Bilingual Baby-Raising During Language Acquisition Stage
September 25, 2018 8:02 PM   Subscribe

I have a 17-month old son, who am I raising English-Spanish bilingual. He is saying words in English and Spanish. I am alternating languages each day (i.e. yesterday Spanish, today English, tomorrow Spanish). What should I do/say when he says a word in not-the-language-of-the-day? Obviously I want to acknowledge I understand and encourage his speaking and praise him for using a word, but I don't want to cut his exposure to the day's language.

I'm a single mom. My mom was doing childcare 3 days/week until recently and she would speak to him primarily in Spanish so I figured Spanish was covered and spoke to him primarily in English. Now that the daycare situation has changed, I figure I need to cover more of the Spanish myself, so I started alternating days.

Since he talks now, he will frequently say words as we're going about our day. Today I spoke to him in Spanish and as he's getting dressed he says "shoe!" and points to his shoes. He says shoe all the time. He sometimes repeats "zapato" but I don't think he's said it himself spontaneously yet. Later in the day while playing with the phone he said "hello." That was the first time I've ever heard him say hello.

I know in French Immersion classes the teacher will often answer in a way that repeats what the kid says in French. So if he said "Shoe" I would say "Si, ya se va poner el zapato." But I feel like "learning a new language" is different from "acquiring language" and that approach doesn't sufficiently acknowledge that I've understood him (given his understanding is more limited than a kindergartner's would be) and doesn't really do the "yay, you said shoe and that's exactly what that is! good for you!" that I'd like to do.

I've been trying "Si, shoe. Es un zapato!" and then continuing with zapato, but I worry that mixing the english word in is just going to confuse him because I'm speaking both languages at once.

So what's the best way to acknowledge words he speaks and praise and encourage him without switching out of the target language for the day.

p.s. Also, he says "da-do" (long o. sounds like spanish word for dice, but he has no knowledge or exposure to dice) constantly for several days now. I have no idea what it means but it obviously means something. Any ideas?
posted by If only I had a penguin... to Education (20 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Is “da-do” maybe his way of saying “zapato?”
posted by corey flood at 8:22 PM on September 25, 2018 [3 favorites]

There's definitely no right answer here. I don't see anything wrong with what you're doing and it's probably what I would do too. He will figure out that the languages are distinct no matter what.

Dado could be almost anything. Impossible to give a guess without knowing a lot more about your kid, the context, and how he says other sounds and words.
posted by karbonokapi at 8:25 PM on September 25, 2018

I don’t have any advice about language switching, but my 17 month old is at a Spanish daycare and she also says da-do (or day-do)! For her it means stroller, but we have no idea where it came from.
posted by wsquared at 8:26 PM on September 25, 2018

Not sure how helpful this is, but here goes: I, too, am trying to raise a bilingual child, though I'm not so deliberate as to alternate days strictly. We just talk to him in whatever language we feel comfortable in at the moment.

He's 20 months now, and I've noticed something: given a choice of words, he will choose whatever language offers him the easiest word. So a flower is a "huā" and a dinosaur is a "konglong" (he hasn't got the tones down for that one yet), but a chē is a "car". From conversation it's clear that he understands both words, but he chooses to say what he finds easier or catchier. So as long as your kid indicates that he knows that a shoe is a zapato, I don' think it matters which language you praise him in. At this age, it probably matters more to him that he gets praise at all - my kid's face lights up with pleasure when I praise him effusively, whether in English or Mandarin.
posted by satoshi at 8:50 PM on September 25, 2018 [11 favorites]

My 15 month old's favorite word is da-do.

We are raising him trilingual, but definitely not as organized as you. We just throw out whatever language comes out, though we try not to speak English because he'll learn English in daycare and school soon, but his opportunity to hear the other 2 languages will be pretty limited.

