Turn on Your Child's "Spanish Brain" through Bilingual Community
Wondering if your kids are really absorbing the Spanish they're being taught? Find ways to turn on your child's "Spanish brain" by building your bilingual community.
I’ve written previously about my struggles to get my children to speak Spanish to me. But I’ve never instated the "I only speak Spanish” rule. This is mostly because I'm afraid my children will just stop talking to me altogether. So instead of forcing them to speak to me only in Spanish, I translate what they say in English into Spanish, so that they can repeat it back to me and practice.
I know they often use English because they just don't have all of the Spanish vocabulary. But other times, I think they do it because it takes too long to recall the Spanish and they’re just being lazy. It can be a frustrating experience.
But recently I had a different thought. In the beginning, they knew me as the Spanish-speaking parent – the one who spoke Spanish and only Spanish. If they wanted to talk to me, their brains were forced into switching from English into Spanish.
Over time, though, they observed that I’m also fluent in English, and their brains readily adapted. Because English is their dominant language, it's simply easier for them to retrieve – and the path of least resistance for their mental circuitry. Their "English brain" engages first – and it’s not necessarily a conscious choice.
I’ve observed this “English brain/Spanish brain” shift when my mom comes to visit. She’s also bilingual, but definitely Spanish dominant. When she stays with us, I notice that my kids speak a lot more Spanish. Their brains recognize and label her "Spanish-only," and naturally try retrieving words in Spanish first.
So why am I telling you this? Because I know I’m not the only one struggling with getting my kids to speak Spanish – and wondering why it can feel so hard sometimes.
If you speak Spanish to your child, have a bilingual household, or you have your kiddo in Spanish immersion school or Spanish classes, you may be wondering how much progress your child is making. And if you’re an English-speaking or bilingual parent, you may find that your child finds it unnatural to speak to you in Spanish.
Rest assured, this doesn't mean that your hard word hasn't sunk in. The information is there. So instead of getting frustrated, look for opportunities when their “Spanish brain” can be triggered and they can practice what they know.
Because I walk around all day speaking to my kids in Spanish, and because many children in Austin attend dual language programs or immersion schools, I’ve been that Spanish-speaking person who triggers other kids to speak Spanish. I am a magnet for these kids because they’re just looking for an opportunity to interact and practice what they know.
On one particular occasion, I was out with my kids eating pizza when some kiddos at a nearby table kept staring at me – and my lips. I started to feel a little self-conscious, so I decided to engage them in conversation – in Spanish. Their faces lit up when they were able to use their Spanish in real life.
Of course, this opened up a conversation with their mom. She told me that she had never really heard her kids speak Spanish and had been questioning if their immersion elementary school was actually working. For me, it was a great example of how creating bilingual community is such a critical part of language learning.
I know that raising bilingual kids can be exhausting sometimes, but I encourage you to keep at it! I continue to speak Spanish to my kids and translate their English so that they’ll repeat it back to me. But now that I see things a little differently, my goal is to continue finding opportunities to trigger their “Spanish brain."
I’ve implemented a daily Spanish conversation time on our ride home from school. And like our t-shirt says, I ask them to "dímelo en español.” Because they’ve been speaking in Spanish all day at school, it’s a natural continuation of their day. I help them through the dialogue, and day after day, their fluency is improving. (Check out my video of us in action). It also helps that we carpool with a native Spanish speaker, so their sense of competition kicks in!
Another place I visit to trigger their Spanish brain is the mercado or bodega, where they get to speak in Spanish with native speakers. And our Spanish-speaking babysitter also speaks to them only in Spanish.
These experiences continue building on the Spanish they know, and it creates more neurological pathways that will enhance their learning moving forward. Time and time again, these opportunities show me how much Spanish my kids have learned – and I’ve seen how important their bilingual community is to their learning and to the people they’ll become.
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