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Columnists > Barry O'Leary

Barry O'Leary

Who's Winning The Bilingual Battle Now?

  Posted Friday August 04, 2017 (19:53:10)   (1116 Reads)


Barry O'Leary

Some of you may have read my previous article about the battle I‘ve had on my hands to teach my Spanish kids English. Well, thankfully in the last month I have seen a vast improvement, and I’d like to share a few tips which might help you improve your bilingual children’s level of English.

Just to give you some background. I have two children, a boy who is almost four, and a girl who is two and a half (before you ask; yes we did decide to have them so close). They are both Spanish, I’m British, and also an English teacher over here in Sevilla. It has been a rocky couple of years with two young kids, but the speck of light at the end of the tunnel is slowly coming into focus.

My main frustration has been that my son was stronger at English than Spanish until he started nursery when he was two. Since then, it’s been a battle to get him to advance as much in English as Spanish. I thought it would be much easier, despite everyone telling me how hard it would be. I know now that it is really tricky, especially as I don’t see them loads in the week, and their mother is Spanish; I guess that’s why they call it the mother tongue.

I was never expecting them to have the same level of English and Spanish. My wife spends more time with them, they are surrounded by Spanish at school, out and about, in the park, and they are Spanish after all. At home I only speak to them in English, unless the Spanish family or friends pop round. The TV and music are 99% of the time in English, apart from a few songs in Spanish.

When my son started responding to me more in Spanish, I became very frustrated. My asking him in English, and him responding in Spanish made me feel as if I wasn’t trying hard enough. I mean, who doesn’t want their kids to be completely bilingual?

I would have to pretend I didn’t understand, or get him to repeat what I said in English. I felt like a parrot, repeating everything he said in English, and wondered just how long I could keep it up for. At one point he’d surely turn round and tell me to stop being such an annoying dad.

About a month ago he started speaking to me more in English, asking me more questions in English, and with decent pronunciation too. I think this is partly due to the fact that I changed my working hours for the summer so I could be with them both all afternoon every day, as opposed to only a couple of mornings and lunch time during the week, and all weekend.

Besides the fact that I’ve been with them more, I’ve also been trying some new techniques that I’ve found have really worked, so maybe you can try them too.


Be insistent

Sometimes it’s so tiring to get them to speak in English. When it doesn’t come naturally to them, I have to insist, and constantly remind them they can speak two languages.

I have tried various techniques. As I said above, normally I repeat everything they say in Spanish, in English. For example, my son might say he isn’t hungry in Spanish, and I’ll say ‘You’re not hungry?’ or he might ask me if I like rats, and I’ll say ‘Do I like rats?’ Sometimes he’ll just nod, knowing he’s understood me - or vice versa - other times he’ll repeat it in English, and other times I’ll ask him to ask me again, but in English. It all depends on my mood, and normally the time of the day. The later it gets, the less energy I have to insist.

Recently though, he’s been asking me more in English without me prompting him. He likes to ask me whether I like stuff and also what I’m doing. He’s nosey, you see. Today he started saying ‘look,’ or rather shouting it, when we went past his favourite vehicles. Luckily, they are doing some road works and there are plenty of diggers, mixers, and cranes about.

I’d like to think that my last year or so of insisting is starting to pay off. I’ll continue to do so, until our conversations become a bit more natural, hopefully.


Teach siblings

As a teacher, I know the best way to learn something is to teach others. As my son has a younger sister, I often try to get him to teach her stuff so they can speak in English together. For example, we might have a book of various objects and I’ll ask them to point to certain things. Then I’ll get my son to ask my daughter a few questions. This normally works for one or two, but often reverts to Spanish. I try every day to get him to do some numbers and colours with her, and also play little guessing games in English.

I have also tried to get my son to repeat what he just said, but in English, however, that hasn’t been very successful so far as normally my daughter has responded already and it’s unnatural.

I’ll definitely get them to teach each other more in the future. At the moment they quarrel quite a lot, so we’re trying to teach them to be nice to each other first. If we can crack that, then anything will be possible.


Two option questions

One great way of making my kids speak English, more so with the older one who can speak more, is by asking questions with two optional answers, both of which are in English.

For example.

“Do you want to go the helicopter or rocket park?”

“The rocket one.”

“What do you want for lunch, sausages or burgers?”

“Sausages.”

“Who’s the best at cooking Spanish omelette, Mummy or Daddy?”

“Mummy.”

You get the picture. Thinking back I should have done this more in the early ages, now when I ask my son questions like that he rarely speaks in Spanish, and may also continue the conversation afterwards in English too. Before I would ask maybe more ‘yes’ and ‘no’ closed questions, which wouldn’t produce enough vocabulary. As they get older I’ll start asking why more, and get them to explain themselves, which my son is capable of doing in Spanish. Plenty of progress to be made.


Interactive TV

I don’t think I’d let my kids watch as much TV as they do if I didn’t think it was improving their English. Now and then we let him watch pointless stuff just for fun, like Batman and Superman, but I prefer the educational types where there is some sort of moral involved or it teaches them something.

My favourite at the moment is Blaze and the Monster Machines. This is great because the stories are entertaining, but also there is normally an interactive part where the child has to repeat what AJ or Blaze say. At the start my son wasn’t saying anything, but after I repeated it a few times he did too. Now he does it on his own, and sometimes my daughter copies, in her own way.

Another favourite of mine is Peppa Pig. There’s not much interaction, but if you watch it with them you can ask questions on the way, or just repeat words and they will too. I guess the best old school favourite is Sesame Street, but they can’t get into that. I watched an episode a while back and I enjoyed it more than they did. I think I learnt how to spell something too.


A letter a day

This is our summer project. I bought my son a Spiderman notebook at the start of the month, and told him we were going to learn how to write the letters. So each morning, before he watches TV or we go out, we sit down and he learns how to write a letter. So far we are up to G. I use a full A4 piece of paper for each letter. I do one first, then he copies, and we do this several times, on different pieces of paper, so in the end he has written it maybe 10 times.

We’ll repeat both the capital and small letter, and then each day go back and write the previous letters. That way he’s writing all the letters again each morning. He’s improving a lot and starting to recognise letters in books, and also when we are out and about, for example, identifying letters in the names of shops or on posters. I think that’s pretty good considering he’s only 3. Hopefully when he goes back to school in September he’ll know them all.

This is interactive too as we’ll chat about what things start with each letter, and sometimes he remembers when I ask him. Every little helps.


Praise highly

I think this has really kick started his level. About a month or so ago, he said something in English off his own back. I hadn’t asked a question and wasn’t interrogating him. Anyway, my reaction was pretty hyped up. I was so happy that he’d said something, and he could see my response. I made a massive deal about it, and told him how happy I was to hear him speaking in English. He was beaming too, and said he was happy as well. I think it went in, and maybe that’s why he’s speaking more now; because he knows he makes me happy. I guess that’s key, keeping your kids happy in the process too.

What about you? Have you got any tips for teaching your children to become bilingual?


Barry O'Leary
Barry O’Leary has been an expat in Seville for nearly ten years. When he’s not teaching English, he describes how he sees life in Spain on his blog A Novel Spain. He has also lived and taught English in Brazil, Ecuador, Australia and Thailand and travelled around the world in the meantime. His non-fiction travel literature book, Teaching English in a Foreign Land, about his adventures as a TEFL teacher, has sold over 2,500 copies.
 
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