How To Get Your Kids To Speak Your Language
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This experience had to do with preserving Spanish
for our kids but the principles are valid for anyone
trying to help their kids speak and preserve any
language and culture.
COUNTRY OF MANY PEOPLES
This country... (The authors raised their kids in
the United States but they believe that their experience
can be useful for people in other non-spanish-speaking
countries.) This country is made up of people from
all over the world. We or our parents came from
Latin countries. We now live here. We function in
two different worlds, the American world and the
world of our parents. All of us live in these two
different worlds in different ways. Some of us were
born in the countries our parents came from; others
of us were born here. This makes a difference in
how and how much we live in our two worlds.
COUNTRY OF MANY LANGUAGES
The one thing that is most important in our parents'
world is their language which is also ours in different
ways. The Spanish language of our parents is an
issue to all of us every day. We may be proud to
speak it well. We may be ashamed at not speaking
it well. Some of us may have gone through periods
of trying not to speak it because we wanted to speak
English better. We may only speak it when we come
across someone who needs help in understanding English.
We may only remember some sayings of our grandparents
or children's songs taught to us by our parents.
You may want to review (or study it for the first
time) your Spanish. We could only find one reference
for you. It is expensive and is a textbook, not
too appealing but complete. Take a look at Nuevos
Mundos, Spanish for Native Speakers 2nd Edition,
Workbook : Curso de espanol para estudiantes bilingues"
F. Bruce Robinson, assistant director in the National
Endowment for the Humanities' division of education
programs asks "How does America preserve this
important resource of people who are proficient
in other languages? Instead of trying to depress
the knowledge these students come to school with,
we ought to be trying to build on it." (Chronicle
of Higher Education, Feb. 2, 1994, page A15)
OUR CHILDREN AND OUR LANGUAGE
We all want our children to speak the language of
their heritage. We discount the opinions of those
who say that it is better to forget Spanish and
to concentrate on speaking English well. These people
are just wrong. It does not hurt your English to
speak another language; it helps. Spanish is particularly
useful to children in their learning English vocabulary.
Just today I taught my daughter the difference between
vowels and consonants. Knowing Spanish really helped
with the idea of the consonants. I told her that
the consonants have no voice; they can only be pronounced
with the vowels. The con-sonants suenan con the
But although most of us agree that it is a good
thing for our kids to speak Spanish, most kids in
the US whose parents were born in Latin American
countries do not speak Spanish well.
Even if both parents speak Spanish at home, quite
often the kids answer their parents in English.
Look around at your Latin friends and relatives
and you will see that most give up on teaching their
kids to speak Spanish. Chicano and Puerto Rican
families seem to have a little better luck than
Latinos from other countries with keeping Spanish
alive in their barrios but even their younger generation
is losing fluency in Spanish.
However, parents who want their children to speak
Spanish can go against the current and set the stage
for their children to grow up speaking Spanish.
It is not easy. Most families fail in their resolve
but it can be done. This report will give some hints
on how to improve your chances.
REASONS FOR OUR CHILDREN TO SPEAK SPANISH
There are many reasons why it is good for the kids
to speak your language. One obvious reason is the
advantage that it might be for them in the job market.
As long as we live in a world with shrunken distances
and growing international trade, someone has to
be able to talk with people from other countries.
Professor Francisco X. Alarcón of the University
of California at Davis says that "now that
we are moving toward a global economy, it's O.K.
to be bilingual in the U.S." (Chronicle
of Higher Education, Feb.2, 1994, page A15)
Another good reason for you to work at your children's
learning to speak Spanish is because it will make
you proud to hear the compliments of your friends
and countrymen because your children are able to
speak your language. You grow in prestige as a person
who values your roots.
Your children will also be able to speak with their
relatives thanks to improved phone service which
is entering the most remote villages of our countries.
Direct dialing from the United States is economical
enough to be able call a few times a year. The thrill
of being able to talk to their uncles, aunts, and
cousins will get the kids interested in keeping
up their language.
They will be speaking to their relatives not only
by phone but will be able to visit them. The experience
of knowing another culture will put them ahead of
their classmates who have no ties to their roots.
