You are a bilingual or a trilingual family living abroad. You and your spouse have been speaking your mother tongues since the child’s birth. And here you realize that the school time is approaching soon. You are worried how your child would do at school, since you did not teach your child the country language.
How would he go to school in the community language? Will he be able to communicate? What can I do to help him? These and many other questions I asked Richard and Agnieszka, English and Polish speakers, who found their home in Spain. They are successfully raising trilingual children, who speak English, Polish and Spanish everyday.
Question 1: Where do you live now and where did you live before?
Answer: We live in Madrid. We moved here from the Netherlands in 2006 when our eldest was 18 months. He was born there. We moved without children to the Netherlands from Poland in 2003.
Question 2: How many children do you have and what are their ages?
Answer: Gavin will be 10 in 2 months , Veronica is 7 1/2, and Nicolas is 3 1/2.
Question 3: Please describe your multilingual family language situation. Who speaks what language? What language approach do you follow?
Answer: My (Richard's) native language is English. Aga's is Polish. But we both speak these languages and Spanish pretty (Aga very) comfortably. My Polish is the worst, but still I almost never fail to understand conversations involving our kids.
Aga and I both only ever speak our respective native languages to the children (unless, rarely, we want some third party to understand). And the children universally speak to us in that same language.
The children (notably Veronica at the moment) do however quite often mix languages - but the syntax and base vocabulary make the language that they are fundamentally speaking very clear. The mixing is largely attaching endings from one language to words from another and in non-basic vocabulary.
Agnieszka and I speak to each other in Polish and English in roughly equal proportions.
Question 4: At what age did your children get exposed to the community language and how (daycare, playgroups, television at home…)?
Answer: Our kids were all introduced to Spanish in nursery school. All went for at least a year before starting school proper - which starts very early here - almost universally in the September of the calendar year when the child turns 3. Neither Gavin nor Veronica had any problems of note by the time they reached school (not even much in Nursery). Nicolas seemed to adapt similarly well to Nursery. But when he just recently started school he was slow to start speaking to his teachers. This problem seems now to have considerably faded.
Television I see as an important way to broaden their exposure to English (and Polish). But they do watch a reasonable amount to TV in Spanish.
Question 5. What language Gavin and Veronica started speaking to each other? Did their language preference change over time?
Answer: Until I guess about 18 months ago they still spoke to each other regularly in all three languages, Spanish having arrived last, but around then I noticed that they switched to almost always speaking Spanish.
I suspect that the first language that they spoke to each other was probably Polish, but in fact I don’t remember, so it may be that they used Polish or English depending on the context. I guess Polish because Veronica had a Polish woman looking after her during the day when she was 1-2. But at this point Gavin’s English may still have been better than his Polish.
Currently Gavin and Veronica Speak only (or almost only) Polish with Nicolas.
Question 6: How old were the children when started a nursery school? Did I understand right that they were about 2 years old?
Answer: Gavin was about 20 months, Veronica about 28 months, and Nicolas about 27.
Question 7. What school did your children go to (bilingual immersion school, regular school...)?
Answer: Bilingual in theory – part of a Madrid programme for bilingualism in state-funded schools. They are taught almost half the time in English (from 6 years old). But there are almost no other non-Spanish-native pupils, and English is not used at all apart from in lessons.
Question 8. What languages as subject do they study there?
Answer: English is taught from 3, and more seriously from 6. I worry a bit that this could bore our kids, but it doesn’t seem to have been a big problem yet. Gavin, I believe, has mostly learned only spelling in lessons at school, so I expect it is or will be, at best, a significant waste of time.
They are also taught French, at low intensity, from 6.
Question 9. When your children went to school, how did they integrate? What was their proficiency level of community language? Were you and / or teachers concerned?
Answer: We had sent them to nursery specifically to help avoid this sort of problem. And it seemed to work better than I expected. Even just one year.
The teachers were a little concerned initially – but positive. Gavin’s first teacher – a veteran of probably 30 years’ experience and a very good teacher it turned out – shocked me by telling me that he had NEVER had a non-Spanish-native child in his class. There are almost no immigrants in the area we are in.
