Sunday, October 30, 2011

Profile: non-native English with Dani's son in Spain

Here at Bringing up Baby Bilingual, we hear a lot about being non-native speakers of the languages we are using with our families.  (I’m kind of obsessed with this idea, as I’ve been living it for nearly four years now.)  Regular readers and commenters like Kate at German in the Afternoon, Elizabeth at La Mother Tongue, Monika at Slices of Life, and Tamara at Non-Native Bilingualism, for example, are raising their children bilingually, as are some of the parents featured in profiles here: Tracy, THW, and Jeanne, to name a few.

But so far, we have primarily met English-mother-tongue mothers who are living in the US or the UK but choose to use another language with their children.  Today, however, I’m delighted to introduce Dani, a Spanish man living in Spain, married to a fellow Spaniard, who has embraced the challenge of teaching their toddler son his own non-native English.

Please join me in welcoming Dani and his family to my blog!

Who are the members of your family?

Papi: 30 years old, born in Madrid, working (in Madrid) for a British multinational (insurance business). As everyone in Spain, I learnt English at the school following the standard WRONG method that we all suffer in this country, i.e. memorizing lists of vocabulary, learning just through reading, no listening, no speaking… awful. Then at 23 after some intensive courses and some practice I spent seven months working in Ireland (customer attention) which meant a great boost in my fluency. Since then I have continued learning every day and now I use English at work about 30% of the time on a daily basis. I spent also 2.5 years working for a German company and I learned German until level C1 (a little above intermediate) but I’m now losing almost everything, since I stopped when my little punk was born. I also speak some Italian (only some). I found out that I love languages a little bit late, and now I’d like to have the time to study and practice more.

Mum: 33 years old, born in Madrid, works (in Madrid and one to two days a week traveling) for an engineering company. She didn’t spend time abroad but still she understands English pretty well and speaks English well enough to maintain a conversation. She is absolutely into our bilingual project, and gives support with sentences, words and songs here and there. She is an awesome mum and wife. What can I say….

In-laws/caretakers: Supporting and loving Spanish granny and grandpa. They sold a family business so now they are retired; they are the big rock upon which we stand to raise our little kid. Always helpful and tender. I don’t think we’ll be able to pay them back for what they do for us EVERY DAY. They don’t speak or understand any other language but Spanish.

Son: D. Jr. is 17 months old.  He enjoys exploring around, riding his toy motorbike, reading stories with Papi, and singing songs and dancing with Papi and Mami.  We also love to imitate animal sounds and to prowl around the house (if someone could have shown us a picture of this when we were younger and partying like crazy...LOL).  Since his birth I have tried to read stories to him as much as I could and for as long as he showed interest, in order to get him used to English sounds.  We know this is working because it's still one of his favorite things in the world now.  He is very hyperactive, but whenever there is a book with nice pictures around, he stays still and quiet to listen to the story and then interacts with it.

What languages are spoken by the adults in your household and at what level of proficiency?
Between mum and dad: Spanish, because it feels really weird to speak English between us.
Mum to kid: Spanish mainly, but lots of English words and expressions come in the way too.
Dad to kid/Dad to kid and mum: English 100%. If I don’t know a word or idiom, I’ll find another way to say the same thing, then check in the internet (God bless smartphones) and integrate the new expression/word immediately.
Rest of family to kid: Spanish.

What is a typical day in your son's life like?
On a a work day: He wakes up at 7:45 and has breakfast with mum and/or dad, depending on mum’s business trips. These days Papi makes breakfast, dresses him, and gets him ready for nursery, all in English. We sing songs in English on our way to the nursery for the 8:45 drop off. No English program  is available in the area, so it’s just in Spanish.  (We are trying to change this, but all you have read about English or bilingual education programs in Spain is 90% a lie and the other 10% is true but way too expensive).
Then mum or granny picks him up at 13:15 after lunch, and then siesta. Wake up at 16:00 and then play in the playground/sandbox with kids and grandpa until papi/mum picks him up at around 19:00 or 19:30. Then bath, dinner, English Pocoyo, and story, and go to bed at 21:30.

As you can see, his English input in a regular day is around 2 to 2.5 net hours, and this fact hammers away at my mind all day long. My only relief is that apparently the hours that he spends with me are like “high intensity time” because of the emotional bond, so that makes English stick better (or so I like to believe).

