Questions & Answers

On this page you can find questions that have been sent to me by my readers and which I have answered in the weekly newsletters. If you haven’t already signed up to the Multilingual Parenting Newsletter, you can do so through this sign-up form.

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Question:
My toddler answers me in the “wrong” language, what to do?

Answer:
First of all, don’t panic – this is something that happens to more or less every parent bringing up a bilingual child, especially if you are the one passing on a minority language. At the stage where children spend more time in an environment where everybody speaks the majority language, such as nursery or school, they will get used to speaking that language more and more. When they return home, the majority language is on top of their mind and maybe they want to tell about something that happened during the day. It is so much easier to use the language which was used in the situation than to translate it. Have patience, allow your child to speak out without interruption, then ask questions in your language. If you think there were words relating to the situation that your child might don’t know, use these words in your questions. You can even start by rephrasing the whole situation in your language.
Further reading:
The uphill battle: getting a response in the “wrong” language

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Question:
My husband can not speak my mother tongue and I am afraid that he will feel left out if I teach our child my language – what to do?

Answer:
It is great that you think about the scenario in advance. If you haven’t already done so, speak to your husband about this. It may be that he is not concerned at all and you have no reason to worry. If he does confirm that he is afraid he won’t be able to understand his child or that he will feel left out, then you need to find out in more detail what exactly worries him the most. I am stating the obvious here, but children do not learn to speak overnight, and it is possible to learn a language alongside your child, if not to become fluent, then at least to gain a good level of understanding of it. So if your husband is in agreement that you should raise your child to become bilingual then why not suggest he tries to learn a little himself as well. This will not only help him feel less left out when you speak your mother tongue with your child, but also in other social situations where your mother tongue is spoken, such as family gatherings. If he is against you passing on your mother tongue to your child, then you need to explain to him why it is important to you and what benefits your child is set to gain from being bilingual. Hopefully you can come to a compromise which allows your child to grow up acquiring both of your languages.

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Question:
Our first son learnt to speak both of our family languages really early, but our younger son is taking a much longer time. Our family doctor told us that it is because he hears us speak different languages and that we should only stick to one language to support his language development. Should we drop one of the languages?

Answer:
The pace of the language development varies greatly from one child to another and there can be significant differences even between siblings. On average, bilingual children tend to start speaking a bit later than monolinguals, but they quickly catch up and by the age of five they are usually fluent in both their languages, providing they have had enough exposure to both of them. Two languages in a family do not cause confusion and dropping one language is not the right advice in your case. Continue speaking your respective languages to your son, just like you did with your older son. By all means, support his language development by talking and reading a lot to him, especially in the minority language. As he is the second child, also make sure he gets one-on-one time with each one of you, where you speak directly to him only. Interaction is the key for children’s language development. If your son understanding of what you say to him is within the normal range, I wouldn’t worry. However, if you do feel concerned, get in touch with a speech therapist. Make sure the therapist has experience of dealing with bilingual children before you make the appointment.
Further reading:
Bilingual parents – What to do if you are told to drop one of your languages?

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Question:
I am the mother of a four-year-old son who is learning to speak both family languages – my husband and I speak our respective native languages with him. Our son is very talkative, and we can understand him well. However, he is mixing his languages all the time, and I am worried that he might grow up not knowing any language properly. Should we just stick to one language first and wait until he masters that, then introduce the second one?

Answer:
Most bilingual children initially mix their languages, but soon learn to separate what belongs to which language and become proficient users of their languages. What I am saying is, don’t worry! You should continue with your language setup as it is – your son will identify your language with you and his father’s language with your husband. What you can do to support his language is to stay consistent in your own language use when you speak directly to him. Read a lot of books to him and engage him in discussions. When you are all together use the language you have chosen to be your home language. If your home language is the majority language of where you are living then it is important to arrange as much exposure as possible in the minority language for you son.
Further reading:
Mixing languages? 

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Question: Our children have grown up learning both family languages and they are now teenagers. We are happy they can speak both languages, but are horrified by how much they mix the languages when they speak to each other. When they speak to people who only speak one language, they do manage to stick to the right one. My wife and I have always been very careful to speak our languages “cleanly” , not mixing in any words from the other language. What can we do?

