Natasha Mason, a British expat and owner of LAE Kids, Spanish Classes for Kids and Families, shares some of her experiences as an English family bringing up her bilingual son, Jack, in Madrid, Spain.
Bumps in the bilingual road
Every parent knows that, however exciting parenting may be, it’s also a terrifying experience. When you add living in a country that’s not your own and limited family support into the mix, you’re left positively running for the wine rack (safely placed away from baby’s reach, obviously!)
Both my husband and I are British and we communicate as a family in English with my son, Jack, who is 8, nearly 9. Being a teacher and director of a teacher training academy and Spanish school, I had very strong views on what Jack’s education was going to look like from the get-go. What I didn’t factor into my plan was his thoughts, feeling and the journey he would go on growing up as a bilingual child. It has been a real learning curve for all of us and we have come across lots of things that I would never have expected when my husband and I first decided to raise him bilingually.
Here are just some of the things we’ve come across that we really didn’t prepare for:
Which language do I use, and when?
Jack went to a Spanish nursery and then a very creative Spanish infant school. Most of my British/American friends didn’t have children at this stage so our friends became Spanish mums and dads, who have monolingual Spanish children. When Jack was 3, we went to England where he socialised with monolingual English children for the first time and we noticed that Jack, despite speaking both languages fluently, was only speaking Spanish to the children and wouldn’t speak to them in English. In fact, when I tried to explain that the children only spoke English he looked at me if I was a moron and didn’t believe a word I said – he thought that all children only spoke Spanish! He could happily chat with adults in either language but when we met up with English friends and family back in the UK he would only speak to the children in Spanish. This carried on until he was about 5 when he started to switch between languages with both adults and kids. There were lots of confusing and awkward play dates in-between, though!
What happens if teacher isn’t always right?
Jack had 3 hours of English class at his infant’s school. These were given by the secretary so let’s just say the quality was questionable. One day I was called to the school to have a ‘chat’ as Jack had been rude and aggressive in his English class. My boy is many things but aggressive is not one of them so I was extremely shocked. I rushed over to see what on earth could’ve happened and was told that he had acted out of character during his English class and that I should speak to him to get to the bottom of it.
Jack was in a rage like I had never seen before, and said, “That naughty woman is speaking English at my school and it’s all wrong and sounds funny so I told her she was wrong and she got really cross. I just won’t let her do that to my friends.”
I couldn’t quite believe it – that poor woman having to face the wrath of an angry child over her English pronunciation! How do you tell a child that in school they might not be taught the correct things all the time? We talked about accents and language not having to always be 100% correct to be understood and communicate in a language. I also explained to him that she wasn’t native and that she wasn’t a trained teacher so he had to be patient and nice and to not correct her.
Unfortunately, Jack still wasn’t sure and the school decided he could sit out of English classes for the time being. His understanding of this issue has improved dramatically since then, thankfully!
How can I fit in with everyone?
Jack speaks English with the same British accent that my husband and I have and, according to our Spanish friends, speaks Spanish with a Spanish accent. When I went into his school to watch him give a presentation in English about a science project I was surprised (to say the least) to find out that Jack has another accent in English that he calls his ‘school accent’. This accent mixes his flawless English language with a hardcore Spanish accent. What was most bizarre was that no one else seemed remotely surprised! I asked his teacher if he always spoke English like that and he confirmed he did.
Not wanting to put a downer on his brilliant effort for the presentation, I praised Jack for doing such a great job and waited a while before asking him about his accent. He shrugged his shoulders and casually said, “It’s my school accent”. “Oh”, I said, “I didn’t know you had one”. He replied, “of course I do, I don’t want to be the weird kid and make my teacher and the other kids feel uncomfortable”. He had been imitating the teacher and other students so he didn’t stand out when he spoke with his native English accent.
He is prone to adapting his accent at any given moment. Over the last year, he has spoken English in Irish, Scottish, American, Australian and Indian accents. He doesn’t notice he is doing it and I guess his brain is just used to adjusting to help him fit in.
Who am I?
Our next mini-bump in the road was when Jack had an identity crisis at the tender age of 6. One day he asked me whether I was sure he was English and told me that maybe he was Spanish instead. I looked at him and (for once) I had no answer. Did a passport really identify what someone was or wasn’t?
I took a breath and had a think and went on to explain that as his parents were both British that makes him British, but of course he could also feel Spanish as he was born and raised here. It really made me question how we label ourselves and how much importance we put on them for our sense of identity. We have talked a lot about this since that time and he still feels caught between two identities and I do worry how that will play out as he grows up.
How do I feel confident in both languages?
Jack’s schooling has had many ups and downs – mainly because he won’t do things unless he understands the reasoning behind it (but that’s another story and has nothing to do with him being bilingual!)
He does, however, sometimes feel self-conscious about his Spanish. Last year I noticed he had a dip in confidence and he blamed his problems with reading and writing on not being Spanish.
As an English speaking household we have everything in English: all books, movies, etc., to make sure he gets the balance between Spanish (outside the house) and English (inside the house) and we know that it’s hard for us to give him the support he needs in Spanish. When I approached his teachers about this, the school was brilliant and, as well as suggesting some time with the logopeda, they were happy with me taking him out of school for two weeks to attend Spanish classes at my Spanish Academy for Kids in Madrid, LAE Kids (part of LAE Madrid, accredited by the Instituto Cervantes). Our teachers have vast experience working with children and all are qualified in primary/elementary education, educational psychology and Teaching Spanish as a Foreign Language. He had two weeks of one-2-one attention and we focused in on the issues he was having. The boost was just what he needed and he returned to school having gained back his confidence speaking and writing in Spanish.
At challenging times like this, some parents who are trying to raise their children bilingually can have a small crisis of confidence themselves, but to see how he proudly received his certificate and ran across the room to hug his teacher, my heart melted and I also felt like I got my confidence back too.
I have read many books on bilingualism and I know all the theoretical rights and wrongs but have found the most valuable tool has been talking to other parents in the same situation and sending Jack to a school where different is the norm. He is definitely the guide on this journey and I am merely there to carry the baggage and help him decide on a path every now and again.
Have you had any other ‘bumps’ in your road to bilingualism? Let us know in the comments or on our Facebook page.