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Monday, February 28th, 2011

Si­, Yes: Raising Bilingual Twins

By
raising_bilingual_children/ Hannah and Emma

While viewing a new exhibition at the art museum with my twin daughters, who are three and a half years old, we stopped in front of a painting that caught their attention. I asked them, “Que ven en esta obra?” (What do you see in this picture?) Emma jumped and said, “Nieve y Arboles” (snow and trees). Hannah, with a concerned face, answered, “Es buy scary” (it is very scary). That was a funny Spanglish response.

 

Emma and Hannah have been bilingual since they were born and many times they mix up English and Spanish in one sentence. When they do this, they seem to pick the easiest words from each language. Most of the time, they combine both languages because they do not have the vocabulary they need. Early on in their language development, I worried about their melange of English and Spanish thinking that this could cause a delay in speaking each language fluently. However, after a while, I realized that they could easily incorporate and use new words in each language and they knew perfectly who understood which language, approaching people in English or Spanish accordingly.

 

When I lived in New York City and was teaching a workshop in a public school, I was shocked to hear a teacher approach a student in Spanish and English in the same paragraph. She mixed both by saying two words in English, two in Spanish, and sometimes she even made up a few words. The students, of course, having her as a model, copied her in their speech. I never believed in this approach as I do not think that it can help students to learn both languages well. These students were constantly lacking words while talking about art in my workshops. Both of their languages combined would make barely one. After many years of teaching and later on, as a mother raising my own bilingual kids, I realized the importance of reinforcing one language at a time. When my twins speak with me, I do not encourage them to mix the two languages, so I gently correct and replace the words. This way, they learn to express themselves fluently in Spanish, enriching their vocabulary. My husband, who is American and speaks only English with them, has the same approach.

 

When my twins first started speaking, their vocabulary was not as rich as that of other children. Specialists would ask me how many words they were saying at different ages and my daughters’ vocabularies comprised fewer words than the statistics suggested. Talking with child development specialists and friends in similar situations, I came to the conclusion that it was totally normal that they were not expressing themselves as effectively as other children the same age because they were embarking on the challenging journey of becoming bilingual.

 

When Emma and Hannah were almost two, they had a list of words that they would say and if asked, they could translate them quickly. It was a fun game for both them and relatives and friends in Argentina and in the United States. I would ask in Spanish, “Mama says ‘case.’ How does Dad say it?” They would reply with a big smile, “House!” They felt very proud of themselves when they knew all those words in Mama’s and Papa’s languages. At that stage, they were aware of the two languages spoken at home and outside the home. However, we did not call them Spanish and English as we thought that it would be too abstract for them. We called them “Mama says, Papa says.” They understood that two ways of talking were going on at home and very quickly they also understood that other people too would speak one or the other language or both. They knew that there was not a ‘secret’ language being spoken at home, like many adults told me about their childhood experience growing up speaking only Spanish at home. The famous “Twin Language” also did not develop between Emma and Hannah, probably because they already had two languages and may not have needed a third one.

 

Most often, they speak English with each other because they use English in preschool and with most of their friends outside school as well. However, I hear a lot of Spanish at different moments, especially when I intervene and play or suggest ideas to them. When talking with both parents at the same time, Emma and Hannah switch naturally from Spanish to English and vice versa. They make a comment to their Dad and as if I did not understand their comment, they then translate it for me. It is very interesting to observe this process and their word choices when they do not have the vocabulary they need. When I moved to the United States from Argentina, I went through a similar process. My vocabulary was limited, so I also had to find ways to express myself using many other words to replace the ones that I did not know. For an adult, this process is often frustrating but for my children, they move between the languages in a relaxed way, free of any frustration.