Answer:
Sorry to start my answer with a question, but it needs to be asked: Why do you want your children to change the way they speak? From your question, I can feel your passion for your own languages (I have been known to be a bit of a pedant myself at times) and that you like them to be “pure”. However, as children grow up, parents can not really steer their language use. Most bilinguals mix their languages when they communicate with other bilinguals. This is called code-switching and has its own strict rules. When a bilingual person speaks to another bilingual with the same language skills, both languages are active in the brain, ready to be used. When it comes to a choice of a specific word or term, the one which is most accurate for the context will be used – sometimes it happens to be in the other language. Note that code-switching only occurs in discussions between bilinguals. Like you say, when your children speak to monolingual people they do not mix their languages. What they are demonstrating is an excellent skill of using their languages in the optimal way, and I would say that is something to be proud of!
Further reading:
Mixing languages? 

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Question:
I am a second generation immigrant and I can speak my parents’ language, but not as well as they do. When I was a teenager I tried to switch to the majority language altogether, but luckily my parents didn’t let me and expected me to speak our family language with them. I am so glad they did. I am pregnant with our first child (a boy) and I would like to pass on the family language to him. My husband only speaks the majority language. I feel I might not know the language well enough to teach it to our son. Should I give up on the idea?


Answer:
Well done for thinking ahead and planning the language setup for your family! You can definitely pass on the family language to your son. It does not matter if you don’t know the language perfectly – as long as he also comes in contact with other speakers of the language, he will learn it correctly. Try to arrange as much exposure to your family language as possible for him. What will actually happen is that your language will improve along with his, and sooner than you think you might find yourself corrected by your little boy! The fact that your vocabulary might not be as extensive as your parents’ or that everything you say is not always grammatically correct will not be detrimental to your son’s language. Your positive attitude to your family language, your pride in it and willingness to speak it will however be of the greatest importance to him becoming bilingual. It is important that you discuss this with your husband in advance so you are in agreement and he can support you as the minority language partner.
Further reading:
“I don’t think I know my language well enough to teach it to my child”

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Question:
My husband and I are raising our children (ages: one and three years of age) to speak both of our languages. He is the minority language speaker and I can understand his language, but I don’t really speak. My husband has just been promoted to a new job which will take him away during the week so he will only see the children during the weekends. What can we do to support the minority language when he is not at home? We have DVDs with children’s programmes and I have found some great resources on-line – will this be enough to keep the language going? We don’t have any relatives or friends nearby who speak it.

Answer:
I am impressed by your foresight and I am sure you will together succeed in raising your children to become bilingual, as you are focused on the goal and thinking ahead. Since he returns for the weekends, your husband will still be able to spend a fair amount of time with the children, which is good. It is important that he interacts with your children as much as possible in the minority language when he is home: reading, different word games and generally just doing things together while speaking about what is happening. Because you understand the language, you will be able to participate and also learn the language alongside your little ones. Children’s programmes are a good support as well, but they can never replace the benefits of human interaction in a language. Your husband could record bedtime stories from picture books, which you could then listen to together while looking at the pictures and following the story. If possible, also arrange on-line video calls during the week, so the children catch up with their father using the minority language. You could also arrange calls with other relatives to increase the amount of exposure.

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Question:
Our seven-year-old daughter has told me she gets teased at school for speaking the family language. She is now showing signs of wanting to stop speaking the language altogether. What can we do?

Answer:
I am so sorry to hear that your daughter gets teased at school. Bullying is unfortunately something that can happen to any child. The teasers will find any excuse for their wrong behaviour, picking on anything from race, size, hair colour, school success, interests and so on. Language is no exception, I am afraid. First you need to find out exactly what is happening at school, who is involved and in which situation it happens. Then speak to your daughter’s teacher or other contact person and work together with the school to find a solution; maybe try to arrange a meeting with the teaser(s) and their parents. Most importantly, however, you should speak to your daughter about the situation and explain to her that those who tease her do it for irrational reasons, and that the teasing has nothing to do with her as a person or your language, but with how the teasers feel about themselves. They are perhaps not familiar with your language or culture, and there might also be feelings of fear of something they don’t know. Continue speaking the family language and praise her when she does. Instil confidence in her by showing how pride you are in your language and culture. I wish you all the best!

