a bilingual home and not about kids taking Spanish lessons. I think with that frame of mind, families will be more successful in their bilingual goals!
Love the way you put that - it’s not about your kids ‘taking a Spanish class’ or even ‘learning the Spanish language’ … it’s about ‘building a bilingual, bicultural home.’ What specific tips do you have for parents to build this?
Families ask me this a lot, and it’s actually not a big, complicated thing. It’s more about small actions - trying to find everyday ways to incorporate the culture and language into your own home. Some things that we do include …
- Start with the basics, like counting … for example, when we get snacks out (Raisins, crackers, etc) - we always count them in Spanish.
- Picking a few songs we like to sing and singing them regularly … for example, we do it on our nature walks. And the more we do it, the more natural (and less forced) it feels. It’s ok to sing the same song every day!
- Label the home … we *love* your Home Flashcard Printables Set! It is so perfect for this.
- Incorporate it into your everyday activities … for example, when we get dressed, we sing a Spanish song about getting dressed in the morning. When we put on our shoes or socks or see ants and bugs, we try to use the opportunity to say it in Spanish. Basically, in each thing you do as part of your day, can you find a way to bring in the target language?
Learn more about Naomi’s Spanish courses here. We love her screen-free, nature inspired philosophy, suitable across ages - whether you are learning Spanish side by side with your preschoolers, or wanting a hands-on bilingual nature study for your older children and teens.