Another reason to encourage our children to speak
Spanish can be gotten from the history of a previous
group of Latin immigrants to the United States,
"Some social critics were aware of the consequences
of sudden assimilation. Mary McDowell, a social
worker, wrote en 1904:
'The contempt for the experiences and languages
of their parents which foreign children sometimes
exhibit... is doubtless due in part to the overestimation
which the school places upon speaking English. This
cutting into his family loyalty takes away one of
the most conspicuous and valuable traits of the
Italian child.' She attributed the lawlessness of
some of the immigrant children to their disrespect
for their parents and therefore for all authority."
(La Storia: Five Centuries of the Italian American
Experience, Mangione and Morreale, p. 222)
Finally, the ability to speak another language can
be a great boost to a child's self esteem. If the
child's parents make it clear that they are proud
of their language and of their people, the child
will feel closer to his parents and to their heritage,
customs, and most importantly to their values.
HOW TO ENCOURAGE YOUR CHILDREN TO SPEAK
Start early. Try to speak only Spanish to the child.
If only one parent speaks Spanish well, that person
should always speak Spanish with the child. Do not
be afraid of "confusing" the child. Children
can identify with different speakers of different
languages as they grow up.
1. Read simple stories and fairy tales to the child
in Spanish. if you can't find children's literature
in Spanish, then make your own translations as you
go along. It is not necessary that the translation
be perfect. Make up your own stories. It is important
for your child to have the memories of hearing nursery
rhymes in Spanish.
2. Leave your radio tuned de Spanish language stations.
Linguists place a great deal of importance on "passive
listening" as part of learning a language,
especially for young children.
3. In most areas there is a Spanish language TV
station. Put on the Saturday morning cartoons in
4. Teach simple nursery rhymes and simple songs
to your child. If you don't remember them or if
you were not taught any from your parents' traditions,
look for them in garage sales, college bookstores,
or your local library. Do you remember el patito
or pinpón? Look for songs in Spanish.
5. Rent videos in Spanish. They are beginning to
be available - and not only in cities with a big
6. Use proverbs and dichos in Spanish. Some expressions
that you would say in English are just as legitimate
proverbs in Spanish. Get your child used to hearing
them in Spanish. You can do this even if you don't
speak Spanish well. For example, say mejor tarde
que nunca instead of "better late than never".
Little by little, poco a poco, you'll feel at home
with more uniquely Latin expressions. They have
something of the culture wrapped up in them. They
are stubbornly different from Anglo Saxon proverbs.
7. Get used to saying menos mal in place of "just
as well". The English expression is "better
than nothing"; in many Southamerican countries,
the equivalent expression is peor es nada. Find
8. Don't correct their Spanish when they speak.
Don't interrupt the flow of their conversation.
Don't make their speaking Spanish to be another
homework assignment. It should be something special,
even something "secret" in your family.
Kids like the mystery and intrigue of having something
special of their own. Their speaking Spanish should
be a joyful, non-threatening experience. If they
make mistakes in their grammar, correct their errors
by using the same expression correctly a few minutes
after. Don't come right back at them with the correct
form or they will begin to feel conscious of their
expression and choke off their freedom of expression.
9. Get a good syllabary to teach them the value
of the letters and how to read in Spanish. If your
child's first language is Spanish teach them to
read Spanish before they learn English. You will
be doing them a big favor. They will learn to sound
out the regular spelling of Spanish which will be
a good base on which to learn how to read in English.
You will get the same results as those who spend
money on expensive Phonics programs.
10. The best way to get your children to grow in
Spanish is to send them to spend some time with
relatives or friends where they will only speak
and hear Spanish. This works best at around 7 years
old when children play easily with one another and
when Spanish will just come naturally even to the
child who has very little exposure to the language.
Another good age for a child to be exposed to a
Spanish speaking environment is at around 12 years
old. At this age, the child has greater mental development
and can observe customs and situations in which
certain expressions are used. At twelve years old
most kids are still pre-adolescents and are not
hampered by the embarrassment, self consciousness,
and "feeling different" which hold back
teenagers from learning a language or customs different
from their own.
Use any of the above methods but start! Your efforts
will communciate to your children the importance
that you give to Spanish even if these efforts are
not always completely successful.
© 1994 F.GERACE
the Author: Frank Gerace Ph.D has worked in Latin
America on UN and national Educational and Communication
Projects, and has taught in Bolivian and Peruvian
Universities. He currently teaches English in New
York City at La Guardia College/CUNY. He provides
resources on accent reduction and the proper American
English accent at http://www.GoodAccent.com
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