Parent of the Month for April is Cristina Felipe who lives in Toledo and is mother to two trilingual children.
1. Welcome Cristina: A trilingual family! How did you manage it?
Before starting a family we decided to bring up our children in an English-speaking environment. Fast forward 11 years and this decision is still our everyday reality. We use the OPOL method (One person, one language). However when our eldest child was three years old we decided to include a third language as his grandparents already spoke to him in French whenever we saw them at family gatherings. My husband began to talk to him in French. When our daughter was born we decided to speak to her straightaway in both French and English, following OPOL. She learnt Spanish at day care.
2. Please introduce your trilingual family to us.
We speak three languages at home. I speak English, my husband French and as a couple we talk Spanish to each other. We are a family of four. I work at a school in a small village close to Toledo where I teach English and several other subjects which the school teaches using the English language. I like sports and languages. I do karate and run marathons. I speak Italian and have learnt French by listening to my husband and children speaking it at home. My husband Manu is an engineer and speaks several languages including Russian, Chinese, French, English and Italian. He goes to the gym, does karate and plays the piano and the guitar.
Our son Oscar is 11 and he loves sports. He does judo, football and gymnastics. He speaks English and French as if he were a native speaker. Our daughter Sonia, 8, is a great reader. She reads in three languages at ease. She does gymnastics and has painting classes.
3. What activities do your children do in English?
From a very young age we’ve made a concerted effort to take our children to English speaking activities so that they can hear other accents and make friends with English speaking children.
On a monthly basis we go to the American Institute. When they were younger we would go to storytelling there but now that they are older my children take part in Reading Alive which they enjoy immensely.
We spent four years involved in a voluntary group of bilingual families based in Madrid. We would meet regularly and organize events of all sorts for our children. It gave us pleasure meeting other families following the same bilingual path as ourselves.
Our children are members of 1st Madrid British Scouts where they have made many friends and have a great time. Oscar travelled to Bristol with them last year alongside their leader and some other boys and girls.
During the summer holidays we like to travel to English or French-speaking countries. Our children go to local day camps and we like to go to the cinema. Our friends from California like to visit us in Toledo in July and August.
Next month our children will start going to an English reading club at our local library.
4. Why is it important to speak to your children in English?
On a personal level I felt that if I teach English to other children in my day job, the least I could do is teach my own children the same language at home.
Furthermore we like to travel extensively as a family and we know that English is a key skill to help us travel around the world and make new friends along the way.
We also believe that having three languages will open doors for our children in the future.
5. Have you faced any criticism for speaking English to your children?
Many years ago when my children were younger and we would spend time at the local park with other kids and their parents I would insist on speaking English to my children in their company. One day one of the Mums told me that the rest of the parents at the park thought I was being rude and “showing off” by consistently speaking in English to my children. I replied saying to her that this was a personal project for my family and I had to remain consistent in order to reach our goal of a bilingual family and that I did not think I was being rude as I always spoke Spanish to the parents.
To begin with my family was skeptical and said that they thought our children would get confused by hearing so many different languages. They were also annoyed when they came to our house and felt that they were somewhere abroad because they didn’t understand a word of what was being said. However they have since changed their tune and appreciate our efforts because they can see the positive results of our endeavors.
6. What recommendations can you give our readers?
From experience I would recommend the following:
- Watch films in English, read books in English, travel to English speaking countries and watch theatre productions in English.
- Be consistent and persevere. Do not mix languages. It is important that the child learns to differentiate and associate each language with one person and one set of circumstances. Doing this helps the child’s young mind relax and concentrate on the language itself, thus facilitating its comprehension.
- Insist that the child speaks to you in English. As English is the minority language in the child’s environment you will find that until the child is around three years old he or she will tend to reply to you in Spanish because it takes a lot of effort to think and speak in English at that stage. If you allow them to reply in Spanish they will refuse more and more to speak in English, thus making it harder for them to attain a fluid level of spoken English. Expect your child to get angry because he or she doesn’t want to think and talk in English but by the age of 2.5 or 3 years old they will have become used to talking to you in English and won’t want to talk Spanish to you anymore.
- Read out loud to your children. We began when they were four months old and continue to this day. Every evening before they go to bed we make time for a story or a novel. They get angry if we skip this because it is getting too late.
7. Would you mind spelling out the warnings you have been mentioning throughout this interview?
I only want to warn and alert bilingual parents who are beginning this journey that at the start I found it very hard because everyone around my family spoke Spanish – the only person speaking in English to my son was me. When he was very young (around 2) he would refuse to speak to me to ask for simple things like a cup of water, even though he understood the language perfectly. I had to persevere in order to build a bilingual environment at home.
We have met several families along this journey where one of the parents is a native English or French speaker but they have not insisted on their children replying to them in the minority language during conversations. We found that although the children understood the minority language completely, they had trouble speaking in English or French. Sometimes they were unable to even put a short sentence together in the minority language. We realized that when these families tend to speak Spanish more at home then their children practice the minority language less and less, they don’t speak it very well and their bilingualism ends up like a dog running to catch its tail.
8. Do you have any funny stories to share with our Readers about your adventures as a bilingual parent?
I remember one time when we were in Dublin and our son was only just two years old we had him on our shoulders as we walked down Grafton street and he turned to his Dad and said “Look, mucha people!”. We laughed a lot!
After we had been on one trip to Belgium (French-speaking) followed by a trip to Ireland, we were in the car on the way to Seville when our son asked us: “What language do they speak in Seville?”.
Another time my husband and I decided to have a private conversation in Italian so that our children wouldn’t understand what we were saying and our son got angry saying “it’s not fair! I only know how to speak three languages”.
9. When have you felt proud of yourself as a bilingual parent?
I feel very proud of what we have achieved with this bilingual project which started as an idea when we began thinking about having children and dreamed about how our family would be. It is a dream come true. Our children are proud that they can speak three languages and can communicate freely when we travel or when they go to weekend activities.
I enjoy hearing them talk in English or French among themselves and with others. They find it easy to switch languages depending on who they talk to. It is as if they had a “language button” in their brains.
Many thanks Cristina! Congratulations on your achievements. You make us all envious!
If you’re interested in more stories from bilingual parents in Madrid, check out our blog.