On a weekend day, we wake up late and I try to give him as much English input as possible until bedtime. Songs, games, drawing, animals, playground--all adapted to his age. As simple as that.

Why do you want your child to know more than one language?
In the end what we want for our kids is opportunities. Speaking English fluently is something scarce in the Spanish labor market. Only four or five people out of 85 do it in my company (a BRITISH company, for God’s sake!), most of them young people. Directors, even not-so-old ones, just suck at it. (So I’ll be one of the last ones to be fired.)

Having said that, there is an obvious career perspective in my decision, and I’m sure that the working environment for my little one in 20 years time won’t be the same as it is now (the whole world speaking Chinese, perhaps?), but still I firmly believe it’s the right thing to do. As a late learner of English, I saw a whole world open up in front of my eyes/ears, and I want my boy to be able to enjoy this too. I thing it’s the best (and only at the moment) inheritance that I can pass on to him.

How well does your son understand and speak the different languages?
We perceive that he understands equally well English and Spanish. We check from time to time through identification games, e.g. we put all his animal figures on the sofa and ask him to bring us one. He recognizes them all (around 12) and responds to things like “give it to mummy,” “put it down,” and “pick it up.” He also has some kind of code with the hands for each song and every time he hears a word or see something related to the song, he automatically starts doing the song movements. And when we read a book together and he is asked to point at something he does it correctly (e.g. “Where is the spider?” he points at it, and then “Where does the spider live?” and he points at the spider web).

As he is still very young, he is producing baby utterances, sort of “ZTAH” for “STAR”, “PAH” for “PANTS” or “WUH” for “WOUND,” but you can see that the seed of an English word is there. The Spanish baby-word for “STAR” (ESTRELLA) would be something like “TEYA” or “YEYA” so you can tell “ZTAH!” is not Spanish. I keep track of the evolution in a white board monthly. He does animal sounds as well but I don’t count them as words (WUAWUA! for “DOGGY” or MUU for “COW”).

If you take a deeper look, it seems so amazing how he’s started to say things related to what he usually does with his mum and grandparents in Spanish, and those related to games and things that we do together (animals and stuff like that) in English.

I have also noticed that he is getting used to managing two words for each concept. He understands both terms, and then he picks just one of the words to name that thing, normally the shorter one or the one containing syllables that he produces already, e.g. PULPO= “PUH-POH,” for OCTOPUS (way more complicated in English, plus he now controls “POH POH” very well for POO). I’m fascinated by this process.

How have you been able to expose your child to the culture(s) where the different languages are spoken?
I’m planning to do so through periods of time in the UK/Ireland/USA as he grows up. Maybe student exchange programs, vacations, and so forth.

What resources and activities have been most useful to you? 
Definitely reading stories and singing songs together. We saw a spout the other day and he was really upset because the incy wincy spider was not inside it. He was like, “Hm! The song explicitly specifies that she went up the water spout so do NOT try to trick me you all, it’s gotta be here somewhere….” It was so fun and we (I) talked about it for a long time. So songs and stories have proven to be great English triggers. 

Do you have any advice for us?
I can identify several situations in which I have had to make decisions about my language use with my son:

Family: In my case, I haven’t had enough time to go through many experiences, but with the family (primarily in-laws), I say things first in English and then in Spanish. Everybody is really supportive so we haven’t had any problems. Plus, my in-laws are actually grasping some English.

Playground: There are awkward moments at the playground when playing with other kids. I get THE LOOK ¿(,) (,)? from other parents when they hear me talking to my boy. If you are a native English speaker and you speak English to your kids, it’s perceived as natural. If you are Spanish and all your family is Spanish too….“What’s wrong with you? Why would you do something like that to your own kid!!” or “Look at him! He thinks he is sooo cool speaking English…. They’ll get it at the school; there is no need to do that, for crying out loud! You’ll mess his brain up.”

At the beginning I felt self conscious, and even sometimes I felt like other parents could speak English better than me and correct me and say, “Look, if you want to do this, at least you could do it right” (I know, I sometimes freak out), but I care every time less about this things. I might make some mistakes, I must say that my English is far from flawless, I don’t have phrasal verbs down pat, and I only know some English idioms, but I think this is working and I feel confident enough to keep going.

