Question

I was raised bilingual in Mexico City (and have always lived in Mexico City). My father is Mexican and my mother is from Boston MA. My two boys were raised bilingual. My concern is this: my daughter-in-law (Mexican) and son who now live in Rio Rancho N.M. are raising my two grandchildren ages 4 and 2 bilingual (English/Spanish) and I was asked recently to not to mix languages in my conversation (Skype) with them. I find this very hard to do and feel uncomfortable to have restraints. I have always mixed my languages – well, not in the same sentence but, yes, I switch. Am I making a big mistake and harming them? I am 65 and fluent in both English and Spanish and feel comfortable with either language but find it difficult to stick to one while conversing with a bilingual person. I am new to this very interesting site which I found precisely in my search for answers to this mind-boggling situation I find myself in.

Thank you so much I am much obliged,
Marjorie




Answer

Let me start off by commending you for your commitment in helping your two grandchildren become bilingual. The grandparent/grandchild relationship is certainly a special one. I know that I personally appreciate my parents on a whole new level now that I see them as grandparents and can witness the love they have for my daughter.

You certainly bring up an interesting point and one that is quite common, mixing languages. Based on what you are describing, it sounds like you are very used to code-switching when communicating with other Spanish/English bilinguals. For those less familiar with the term, code-switching occurs when a multilingual individual alternates between two or more languages throughout one conversation. In your case it could also be referred to more informally as Spanglish. Code-switching is very common for multilingual individuals and is actually a pretty advanced skill. It requires high linguistic competence in more than one language. For example, I almost always code-switch when communicating with my two siblings since I know they also both speak English and Spanish. We do this without skipping a beat and it is just a natural way for us to communicate.

Your question, however, focuses specifically on the impact your own code-switching may have on your grandchildren’s language abilities. There have been some studies conducted trying to tackle this particular issue but in my opinion the jury is still out on the impact it can have. The methodology for how some of these studies have been conducted to determine the results seems mixed.

This is what I can tell you with certainty. If you have the opportunity to Skype with your grandchildren on a regular basis, you are actually playing a very important role in their language learning. You are helping them have additional exposure to Spanish which is one of the critical elements necessary to learn a language. It is likely that your son and daughter-in-law see you as a very important member of your grandchildren’s linguistic team. Every time you switch from Spanish and use an English word instead you are decreasing the amount of exposure that you are providing to them. Since they live in New Mexico, they are probably already getting plenty of exposure in English. These little ones need your help to practice their Spanish vocabulary and grammar as much as possible.

With that said, here are some ideas to help you stick to Spanish when speaking to your grandchildren.

– If you find that there are specific words that you tend to use in English instead of Spanish, jot them down. As you go about your day or when you are engaging with other bilinguals, make a note of them. Once you have a good list going, take a few minutes to write down their Spanish equivalent. It may sound silly but you will be surprised how helpful it can be to identify your own patterns so that you are able to avoid mixing the two.

– You may also consider doing some planning before you start a Skype call with your grandchildren. It does not have to be very involved but maybe identify a specific topic you would like to talk to them about. You are likely familiar with their interests so find something that they will enjoy and have the vocabulary for these topics in Spanish in the forefront of your mind. My parents, for example, frequently talk to my daughter on Skype and she is currently going through a phase where she loves everything and anything to do with animals. When my parents chat with her, they use this opportunity to help me build on her vocabulary about animals. You can do something similar and again be very intentional about what words you use and how you use them.

– One last idea that you may find helpful is to leverage tools like books! Just because you are not in the same room with your grandchildren does not mean that you cannot read a children’s book to them. Skype is a great tool so use it to your advantage. If you are able to get your hands on some Spanish children’s books you could read the text to them. You will be reading in Spanish and avoid the temptation to switch to English. You could always mail the books to them or even better they could select some of their favorites and send them to you so you can read them. This could actually be a great bonding opportunity for the three of you!

Marjorie, I hope you found this answer helpful. Your grandchildren are certainly lucky to have such a caring grandmother that is obviously taking the time to find out how to best help them on their language journey.

Best of luck,
Marianna

You can now also listen to Marianna’s answer in her podcast!

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