 

My advice for parents raising bilingual children would be to expose them to both languages all the time: at home, in school, with friends and in some extracurricular activities such as dance, art, and music. Hands-on activities are one of the best ways to enrich their vocabulary. If the children live in the United States, we should try to take them to activities that are taught in the other language spoken at home, so they can learn, play and create in this other language as well as in English. At our house, we have a large collection of books in Spanish and English. I read to them in both languages and they love it as well. When they watch movies, I play them in English because I dislike the translations. However, when I watch with them, we make comments in Spanish. In their preschool, they do circle time and sing in both languages. It is fun to hear them singing in Spanish because I can hear an American accent. Sometimes, they are interested in translating their songs when they learned them in only one language. Because music is a huge part of their lives, we have many CDs in both languages. They love dancing and as they dance they recognize and repeat some words from different songs.

 

It has been an incredible adventure raising my daughters bilingual and there are still lots of fun experiences to come. I am excited about teaching them a third language like French or Italian when they get a little older as languages open up the horizon in ways that surprise you. My daughters already took advantage of knowing two languages. In three and a half years, their vocabulary has increased enormously and they say sentences in each language. Although sometimes it creates a little anxiety for me that they use both Spanish and English in one sentence, I know that in the long run they will speak both languages fluently.

 

© 2011 – 2013, Anabella St. Peter. All rights reserved.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR


Anabella St. Peter has a 17-year background in the arts working with children and their families in museums, cultural centers, schools, resorts and at special events, and now runs her own business: www.funartforchildren.com. She was born in Argentina and has been living in the United States for 11 years. She currently lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico with her husband and identical twin daughters.

Leave us a comment!

13 Comments
  1. CommentsSelene   |  Wednesday, 16 March 2011 at 1:49 pm

    Anabella:

    Me dio mucho gusto leer tu arti­culo porque yo tengo una pequenita de 1 ano a quien le estamos ensenando 3 idiomas. Uno de mis mas grandes miedos es que hable en Spanglish o Arabenglish y que luego no se pueda expresar con la gramatica correcta en ninguna idioma que no sea el aprendido en la escuela.

  2. CommentsCara   |  Wednesday, 16 March 2011 at 8:44 pm

    Bilingualism is a gift! I do not speak another language; however, I would love for my daughters to. I just purchased some teaching supplies that I hope to use with them while I am home with them. Once they are a little older, I hope to get involved in more community classes.

  3. CommentsLida   |  Thursday, 17 March 2011 at 6:41 am

    Anabella,
    this was very helpful to know – I am, like you, raising bilinqual twin girls, who are almost two. I speak Russian, my husband only speaks English. I get very frustrated at times, it’s very difficult to make sure that the girls speak or understand Russian.

  4. CommentsAnabella   |  Thursday, 17 March 2011 at 8:44 pm

    Gracias Selene. A mi­ tambien me asusta un poco como hablara en un futuro y como escribira en cada idioma. Por el momento mezclan bastante porque no tienen demasiado vocabulario en espanol y hacen el esfuerzo conmigo. Pero conozco muchos casos de ninos bilingues que les va muy bien cuando son un poco mayores. Suerte!

  5. CommentsAnabella   |  Thursday, 17 March 2011 at 8:48 pm

    Cara,
    It’s true that being billingual is a gift, but it’s never too late for kids or adults to learn a new language! It’s wonderful that you’re planning to do it!

  6. CommentsAnabella   |  Thursday, 17 March 2011 at 8:53 pm

    Lidia,
    Thank you. Keep talking to your daughters in Russian because now they’re still young, but soon they will start to surprise you!

  7. CommentsKaren Hurley   |  Tuesday, 29 March 2011 at 11:43 am

    One of the best ways to raise children to be bilingual is to host an au pair. Au Pairs can teach children their native language and wanting children to become bilingual is a huge motivator for families to join our program. The other is the flexibility of live in childcare. It is also a great way to reinforce learning from programs outside your home, and if your children participate in an immersion program, au pairs can help with homework!