That's what I came here to suggest. Kids are amazing and figuring out which language is which, though maybe not at 17 months. If he is going to be raised in a primarily English speaking world, I would focus more on the Spanish. "Si, shoe, es un zapato" seems like a perfect response. He'll make friends quickly even if he is a little behind in one language relative to the other, he'll figure out which words to say to which people.
posted by at 8:53 PM on September 25, 2018 [3 favorites]

I’m raising bilingual kids (7 and 2 years old). In my experience, you’re doing fine, just follow your intuition, mixing is not a problem, they figure out what language to use when/where. The human brain is, IMHO, built for multilinguality and has no problem with it if introduced during childhood.

The alternating days thing seems maybe slightly difficult to me since your kid has no way of knowing or keeping track of what the day’s language is, at that age. I’ve always heard the rule ‘one person one language’ (like you used to do with your mom), or if that’s not possible, stick to certain environments or situations where it’s always language A or B (eg all our family meals are German, school pickup is English, etc). This can develop quite organically - might be easier than day switching.

Finally, being able to mix wildly and context-switch between two languages sometimes feels weird or wrong to monolinguals (it felt weird to me at first!) but, ultimately, is a great advantage of bilingual family life. You will have more words, concepts and emotive connotations at your disposal. Enjoy!
posted by The Toad at 9:30 PM on September 25, 2018 [6 favorites]

You're doing a great job! Kids are smart and their minds can order things in amazing ways. Your current strategy sounds perfect. You can reevaluate it as your son progresses.
posted by smorgasbord at 9:40 PM on September 25, 2018

Since immersion for kids IS acquisition (and not learning from being taught explicitly), I'm not sure why your example shouldn't work.

Also, I have a German friend who talks to her child (about the same age as yours) in German, and the child may still answer in Japanese even though that's the language she speaks with her father. Heck, I may sometimes answer in Japanese even though I was borned and raised exclusively on German! Language confusion is a normal thing that doesn't mean your kid won't be able to differentiate at some point.
posted by LoonyLovegood at 11:43 PM on September 25, 2018

No experience raising kids, but there's research that suggests that bilingual kids can distinguish the difference in language from as early as six months old, and definitely by the time they're your child's age - so mixing it up is likely not a problem and it could just be that "shoe" is easier to say.
posted by cholly at 12:14 AM on September 26, 2018

I've got a bilingual kid, and I came here to say what everyone else has said- you're doing great! I speak to my kid in English, but sometimes he subs a Spanish word when he doesn't know or remember the English one (and vice versa). I usually just say, "Oh, your shoe, yeah!" Or ask him a question with the word in English. My kid is 5 now, and it took him a while to separate his languages, but now he's got it down pat.

One word of advice, though- if you live in an English-speaking country, I would consider going full-Spanish at home. He will pick up the dominant language through social interaction, and it would be better to focus on only the other language when you're with him. When he's older and a bit more lazy, it'll be really easy for him to fall into the pattern of only speaking the dominant language, regardless of what you're speaking. I have a French friend whose son was had enormous trouble with French as a teenager because of this.
posted by lollymccatburglar at 2:20 AM on September 26, 2018 [5 favorites]

Came here to say what Lolly said. I would speak only one language to him. He will learn the other from wider exposure on his own, and will become his dominant language. Also, this is amazing and I wish I had this kind of upbringing!
posted by Pig Tail Orchestra at 3:36 AM on September 26, 2018

Anecdata: I'm the only speaking my language with the kids (5 and 2) and they've mostly been answering in the local language, with some words from my language mixed in when convenient. I tend to paraphrase what they're saying in my language for reinforcement. Since I don't want to pretend that I don't understand them, I had sort of resigned myself to them only learning my language passively. Turns out, though, when there are other speakers of my language around that don't understand their's, they use it actively. Words I used with them a long time ago just come out; they're all in there. There's hope even when it looks like there's no progress.
posted by meijusa at 5:03 AM on September 26, 2018 [1 favorite]

Just keep up the Spanish when your child goes to school. I was a bilingual child, English and Polish, raised in the US. My parents both worked and my Polish grandparents took care of me, and they spoke Polish at home and I just picked it up. My Dad was Irish and spoke no Polish, my Mom spoke both languages, I had no trouble mixing up whom I was talking to in which language, and have been told I was fluent in Polish as well as English, and would pretend I could not speak English to adults I did not want to talk to.