However Gavin and Veronica may have been a little quiet at first, but when I ask about their level of Spanish I was told it was indistinguishable from that of the other kids. As mentioned earlier, Nico was even more quiet, but is now improving.
Question 10. What did you do, if anything, to support your children at school?
Answer: I use Khan Academy with both Gavin and Vero for maths. But with regard to language there has been no need.
Question 11: What language do you speak to them, when you help them with homework?
Answer: (Richard) English, throwing in the odd Spanish word to make sure they know it for class. Except when (only occasionally) helping with Spanish language homework in which case I speak Spanish mostly.
Question 12: What do you think is important for a parent to do or pay attention to in order to insure that children’s knowledge of the community language is enough for performing well at elementary school?
Answer: For us nursery was enough. More recently I also allow them to watch a fraction (maybe 1/3) of TV in Spanish. This primarily so they have the vocabulary (mostly character names etc) to talk to their school-friends.
Question 13: Many parents are worried, that their child might have a communication problem with peers. That they are going to be teased because of an accent or inability to express her/himself in the community language at the same level as kids of their age do. Could you share your experience in this regards?
Answer: Our kids have not to our knowledge experienced this sort of problem. Any trouble with peers has been for other reasons. We may be helped in this regard by the fact that 'school' in Spain starts so very early. Some kids are still well short of turning three - and so presumably some native monolinguals also barely speak.
Question 14: How did you help the kids to understand how to separate 3 languages and improve their speech skills?
Answer: We didn't do anything specific here other than try to expose them to plenty of all three languages through different media.
Question: 15: In what language did your children learn to read and write first? Did you teach them? If yes, how did you do it?
Answer: English. I taught Gavin and Veronica before the school started on reading. But I taught only reading - almost no writing. I used phonics books from a couple of different series (Jolly Phonics and Oxford Songbirds principally) then used a lot of Usborne graded readers. In addition I used flash cards (also from Usborne), showed then a nice BBC series, Alphablocks, and more recently used the online learning game Reading Eggs. (Click to read more about mentioned phonics resources)
I would like to thank this wonderful family for the interview and for this unique opportunity Richard and Agneszka are giving us to learn more about what awaits us, parents to be and parents with small kids.
If you would like to share your family experience, whatever it is good or bad, feel free to contact me.
Are you successfully raising bilingual or multilingual children? or do you have regrets about something you have not done on time? Please do not keep it for yourself, share it with other parents, by writing a comment or by contacting me for an Interview or by joining great contributors in the Life Story series. You will help thousands of readers!
Alphablocks is children's educational television program. It aims to teach children how to spell with the use of animated blocks representing each letter.
Phonics with Alphablocks on Amazon
Alphablocks on YouTube
Jolly Phonics is a systematic synthetic phonics program designed to teach children to read and write. Children learn the letter sounds, rather than the alphabet. They are then taken through the stages of blending and segmenting words to develop reading and writing skills.
Jolly Phonics on Amazon
Jolly Phonics on Youtube
Oxford Songbirds make phonics fun! Series of 60 stories by Julia Donaldson. Levels 1 to 6 .
Oxford Songbirds on Amazon
Usborne First Reading - book series by Usborne publiser that is based on the principles of synthetic phonics. There are 7 books in each series and each book in the series builds on material in the previous books.
Usborne Very First Reading on Amazon
Usborne Start to Read pack on Amazon
Usborne Very First Reading website - learn more about the books, how they work. Information for parents and teachers. Plus resources with extra reading and wring practices. Printable sheet of practice words, fun activities and recording of the sounds of 44 phonemes
Reading Eggs - online reading application, where children are able to progress at their own rate.
Visit Reading Eggs website for more info.
Reading Eggs on Amazon
You might also like reading:
7 principles to keep in mind while teaching your child to read.
Teaching the letter sounds before letter names.
Planting a language tree. Does passive language learning work?
Life Story. Our trilingual story: It’s all Greek, Italian and French to me!