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Question:
I grew up speaking only one language, but have since become fluent in another, which I use on a daily basis. My wife and I have the same mother tongue. We would want to bring up our children to become bilingual. Do you have to be a native speaker to pass on your language to a child, or is it ok for me to speak the language I learnt later in life to our kids?

Answer:
Being a native speaker of a language is not a requirement for passing on a language to your children. If you feel you know the language well enough to handle the kind of intimate and emotional situations that are an essential part of a parent-child relationship, there is no reason why you shouldn’t speak your second language to your children. Even someone who is fluent but with an accent in a language can teach the language to a child. Providing the child also hears the language spoken by native speakers, it will not pick up the accent from the parent.

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Question:
We are using the ‘minority language at home’ approach to raise our sons to become bilingual. Our 2-year-old just started nursery and is learning the majority language, which he also gets exposed to via his grandparents and the extended family. As expected, he is mixing the languages a bit, but we know not to worry about this. But what should we do when he says a word in the majority language and looks for confirmation? Do we confirm the word in the majority language or do we say it in the minority language?

Answer:
You are right not to be worried about your son mixing languages when he is learning the majority language. He will soon enough learn to keep the two languages apart. It’s great that you are sticking only to the minority language at home, as this will strengthen his language which is of great importance when he gets more exposed to the majority language. I do think you should answer when he asks about a specific word in the majority language though. What you can do is to identify the languages as (for example) Mummy’s and Daddy’s language and Grandma’s (or some other close majority language -speaking person’s) language: “When Mummy says ‘A’, Grandma says ‘B’”. Good luck, I am sure you will do well, as you are planning ahead and looking for solutions for the little challenges along the way.

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Question:
My wife is Spanish, I am Italian and we live in the UK. My wife and I both understand each other’s languages, though my wife is a lot better in Italian than I am in Spanish. At the moment we speak English together. We would love our daughter to learn both of our languages in addition to English. How should we go about it?

Answer:
How lucky your daughter is to have parents like you, planning a wonderful language-rich future for her! My suggestion is that you go for a combination of the ‘one parent, one language’ (aka OPOL) and ‘minority language at home’ (aka mL@H) approaches. This means that both of you would speak your respective language with your daughter. For the common language for the three of you, I would recommend whichever language she will have least exposure to. If one of you will stay at home for some time to care for her, your common language would be the language of the other parent. If at all possible, it would also be good if you changed from speaking English to either Spanish or Italian with your wife. However, since you are lucky to both understand the other parent’s language, you could go also for a slightly more unusual approach, which is to always stick to your language at home. This means that when your wife asks you something in Spanish, you answer her in Italian. I know this may sound a bit odd and it would initially be a bit hard to get used to, but it can be done. Stock up on books, DVDs and audio material in Spanish and Italian. A good idea is to ask your relatives and friends from back home to give some of the above items instead of toys and clothing for birthdays and other occasions.

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Question:
We are a family of three: our 5-month-old son, my husband and me. So, my mother tongue is Swedish and my husband’s is Chinese. I speak Chinese quite fluently, but we still speak English with each other because that is what we are used to. My husband understands Swedish quite well, but not fluently. He can lead a simple conversation in Swedish. What makes matters a little bit more complicated is that we live in Germany. Now I am really concerned about our son’s lingual development. I have been speaking to him in Swedish from the start, and my husband in Chinese, but we still have continued to speak English with each other. When he is one, our son will be going to a German-speaking kindergarten. Is four languages too many? Is it impossible to learn all four to be equally strong?

Answer:
You have a fantastic setup with four languages in your family, love it! It is possible for a child to learn four languages at the same time; however, it is unlikely that your son will become equally strong in all languages. As a matter of fact, it is actually very rare that bilinguals know all their languages equally well. If you stay consistent in speaking your respective languages to him, he will learn Swedish from you and Chinese from his dad. When he goes to nursery, he will quickly pick up German. With regards to English, he will most likely gain a so called passive knowledge of it, meaning that he can understand it but is unable or reluctant to speak it, as it is not a language which has been spoken directly with him. To become an active speaker a child needs to interact in the language. I wouldn’t worry too much about this however, as English is so much easier to pick up later on than either Swedish or Chinese. His passive knowledge will benefit him greatly when he goes on to learn English later in school.What I would recommend that you do, is to keep an eye of how much he gets exposed to Finnish and Russian – maybe keep a language diary for a week or so and write down what language he gets interaction in and for how long and how much he is hearing English. The consensus among experts is to try to aim at a 30% exposure time for each language during a child’s waking time if the goal is to become fluent. Note this is only a rough guideline, and I know for a fact that children can get fluent with less time (mine did). But it is a good goal to have. If you notice that the exposure time is significantly less than 30% (let’s say under 10%), then you might want to think of how to increase this.

