Question

I have 5 years old twin boys. I have spoken only Catalan to them since birth, my husband only English. We live in the USA. Their nanny has spoken to them in Spanish since birth and still when she babysits. I work full time as a Spanish teacher. They spoke back to me in Catalan when they were 2 and 3, but then for the past 2 years slowly they have 100% stopped. They have been in pre-school since they are 2 years old. When we go back to Spain during Xmas (1 to 2 weeks) and summer (1 month) they speak in Catalan because they have no choice. People there do not understand English. What could I do to motivate them to respond to me in Catalan? Am I too late?

Thank you,
Geronima

Answer

Dear Geronima

Thank you for your question. First of all, you are not too late! Your sons are only five and clearly can speak Catalan since they use it when you visit Spain, which is great.

Children are very pragmatic and generally take the easy way out. Your sons have naturally become more fluent in English after attending pre-school, and probably they have also got used to speaking English with each other. They know that you can speak English so this is the easier option for them. Am I correct in presuming that when you are all together, you speak English – i.e. your husband doesn’t speak Catalan (or Spanish)? In these situations, do you still switch to Catalan when you address your sons directly or do you keep to English so that your husband can understand the whole conversation? If you do use English with them, consider switching to Catalan at that point, and – if necessary – translate to your husband. If you do stick to Catalan, fantastic!

You hit the nail on the head when you say that your boys speak Catalan in Spain “because they have no choice” and the trick is to emulate a similar situation at home. I am not saying that you should try to force your sons to speak Catalan, as that approach rarely works, or if it does, it may backfire at a later stage. You would also create a lot of negative connotations with the language if you were to put your foot down and tell them to only speak Catalan with you (if it were to even work!)

The wish to speak Catalan has to come from them, so the challenge for you is to create an environment where they want to speak Catalan because it is rewarding for them. You know your sons best – what really motivates them? What makes them shout “me, me, me”? Would any type of reward system work? I am thinking for example a sticker chart where they get points for things like answering you in Catalan, speaking Catalan for a whole day with each other (has to be a weekend so you can check this), learning new Catalan words, reading a book in Catalan, writing something in Catalan and so on. You are the best person to decide what the awards for collecting enough points could be, but I have noticed that activities you will do together are usually a good motivator.

Have you talked to your sons about how important Catalan is to you? Talk from your heart and explain to them why you want them to speak your language. Make it clear that you don’t ask them just for the sake of it, but because it is a language close to your heart and that you want them to always be able to speak to their close ones in Spain in a language they understand.

Would it be possible to arrange on-line video calls with your Catalan-speaking relatives and friends in Spain, for example once a week? This way your sons would get regular Catalan exposure from other people as well. A good idea is for you to leave the room for most of the call and let them speak to their friends or relatives on their own as they will speak more freely this way.

Are there any other Catalan speaking children in your area? If there are, you might want to contact other parents to see whether you could arrange occasional (or even regular) playgroups where all the games would be in Catalan, adults would read Catalan stories to them, everyone would sing songs in Catalan together and maybe also bring in some typical Catalan snacks. Also check this post for further ideas on how to motivate children to use the minority language.

Please do let us know how you get on and get back to us with any further questions.
All the best to you and your family!
Rita

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