This month’s Parent of the Month is Maribel Muñoz, a mum of two small children that she is bringing up bilingually in Madrid.
Hello Maribel – Welcome to Kids in Madrid! Tell us about your bilingual family
My husband is Slovakian and when he was 14 years old he went to live in the United States. After finishing my degree in English I went to work in the US which is where I met him. We lived in Ohio, Pennsylvania and Arizona before moving to Ireland for five years. I have worked as a University lecturer and in advertising. We have been living in Madrid since 2010. When our first child was born we decided we wanted him to grow up in an English speaking environment and to let him learn Spanish outside of the home and thus began our bilingual journey.
Why do you think it is important to speak to your children in English?
English is a gift we can offer our children. To be able to speak fluidly in another language without having to be obliged to learn it is a huge advantage. Furthermore having a second language allows you to have a wider view on the world. English is a universal language. I believe we gain an ample perspective of the information that surrounds us if we know more than one language.
Do your children go to a bilingual day care centre or school ?
Our eldest son is at a school that follows the bilingual curriculum set by the Comunidad de Madrid. I believe that calling these centres “bilingual schools” is stretching the truth. Many of the teachers aren’t fully trained in bilingual education. It is well-documented that a bilingual program should begin at infants school rather than in Primary. For a child to “pick up” a language it is better that he or she is surrounded by that language as early as possible. In Linguistics they talk about the critical period which is when language skills and pronunciation are engrained in our brains. Once that period passes our brains lose their flexibility and ability to learn new and different sounds or pronunciations in other languages.
How would you improve early years’ bilingual education in the Comunidad de Madrid?
I would invest in infant school education. At the moment children in infants school don’t have a conversation teacher, yet they are expected to then go straight into primary education where their teacher spends the whole class talking to them in English!
At the moment English is only taught for two or three hours a week in infants school. At my son’s primary school – as in many other schools – the teacher consistently translates from English to Spanish in the classroom or simply decides not to speak in English the whole time. Furthermore the teachers have not been trained to teach classes using English immersion techniques and actually don’t believe it is possible to do so. You can’t expect children to want to speak a language that their teachers don’t properly understand and that is being propped up constantly by Spanish in the classroom.
I would also invest in teacher training. In order to be bilingual although you don’t need to speak the language like a native-speaker does, you do need to be spontaneous in that language and speak naturally in it so as to pass it on to the children. The lessons themselves go hand in hand with the language they are taught in.
If it were my decision I would give extra points to those teachers who apply to work in the bilingual program according to the following standards:
- Experience of living abroad.
- A recognized spoken English qualification
- Teaching experience in an English-speaking country (this could be carried out through agreements between two countries, which is one of the fundamental steps to follow in order to design a good nationwide bilingual program)
- Written exam
What advice would you give families that wish to bring up their children in a bilingual environment?
Be ready to speak about anything with your children in English! Parents need to update their vocabulary to be ready to speak fluidly with their children especially when the language is not either parent’s mother tongue.
Connect the child’s Spanish environment within the English language context that you have chosen for your family. This can be done by using the odd word in Spanish when chatting to your children. For example, when I pick up my children in the afternoon I often ask them what they had for lunch in the comedor rather than in the canteen. The conversation continues in English but I have contextualized it with one Spanish word. This creates bridges between the worlds that they live in and links the two.
I would also recommend travelling with your children. Visiting English speaking countries allows your children to see that they are not the only ones who speak this foreign language. Furthermore travelling abroad helps give shape to the bilingual environment they are growing up in. They become aware of how useful it is to speak English in a foreign country.
What difficulties have you encountered when speaking English to your children?
As I said before, the fact that we talk about everything in English has meant I needed to extend my vocabulary. In order to enter into their young worlds I have had to learn specific words that relate to their environment.
Personally what I find most difficult is to use affectionate language in English when talking to my children because words that convey emotions are usually easier to express in our mother tongue. I allow myself to use Spanish words in those contexts because we live in Spain and it is good that they connect emotionally with Spanish whilst keeping English as our main language.
When do you feel proud of belonging to a bilingual family?
I feel a great sense of satisfaction when my 5 year old son uses words that I don’t know. He has picked up his own vocabulary from watching television, listening to the radio and from being immersed in a bilingual environment. Sometimes I hear him say things like “oh goody!” which I would never say. This is concrete proof that our dream of having a bilingual family is becoming a reality.
Many thanks Maribel!!
Interview written and created by Dominique White
If you’re interested in more stories from bilingual parents in Madrid, check out our blog.