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Question:
I come from the Hungary and my husband is Australian. We live in Australia. Our son is almost 1 year old and I only speak to him in Hungarian. The question I would like to ask is as I am likely the one who is reading to him, is it ok for me to read to him in English as well as Hungarian?

Answer:
Since you live in Australia, English will soon become the dominant language for your son and your role as the person providing the Hungarian exposure to him will become even more vital, so that the continues speaking the language. It is important that he gets used to only talking Hungarian with you, so ideally you would read to him in your language and your husband in English. However, if your husband does not have much opportunity to read to your son, and you may have limited access to books in Hungarian, I can understand that you would also like to read English books to him. By all means, also read English books. What I would recommend that you do is to say (in Hungarian) that “mummy is going to read an English book to you”. Then you read the book in English and afterwards discuss the characters or what happened, but in Hungarian. This way your son gets used to Hungarian always being the language of interactive communication with you.

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Question
My husband and I speak both Arabic and English fluently. I have been using both languages with my seven year old son since he was born. However, even though he understands both languages, he prefers to communicate only in English. The community is Arabic-speaking, but he goes to an English-speaking school and takes Arabic as First Language for half an hour each day and also has a tutor who sees him once a week for two hours. I think the delay in speaking is because he is learning both classical and colloquial Arabic at the same time which might be confusing him on which to use for speaking. Can you give me tip?

Answer
I hesitate to comment on whether it the classical and colloquial Arabic has any impact on your son’s willingness to speak it, my guess is not. What does however have a big impact is that he goes to an English-speaking school and English is his language of communication there. Children go for what is easiest, and since you have been speaking both English and Arabic with him, he will choose English, as it is the less arduous option for him. To reintroduce Arabic as the language between you, the best option would be that you switch to only speaking Arabic when you speak directly to him. Explain to him why Arabic is important to you and that you would like him to grow up learning to speak it. If this is too big a change, start with a day a week or perhaps make weekends “Arabic-speaking” for the whole family.

UPDATE: After trying the above approach and also trying to introduce more Arabic through reading, the son was still unwilling to speak Arabic. The mother then took a great creative approach: I decided to try to just tell him the story in simple Arabic (not reading) as we look at the pictures and tell him to ask me if there is anything or any word that he does not understand from what I say. Then he tells me the same story in English, only this time we make believe that I do not understand him, so he can tell me the meaning of some of the words in Arabic. This way he will have to think of the word in Arabic to explain it to me. I will start with a few words and build up to have him tell me full sentences.”

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Question:
I speak Portuguese and my husband English, we live in the US. Our soon 4-year-old son speaks only English. I don’t have anybody of my family or any other Portuguese speaker around. My son has been in day care since he was 2 months old, as I work full time. At first, I held off with Portuguese with him because he took a little longer than usual to start speaking (which now I know was my first mistake). He started speaking close to his 3rd birthday. After that I tried to speak Portuguese with him, however, slowly. Today I still try a little here and there, but now he is replies back… like I say “nariz” and he says “no, it’s nose!” Do you have any “crash course method” I could start using with my son to submerge him into my native language to make up at least a little bit the time I lost?

Answer:
It can still be done – don’t give up! The most effective way to get Portuguese going with your son would be to fully immerse him in the language. I understand that this may not be easy to arrange as you are working, but the best option would be to stay for at least a week or two in a place where only Portuguese is spoken. If this is not possible, maybe you could invite a Portuguese-speaking relative to stay with you some time so there would be a natural environment where you speak the language and your son could get used to it. Motivation is the key to get your son to accept Portuguese as your common language. Try to find ways to make him want to learn it. I have written a few posts which could be help in your situation: how I switched from speaking Finnish to Swedish with my daughter (you could use a hand puppet instead of a pet!), how to (re)introduce a family language, how to motivate your child to speak the minority language and concerns about whether it is too late to start. Best of luck!

