The best way to learn a language? We live in the country (Spain), of course. Well this is our problem:
We have a son who is three and a half. He was born in Barcelona. We have lived here for many years. I’m English and his mother is Danish. We both speak Spanish, but from the very beginning we adopted the OPOL system with good results, he now speaks English very well with an authentic accent, and he also speaks Danish very well but with a slight English accent. So far so good.
He spent 18 months in a nursery where they spoke in Catalan and Spanish, and now he’s started school which has the same policy. He’s extremely sociable and speaks to everyone he meets in school or out, but always in English and generally they’re only too happy to respond likewise. The result is his level of Spanish and Catalan is very low in spite of much prompting from us when we’re with Spanish friends or neighbours.
However, he tells me that he’s sad because he can’t communicate very well with the other kids. The teacher says to just be patient.
Do you have some advice, please?
Thank you for your question on how to support your little son with his third and fourth language. Before I continue, I want you to stop and think about the above – your son is only three and a half, is fluent in two languages and can understand an additional two! You should be so proud of him – most adults can only dream of achieving the same during a life-time, let alone in a couple of years.
Because your son is so sociable, I can understand that he may express sadness about not yet being able to communicate as well in Spanish and Catalan as he can in English and Danish. However, if he is generally happy to go to school and as his teacher is not concerned about his language skills or general progress at school, I would not be too worried at this stage. Keep in mind that presuming you stay in the country, Spanish and/or Catalan will by time become your son’s dominant language(s) and you will have to pay more attention to keeping English and especially Danish going for him.
I do however acknowledge your desire to support your son’s additional languages. By your description, he encounters the same issue as adult English-speakers do when attempting to use a language they are trying to learn: instead of responding in the language, the other person switches to English. I also know how difficult it is to get anyone to change their behaviour when it comes to choosing the language they speak to someone.
As the school he goes to must have many children who also know English, would it be possible to find a playgroup or other activity where the other children are all native Spanish- or Catalan-speakers? You are right in that the best way for your son to start to express himself in the languages is to be in an environment where no one speaks English, so think of different opportunities to immerse him in situations where interaction is needed. Further ideas could be inviting other children to play with him at home or hiring a childminder with strict instructions not to speak English.
You mention that both of you and your wife speak Spanish – when you are with your Spanish-speaking friends, do you speak Spanish? I am asking because as parents we not only pass on our languages, but also act a bilingual role models. If he sees his parents using Spanish more often in others’ company this may have a positive effect on his own willingness to use the language.
Overall I would not be too concerned about the situation. Stay in close contact with the school and remember to praise every effort your son makes to speak either Catalan or Spanish. He is well on his way to turning from bilingual to trilingual and quadrilingual.
Wishing you a successful multilingual family journey!