Monday, October 22, 2007

Ruben learning English, French, and Spanish in the US

Carolyn, who comes from a multicultural and multilingual background, has already started using her different languages with her nine-month-old son, Ruben, despite the fact that her husband (like mine!) is a monolingual English speaker--and it sounds like it's going very well. I'm so glad that she agreed to complete my questionnaire--it's very inspiring to those of us who are/will be helping raise infants with more than one language!

What is your language background and history?

I was born and raised in Geneva, Switzerland by an American father and an Ecuadorian mother. At home, my mother spoke Spanish to me and my older brother and my father spoke English to us. When we were all together, we spoke English together. Initially, Spanish was my strongest language, but French soon took over when I started preschool at which point I started to speak French with my brother. Growing up, there were often three languages spoken at the dinner table (even though my father preferred for us to all speak English), which certainly made things interesting for visitors. I was slow to acquire English, which remained poor until my parents and I moved to New York City when I was 15 years old (I understood it well, but spoke it poorly and with a strong French accent).

What languages are you exposing your child to, and how?
I speak mostly French to Ruben (who will turn 9 months on October 23). His father only knows English, so that is the language he speaks to him. I was a little hesitant to speak French to Ruben when the three of us were together, but my husband was very encouraging and it is now second nature for me to speak French to Ruben at home. I must admit that I sometimes lapse into English when I’m with English-speaking friends, probably out of a desire not to appear rude, even though I am sure most people would not have a problem with it. I get together with a small group of French-speaking mothers and their children about 2-3 times per month and take Ruben to a gathering of French-speaking families once a month. In addition, we now have a French babysitter that takes care of Ruben one afternoon per week. With regard to the Spanish, I am exposing Ruben to it mostly through playgroups. We attend 1-2 Spanish playgroups per week. During those times, I speak Spanish to him. We also have a Spanish-speaking babysitter who comes one afternoon per week. I have decided to speak Spanish to Ruben myself only when I am around Spanish-speakers. When my mother visited us from Switzerland, she spoke with Ruben exclusively in Spanish. When I talk to her on the phone, I give the phone to Ruben briefly so that she can hear his grandmother sing a song to him and say a few things in Spanish to him.

Why do you want your child to learn French and Spanish?
It was never an option for me not to speak French to Ruben, since that is a language that is very much a part of me and I feel a strong connection with the francophone world (I continue to try to read books and magazines in French and listen to French radio, for example). I also want him to strongly identify with his Hispanic heritage and learn Spanish. I am not sure how much Spanish he will learn with our current system, but I hope that he will at least have a good basis that he can build upon later, perhaps at school (ideally through a dual immersion program).

How well does your child understand French and Spanish? Does he have a preference for certain languages in certain situations and with certain speakers?
Ruben gets very excited when he hears people other than me speaking French to him, as though he recognizes that that is “Mommy’s” language. Of course, that could simply be wishful thinking.

Have you been able to expose your child to the cultures where French and Spanish are spoken? How?
We have not yet traveled to a French-speaking or Spanish-speaking country with Ruben. The only way he has been exposed to those cultures are through books, songs, and nursery rhymes.

What challenges have occurred as you raise your child trilingually?
It is challenging to trust that things will be OK with regard to our child’s language development as he grows older, especially with three languages and the fact that Ruben does hear me speak the three languages at different times. Since most books on multilingualism do not address this particular trilingual situation, I hope that Ruben will not be confused by our language arrangement.

What resources have been most useful to you? What, on the other hand, has not been useful?
Internet groups that explore issues related to multilingualism have been extremely helpful. It has also been helpful to talk to local parents who are raising multilingual children. Reading French and Spanish books (adult and children) and conversing with people in those languages has helped me remind myself of words and expressions that I had not heard/used in a long time. Books on multilingualism have not been overly helpful due to the fact that they have not really answered my questions about our family’s particular language system.

What do you think parents, caretakers, teachers, and/or researchers need to know about teaching a second language to children? What do you wish you had known when you started?
Initially, while I truly wanted to speak French to Ruben, it felt very unnatural, because I had been so used to speaking English almost exclusively for over ten years. I was reassured that this was a common experience and that it would soon become very natural. I am happy to report that it has. I think it is also important to discuss with one’s spouse before the child is born what the language system will be and try to come up with a system that feels good to both parents, but also be open to “tweaking the system” if things are not working out. For example, while most things I say to Ruben right now would likely not be overly interesting to my husband or important for him to know, I can imagine that there will come a time when Ruben is older when it may be more important for his father to know what Ruben and I are discussing. I am not sure how we will approach this, but trust that my husband and I will be able to come up with a solution that works for us in terms of keeping family relationships harmonious and also continuing to successfully support multilingualism.

Answer your own question now--what did I not ask about that you want to comment on?
I’m wondering if readers of your blog have any additional ideas about exposing Ruben to Spanish.

Merci beaucoup, Carolyn!!! I'll check in with you next year as Ruben starts to talk--it'll be fun to see what languages he uses with whom. Readers, please share your brilliant ideas and past experiences with us--what can Carolyn and her husband do to help Ruben acquire more Spanish along with his English and French? Now is definitely the time to start--research shows that babies and toddlers don't get confused when they're exposed to several languages (unlike us adults).


  1. I know tv is not a good idea at such an early age (9 mos), but I've been thrilled to have the access to kids' educational programming in Spanish and show my son (22 months) some shows. While he speaks mostly English, he demonstrates a really good understanding of Spanish (or so I hope).

  2. Thanks for this profile! I still want to work in some Spanish with my little ones but so far have been unable to figure out when/how. This profile inspired me.

  3. Very interesting. Thanks for posting this!