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Question:
I am Japanese and my husband is American. We live in the US and have 3-year-old son. I haven’t spoken Japanese with our son until recently and I really want him to learn Japanese so he can communicate with my side of the family and understand my culture better. I know I should be consistently speaking Japanese with him, but the problem is that my husband does not want me to do it when he is home. He says that he also wants to be involved and doesn’t want there to be a discussion he doesn’t understand. My husband only works part time of the week, so there will be many days where I can’t speak Japanese at all with our son. My friend told me to put my foot down and just do it, but I don’t want the language to become a big problem between my husband and me. What can I do?

Answer:
You are right when you say that you should ideally speak Japanese in all your interaction with your son to help him learn the language, but then you have the challenge of your husband not wanting Japanese to be spoken when he is at home. I also agree that being confrontational will most likely not have a positive outcome, and, as you say, would only make the situation worse. Try to get to the bottom of what the actual underlying reason to your husband’s reluctance is. If he says he doesn’t want to be left out, then he can be involved even with two languages in the household – it will take some interpreting from you, but it is possible. Your son will not learn your language overnight and your husband will have plenty of time to pick up words alongside him. Also, if you initially translate everything (and I really mean everything) you say to your son, your husband will most likely soon get bored of the translations. In any case, most phrases you use with your son can be understood from the context: “Are you hungry?”, “Which book do you want me to read?”, “Come here!” etc. It is highly likely that your husband would soon become less worried about being left out when he sees that you can all be together even if you use two languages. Make it clear to your husband that your son will not get confused by the two of you using different languages. If you say “Come here!” in Japanese and your husband says it in English, this only serves to strengthen your son’s language skills. Also inform your husband of all the advantages your son is set to gain if he does grow up to be bilingual. Here is a post I wrote earlier explaining the many benefits of being bilingual. These advantages are real and verified through research. Then tell your husband that for your son to become bilingual by learning Japanese, he needs as much exposure to it as possible, including during the time when your husband is at home. Best of luck to you all!

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© Rita Rosenback 2013-2014

11 replies

  1. Hi Rita, we live in China & have just put our daughter into a French speaking kindergarten. I grew up speaking French (not reading & writing 100%) & English, as my parents speak French at home but [all] my education was in English, including attending boarding school. I have much more confidence speaking English and have no inhibitions in expressing myself in English. On the other hand, when I meet French speakers, including my relatives, I somehow freeze and feel very self conscious of the structure of my sentences and my accent! I only have 2 European passports where French is the main language for one and the other one has French as one of it’s main languages. I would like to pass on my somewhat imperfect French to my children but I’m afraid of teaching them mistakes and on top of that I sometimes struggle to express myself in French and hence, feel inhibited. I think later on I’ll talk to my kids about important matters in English and stick to French in day to day matters. My kids also have the same passports as me, so I would like them to at least understand a good amount of French. My husband is British, so we speak English together. He encourages me a lot to continue speaking French to the kids! I would love to hear your thoughts, Rita. Thanks!!

    • Hello, thank you for sharing your family’s story. Without having heard you speak French, sounds like you probably speak it quite well, but you are lacking in confidence. The fact is that if your children attend a French-speaking kindergarten, where they are immersed in French all day, surrounded by other French speakers, this is where they will learn their French. They will not pick up any possible mistakes, neither the accent from you – and even if they did initially, they will soon correct themselves. What you will find is that they will soon be correcting your French, which you should welcome, as it will help you speak French with more confidence. It is important that you feel at ease when you speak to your children, the choice of language should not become a hindrance in the communication between you, so don’t force yourself to speak French if it does not feel right. However, if you continue speaking French, your own language skills will improve as your children get better at the language. I agree that you should use your most confident language when there is something really important to speak about, but also be vary not to make English “the language mummy speaks when she is upset with us” – speak English in different contexts. It has to be said, though, that if you switch between the two languages, your children might at some point decide to stick to one of the languages with you, and it will be the one they themselves feel more comfortable in.