Cousins: D. Jr. has several three-to-four-year-old cousins and their reaction is so fun. They look at us like only a child can look, then they go with the flow and try to say things in English to D.Jr. They ask me how to say things and then they say it! It’s so fun. In this situation I say things in English for my boy and immediately after the same in Spanish, and then I talk about how we speak English together, trying to make it normal. My sister and brother-in-law think that it’s okay, but somehow unnecessary. 

I think many people see this as pretentious and trying to be “special” (but with a negative connotation). I try to ignore all this, but it has a social impact and I’m afraid my kid will eventually perceive it. I think the key here is enrolling him in a REAL immersion school to make English part of his life at home AND out of home. We’ll see how things go.

What do you wish you had known when you started?
I tend to worry too much about this. Uncertainty is something added that you have to deal with when you make the decision of raising a baby bilingually. You can become a worrywart! Sometimes you can even lose track of the final goal. Maybe the smart thing to do is to set realistic goals. He doesn’t need to be Shakespeare and it’s not YOUR challenge, and it’s not about showing everyone how smart your kid is because he speaks English. It’s just about giving tools to your kid so he can survive in the jungle. Anything else must be left apart (I sometimes have to say this to myself).

Muchas gracias, Dani, and best of luck to you and your family--keep in touch!


  1. Great post! Our family and Dani's have many things in common. The playground situation is so true! Does Dani have a blog so we can share resources Spanish/English? ÇThanks! Marta

  2. That is exactly how I feel here in the States speaking only Portuguese to our little one when I am clearly American! I am way too self conscious about what other people must be thinking, but I am trying hard to just let any negative feelings go. Thanks for a great and encouraging post.

  3. @Marta--Yes, I thought this would resonate with a lot of people! Dani told me that he (understandably) doesn't have time to write a blog, unfortunately.

    @Anonymous--Thanks for sharing. I totally understand about feeling self conscious speaking the L2 here, but I'm glad to realize that it's not a big deal to me any more. I suspect you're moving in that direction. How old is your little one? Why Portuguese?

    Here are three interviews with families using Portuguese with their kids: One of them, Clarisse, also has a blog:

    Good luck!

  4. I am extremely impressed. Getting over one's self-consciousness is extremely difficult. And though no one questions why I use French with my girls, I definitely empathize on the challenges of not mastering the language you use with your children - for me grammar and conjugations are killers.
    Well done and thank you for sharing.

  5. It is so admirable that people teach their kids a language that is not their mother tounge so early on.

  6. Sarah, one of the many things I love about your blog is the fact that you are connecting with so many other non-native bilingual and multilingual family groups and helping to share their stories. Each one provides yet more inspiration for me and my family to keep our focus and resolve to be a non-native bilingual family.

  7. I share so many of these feelings! Especially living in a city with more Latinos than non, I am sometimes apprehensive to speak Spanish to my kids in front of a room of native speakers. Why!? I should feel that way, I should be embracing it! I guess I am afraid I will forget a word, or construct a sentence wrong? Anyway- love your blog! Just discovered it and can't wait to look around more...

  8. @Coco--Ah, yes. Grammar and conjugation. The bane of so many language learners' existence! If kids can learn languages like Finnish and Russian, why do we adults struggle with (seemingly) less complex ones?

    @Mrs. B--Thanks! Do your or your "cranky monkeys" speak other languages?

    @Bonne Maman--Can I quote you on my blog business card? :) You inspire me too!

    @KWC--Welcome and thanks for commenting! Yes, speaking in front of the native speakers can be intimidating. Try thinking about it this way: what better way to pay a compliment to them than by choosing to speak their language over your own mother tongue, however imperfectly?!

    Where are you located? How old are your kids? Do they enjoy speaking Spanish with you? Do you have a Spanish-speaking partner?

  9. I just found this post and I feel we have so much in common! My situation is exactly as Dani described his. It sometimes feel so weird to talk in English when nobody else does it around us. I am an English teacher but none of my colleagues are trying to raise their child in English. I know no English speaking people in my city. I often feel so lonely and overwhelmed! Even though learning English is supposed to be so in now. At least my husband supports me 100%. Good luck to everyone