Sadly, once I went to school at age 5 I lost all the Polish, just remember words when I hear them. It was considered "backwards" to speak a foreign language back in the day.(1950s)

A better outcome is my young niece, her mom is Russian and her Dad American, and she is still bilingual, her mom spoke Russian to her and her Dad English, and they have had several extended summer visits to the family in Russia. It is a wonderful thing to speak two or more languages, most of our European ancestors did, by necessity. I love what everyone who raises a bilingual child is doing, and wish someone had helped me keep my other language rather than shaming me.
posted by mermayd at 5:24 AM on September 26, 2018 [1 favorite]

Don't worry about it. My friend is raising her kids in French and English, she does English and her husband does French, and I speak to them in English 99.99% of the time but they still use French words with me occasionally, especially if it is a sample word in French and not in English (let go vs lache was the most recent) and when the older one was spelling things out she would say "a p p l e that spells pomme papa". Anything you do will work fine, the kid will figure it out shortly.

And in reality, you can't much force them. You can repeat zapato forever but they will say what they say as development goes on, and eventually correct themselves.
posted by jeather at 5:40 AM on September 26, 2018

Yeah, you're good. Based on my experience you are probably overthinking this. As long as you keep speaking in two languages and he keeps hearing both languages he'll sort it out eventually. We did English/French in our house and we mashed the languages together often. Actually we still do this. Sometimes one language has a better word for something or just a shorter word, as Jeather writes. Yesterday I used loupe instead of magnifying glass, 1 syllable over 5, yes please. Both our kids are completely bilingual. My office mate did English/French/Spanish with her kids and only spoke to them in Spanish, her partner only used English and school was French and they are completely trilingual. So based on this study sample of two families with kids now ranging in age from 10 yrs to 25 yrs I think you can do it whatever way you want and it will work out just fine.
posted by Cuke at 6:19 AM on September 26, 2018 [1 favorite]

Where I live it's very common to raise kids bi/multilingual so this has come up a few times in mom groups - BUT this isn't something I've undertaken myself nor am I any kind of professional in this area.
/end disclaimer
What I have been told by experts is apparently it's better to have consistency in whom is speaking which language to the kid. So while I understand wanting to cover both bases (as a single parent you are always on all the bases! bless you! that's a lot of bases!), maybe it's better to focus on Spanish with him?
posted by dotparker at 9:36 AM on September 26, 2018

I would say concentrate on speaking in Spanish to him. He will pick up English in school very easily (and conversely it's easy to lose Spanish when you speak English most of the day). Consistency helps. We go as far as "not understanding" our kids when they speak to us in English.
posted by pyro979 at 9:45 AM on September 26, 2018

Thanks, everyone. The reason I'm trying to systematize is is that if I just did "whatever language comes out" (which is how I grew up) it would be lots more English than Spanish.

The reasons I'm not speaking Spanish 100% of the time is partly selfish and partly for him. The selfish part is that I'm more comfortable in English, myself. The for him reason is that I feel like I talk English pretty good. So I feel like he's going to get more vocabulary/better English from me than from daycare. And he might end up in French Immersion at school, so how knows how much English he'll get there!

He will do heritage language once he starts school, so that should help with retention also.
posted by If only I had a penguin... at 10:40 AM on September 26, 2018

The only truly bilingual kids I know grew up speaking 85-100% of another language at home, no English is ideal. My mom and I both speak in a combination of Mandarin and English but I can't say I'm fully conversational at all in Mandarin, I substitute English words far too often.
posted by yueliang at 2:18 AM on September 27, 2018

I agree with the above comments. Alternating days to switch languages is too confusing for a young kid as they can't comprehend why today mummy is talking in Spanish and tomorrow in English.
If you are a single mum sounds to me a better idea that you speak to him every day in the morning in Spanish and in the evening in English so he can easily associate oh morning time spanish is used and night time english is used. In my experience having 1 person that uses each language is what works the best, but given the case switching because of the environment like "morning time" and "night time" should be the second best option.
posted by clerkchakrit at 8:59 AM on January 23, 2019

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