  2. Thank you for your valuable and helpful comments!!

  3. I was delighted to discover your blog today as I have needed advice for some time now. I have looked through this section and not found a question that would apply to my situation which is as follows: I speak four languages – Arabic (Lebanese), French, English and Spanish and am currently learning a fourth – Czech (we are now living in the Czech Republic). I am also a Modern Languages Teacher. The problem is that I have failed to teach my children (aged 7 and 10) any language other than English, which is the only language in our house as my husband is English and I grew up in the UK. They were born in the UK but lived most of their lives in the UAE where the spoken Arabic there is different to mine. They have always attended English Curriculum schools. My question is: is it too late to start teaching them Arabic and how do I go on about it?I am need some strategies to remind myself to use Arabic as I always start with good intentions and then drift into English. I am not sure how much you know about Arabic but the spoken dialects are so different to the Modern Standard Arabic used in the media. Both kids learnt some Arabic at school while living in the UAE but it was MSA – not my dialect. Any suggestions? Many thanks!

    • Hi Joyce, wow – what an impressive set of languages you have. First of all, it is never too late to to learn a language, and definitely not too late for your 7 and 10 year old sons. You are right, I don’t know much about the different variants of Arabic, so I don’t know how big the difference between MSA and your dialect is. Do you know MSA? Since the boys have a base knowledge in MSA, that would seem the best choice, but if you feel very uncomfortable in speaking it, then it may not be a good idea. Passing on a language is not an easy task, and since it sounds that most of the exposure will come from you, you need to make it as easy as possible for yourself. Otherwise it might not happen. This is perhaps not what you want to hear, but it is the truth. However, if you are motivated enough, you can definitely do it. Why not prepare yourself by listening to a lot of audio material throughout the day and watching films and YouTube clips. Then start by introducing Arabic for one day a week (this way it will not feel too overwhelming). Once you get better used to speaking Arabic with your sons, increase the amount of days you do it. Good luck!

  4. Rita, I did ask a question while ago and never got the time to look it up if you answer it, sorry. I am originally from Bolivia so my mother language is Spanish, I lived for 10 yrs now here in the US and before that lived in a English speaking country for couple of years, so I can say (as many other people confirm it) my English it is pretty good, with a small accent. My husband is originally from here US, and he doesn’t speak almost nothing of Spanish, this has bring me into trying to leave Spanish teaching to my 2 children for later, but as I learn more about it I am sad that I have to do this. I want my children speak both languages fluently, but pretty much teaching homeschool in English and everything else in English has limited my time to almost nothing of Spanish if any. I did teach my oldest that is 7yrs old now, a lot when she was toddler, but she almost forgot it and doesn’t want me to even put movies in Spanish anymore specially after preschool years, and my youngest which is 3 yrs old, doesn’t speak none Spanish. What can I do, please help me with any advice. I feel like time is passing and I am loosing a big important battle here 😦

    • Dear Beth, I can understand your dilemma and concern and can hear that you are passionate about teaching your children Spanish. I can see that homeschooling will take a lot of your time – what about introducing Spanish to the curriculum? As you have seen with your youngest daughter, language needs to be used to stay active, it is definitely a “use it or lose it” scenario. You know your children best, for them to get interested in Spanish you need to find the best way to make them want to learn it. What would spur them on? What kind of rewards could you offer them so they would feel the need to learn Spanish? It could be anything from sticker charts to days out as a family or a special toy or game at the end of the month. What about introducing “Spanish at the weekend”, you would only speak Spanish during the weekends – this way your children would get more used to hearing you speak Spanish with them. When you say that your husband doesn’t speak almost any Spanish, is it correct that he maybe understands more than he speaks? If yes, then he can also brush up his Spanish during the weekends. It will feel strange to start with and it will be pretty hard work for you, but if the introduction of Spanish into your children’s lives is important to you, it will be worth the effort.

      • Thank you for your response Rita, I will try the advice and see how we improve, I really like the weekend idea, hope my husband doesn’t get grumpy as he is not very patience with not understanding what others speak in other languages. But like you said, it is worthy to try and I am ready to give it all 🙂 Thank you once again 🙂

  5. Thank you for your reply Rita…. I will start the way you suggested….I have some audio and of course You tube is a winner with boys that age.
    As Modern Standard Arabic is the language of the media, it is not spoken between people so quite tricky to engage the children in conversation. However, there are enough common grounds with Levantine Arabic (the dialect I speak) to make connections.
    Many thanks once again.

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