  8. CommentsKaylara   |  Tuesday, 29 March 2011 at 9:23 pm

    Thank you for this wonderful article! My 1 1/2 year old daughter is being raised bilingual in English and Dutch. (We live in the Netherlands, my husband is Dutch and I am American.) My daughter seems to have no problem switching between the two languages and will also use the easiest word to say, even though she knows how to say it in both languages. We’ve gotten a lot of opposition here to raising her bilingual though, with people telling me that I shouldn’t speak in English to her because then she’ll never learn Dutch or will do poorly in school. Or that English is a useless language. My Dutch is not good enough for me to speak it around her much, because I don’t want her picking up my issues with the language.

  9. CommentsStephanie   |  Tuesday, 29 March 2011 at 9:46 pm

    Kaylara- I’m surprised by that attitude against bilingualism in the Netherlands. After all, aren’t most Dutch bilingual in English and usually also in a third language as well? Even funnier is the argument that English is useless (considering also that they all speak it)!

  10. CommentsKaylara   |  Wednesday, 30 March 2011 at 4:56 am

    Most Dutch will learn the following languages at one point or another in school:
    Dutch
    English
    German
    French

    I guess that it depends on where you live in the Netherlands. I live in the south, and most people here don’t speak any actual English. Or they think that they speak English, but they really don’t. Part of the problem is that the teachers who actually teach the children English have no requirement to actually know the language themselves. There’s actually a lot of anti-English feeling amongst a lot of people here. I think that’s in part of what spurs people to scold me for speaking in my native language to my daughter when they hear it. I have no idea why they would think English is useless, though. It’s the international business language, and she does need to be able to communicate with my half of the family. She’s eventually going to learn it in school. I have no idea why they think the way they do. I’m not sure that they do either. :P

  11. CommentsAnabella   |  Wednesday, 30 March 2011 at 9:01 am

    Kaylara,
    Thank you for your comment. I haven’t been in the Netherlands, so I didn’t know about that.It must be difficult to have all that opposition. It’s important, like you said, for you to keep speaking English to your kid. Good luck!

  12. CommentsUte   |  Thursday, 13 September 2012 at 4:34 am

    I like your post, Anabella. My two 6 year old twins (and a 9 year old son) are growing up multilingual: german, dutch, english, italian (and swissgerman). I am multilingual myself (bilingual: italian, german and I regularly talk french, english, dutch). I think it’s even more challenging for twins to stick to one or two (or more) languages in a consistent way, especially if they spend most of the time together. They will always understand eachother, even if the sentences are not grammatically correct. I see a big difference in their acquisition and knowledge of the languages they’re exposed to, compared to my son or myself at their age. However, about the code mixing: I wouldn’t insist too much right now. Maybe when they go to school ,you can start to ask more consistence in their output. Now they are still learning the vocabulary, the morphology and syntax etc. of the languages they use every day. They don’t think in boxes, so if one word is more familiar in one language and they know that the person(s) listening to them know all the languages, they don’t bother to search for the equivalent word in the language they are supposed to use. – To be honest, I still do it when I’m tired and I know that the person I’m talking to is able to understand what I mean.

  13. CommentsVanessa   |  Saturday, 06 September 2014 at 8:46 pm

    Hola Anabella gracias por compartir tu experiencia. Yo tengo mellizas de 20 meses y estoy en una disyuntiva porque no se si debo considerar que tienen un retraso de lenguaje y llevarlas a intervencion temprana o estan dentro del desarollo de lenguaje normal de “gemelos/mellizos”. Ellas estan expuestas al espanol un 45%, al rumano un 45% y al ingles un 10%. El espanol y el rumano que son sus lenguajes dominantes lo entienden muy bien. Pueden seguir ordenes en los dos idiomas, saben las partes de su cuerpo y prendas de vestir y algunos objetos familiares en los dos idiomas. Pero expresivamente solo dicen “mama”ocasionalmente, unos dos sonidos de animales y dicen las vocales en espanol cuando quieren una cancion que se refiere a las vocales. Podrias contarme a que edad empezaron a decir sus primeras palabras tus hijas y si las evaluastes en intervencion temprana. Gracias por tu respuesta.









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