Q&A: How to support a toddler’s minority language which a parent has not spoken with the child in the past?

by | May 5, 2016 | Coaches, Rita R, Toddlers | 0 comments


Hello Coaches!

I grew up in the US, with a Colombian mother and a German father. It was always clear that English was not spoken at home, and my parents followed OPOL very closely. Because I never had formal schooling in Spanish, my spoken Spanish is fluent, but not at the level of my English and German (spent University there). My partner (German) and I have a 2-year-old daughter.

We want her to learn all three languages, but because I wanted to speak to her in a language I would be as confident as possible in, I decided to go for English, with a Spanish-speaking au pair after maternity leave in Germany. We have been following OPOL until now. Well, we are now in the US, our daughter goes to an English daycare, and she speaks German to my partner and English to me.

English is most definitely the dominant language for her. The daycare has a Spanish assistant, so she does know some words, but the assistant counseled me to speak more Spanish to her at home. Our daughter is on the wait list for a Spanish immersion preschool, but that will be September at the earliest. Hiring an au pair has been put on hold until we go back to Germany (sometime in the next two years).

What would you suggest to do? Should I switch over to Spanish completely, and then go back to English at a later time point (….which would be….?) Or should I implement fixed mL-times? I was thinking of making Sundays “Spanish” day, and perhaps adding 30 minutes of Spanish time on weeknights after daycare? I know I’ll feel awkward at first regardless, so I really need to dial up the willpower.

Which activities would you recommend for this? I really would like her to be able to converse in all three languages, especially because she sees me Skype in Spanish with my mother twice a week and I would love for her to do that, too. I know those are a lot of questions, but they’ve been buzzing around in my head for a while. I would be grateful for any suggestions


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Hello Cris,

Thank you for your question about how to start speaking Spanish with your daughter and to which extent.

The daycare assistant is right when she says that your daughter will need more language exposure from you if you want your girl to improve her Spanish now. Should you get a place for her in a Spanish immersion school, this will of course give her a great boost in Spanish. Once you move to Germany, a Spanish-speaking au pair will go some way towards providing the necessary exposure. However, if your daughter will do her education in German, then this will fairly soon become her dominant language.

So the challenge here is two-fold: You would like your daughter to learn to speak Spanish alongside her dominant English and fluent German. However, after your move to Germany, the language balance will change over time, and you will be the person providing the exposure for both of your daughter’s lesser spoken languages, English and Spanish.

As you have decided to not speak Spanish with your daughter in the past because it felt more natural to use English with her and also say that you will feel awkward no matter how you do the switch, I would not recommend that you switch to speaking Spanish 100% of the time. Neither you nor your daughter would feel comfortable with a sudden switch to the minority language and it would be a hard routine for you to keep up with.

Don’t worry if your Spanish is not at college level – you will still be able to be an excellent source of exposure to the language and a great bilingual role model for your daughter. You also don’t have to be concerned about her being confused if you speak both English and Spanish with her. She will be able to keep the two separate as she is also getting exposure to the languages from other sources.

Your idea of introducing a Spanish Sunday sounds like a great. You would use a variation of the time and place strategy. You can make these days extra special by reading books and singing songs in Spanish. Maybe you could have some Colombian food together – you could even have your mother participate in the cooking and eating if you can do a Skype-call in the kitchen. Combining activities with speaking Spanish will make it not only more fun but also more effective and feel more natural. What you are doing is creating the want and need for your daughter to speak Spanish – the vital ingredients of encouraging a child to speak a language.

Another idea, which will work with your daughter as she is still so young, is to introduce a puppet or toy that only speaks Spanish – hand-puppets are my favourite “tool” for this purpose. Give the puppet a Spanish name and a back-story and initially act as a translator between your daughter and the puppet and help her ask the puppet simple questions. This is something you could do every evening – maybe in connection with reading a Spanish children’s book.

What is important is that you find a way to introduce Spanish into your relationship which you are both fine with and enjoy. Once your daughter gets used to using Spanish at home, you can gradually increase the amount of time you speak it with her. You may also find that a different routine would suit you better, for example one or two weeks of English followed by the same length of time in Spanish. Once you get going with the languages, you will be able to determine what works best for you.

By not switching to always speaking Spanish with your daughter, you are also preparing for your move to Germany. At that point you will need to support not only your daughter’s Spanish, but also her English. Having a routine in place incorporating both languages will make this transition much easier. I don’t know how your husband would feel about this, but you could even consider introducing English-only days once you are in Germany, where the whole family speaks English. This way you would also support English, which will become a minority language for your daughter.

Good luck with your languages – I am sure you can do it!

Kind regards

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Rita Rosenback

Rita Rosenback

Rita is an author, Family Language Coach, blogger and speaker, who was born into a bilingual family on the Swedish-speaking west coast of Finland. After studying languages in Finland and Germany she worked as a university teacher, translator, interpreter and manager of multinational teams. Rita is now a full-time writer and coach and has been living in the U.K. since 1998. Rita is the mother of two grown-up multilingual daughters, who are the inspiration for her book: “Bringing up a Bilingual Child”, an easy-to-read guide for parents, where she navigates the reader across the “Seven Cs of Multilingual Parenting: Communication, Confidence, Commitment, Consistency, Creativity, Culture and Celebration”. Currently English and Swedish are Rita’s main languages, but she instantly switches to Finnish or German or to her Finland-Swedish dialect when the opportunity presents itself (and when push comes to shove, she can communicate in a very basic Punjabi). Rita is the creator and driving force of this website, and she gives talks and holds workshops for parents and teachers on the topic of bilingual children. She also coaches families on how to make the most of their languages and raise their children to become confident speakers of the chosen languages.


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