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Ya’ll that know us know that we’re a bilingual family. That happened two ways.

Real way: Girl meets guy. Guy happens to be Hispanic. Girl and Guy get married and have little senoritas.

Joke way: Guy meets girl. Girl happens to be from Alabama. Guy and girl meet and have little Southern Belles.

Oh, don’t worry, Hubbie and I could tell those jokes FOR DAYS. Really.

Anyway, when Hubbie and I got married we were both in full agreement that all our children would learn Spanish. I was fully for it because from my work in the recruiting world, I knew how much of a boost to their careers and professional opportunities it would be to have multiple languages under their belt. Hubbie wanted to pass down that part of his culture and family.

Yet, in all of “our” (I say that in quotes because I’m the one that reads it first and then usually pass it along to Hubbie) reading and research, we’ve come to learn that there is a bigger benefit:

If you parlez francais, sprechen Deutsch or habla espanol, good for you. According to a study by the Rotman Research Institute in Toronto, being bilingual sharpens the mind, improves your ability to zero in on important info and ignore distractions, and even forestalls the symptoms of Alzheimer’s. Alas, your high school French, German, or Spanish won’t do the trick. You have to use two languages all the time, since it’s the switching back and forth that boosts brainpower. Berlitz, anyone?

-Family Circle, October 2011

That’s just one quick snippet that I read just recently, but does emphasize the basics of what I’ve read in other places (which I seem to have misplaced. Ooops).

Here’s another great blurb from the same magazine:

Only 9% of Americans are bilingual, compared with a rate of 65% in the rest of the world, according to the Census Bureau. Maybe that’s why 67% of US parents would choose that their child take up a second language over a new sport.

I know that part of that is because parents are looking for any little thing that will help their children be successful in the future, but I am now more personally interested in the idea that being exposed to multiple languages rewires the brain. (This is the article I can’t currently find, but will add here if it shows up.) Basically, the act of listening to more than one language on a regular/constant basis before the age of two actually adds more synapses between the two sides of the brain.

Recently, this article showed up in my inbox: “The Brain-Growing Magic of Foreign Languages.” It has some great suggestions on how to incorporate a second language into your child’s life – music (specifically children’s music), foods, a bilingual babysitter, and even aps.

I think the best idea from this article is all about “investigating your local community.” No, not everyone can go spend two years living in a foreign country immersed in the language like we have. But you can visit a restaurant that serves food from that country, look for groceries that cater to that market (there’s always a “Hispanic” grocery store somewhere). Depending on where in the country you live, there might be a university or college with a large international population.

I really suggest finding a church that offers services in different languages. That is my favorite. When we lived in Croatia, I actually picked up a bit of the local language just from singing popular praise songs that had been translated into Croat. Not enough to actually be useful, mind you. But at least a word here or there. However, most of the time you will find a wonderfully welcome group of people who will be very encouraging of your language efforts. (When I lived in New York years ago, I once ended up at a Filipino Baptist Church by accident. They were the most wonderful group of people and practically wanted to adopt me. Heck, one of the “old ladies” at the church felt so sorry for me that I wasn’t already married with ten kids, that she was trying to find me a “good young man!) Oh, and they usually love to feed you too!

I’ve also read in the past that the best way to be a “real” bilingual family is to have to have one parent speak only in one language and the other parent only speak in the other. Well, in our case, I’m not such a fan of that. I don’t like being left out! But, since Hubbie is the primary Spanish speaker in our family, he does speak primarily all Spanish to the girls (at least they are not learning it with my horrible accent).

So, here are some additional things we’ve tried as a family.

Flash Cards – We have a massive flash card collection at our home! Started when our oldest was just a baby, we have great picture flash cards. For the ones that are not already in Spanish, Hubbie took a label maker and added the translation. These helped me as well.

Translated Mommy-isms Quite often I would call Hubbie at work and ask “How do you say ___ in Spanish, because she certainly doesn’t listen to me in English!” So the first real things in Spanish that I learned to say were “Don’t touch,” “Don’t do that,” “Do you want more ___”, and “Did you pee/poop?”. You know, the basics! In fact, it wasn’t until this past year being home in Alabama did my girls call poop “poop.” Our youngest still calls milk “leche.” Basically certain words and certain phrases in our house just became “Spanish.”

Reading Just like you read books to your child already, add in books of the language you’re learning! Really small children or babies could care less if you understand the book yourself, as long as you have decent pronunciation and make it fun. Older kids will ask you a million questions, so pick the easiest books you can find to start with. You can also get audio books, or try some of the Nook “Read to Me” books that will do the work for you!

Cartoons No this isn’t the best choice in the world (encouraging watching TV), BUT I will say that Dora helps keep both girls interested and enthused about learning Spanish. They identify with Dora. So, we keep it, even if it makes me want to poke my eyes out.

Immersion For us, immersion is the best way to learn a language and learn it quickly. It’s not completely necessary to leave the US to do this! For us, we just take a trip to the in-law’s house! You can also cultivate friendship with other families that speak that language and arrange playdates. Trust me, if a kid wants to play, they will find a way to do it. In many areas, public schools are offering a language immersion program. It takes more work, but it is possible.

Classes Okay, this really pertains more to me than the girls at this point. I’ve tried some “self-study” books, a Distance Language Learning Course through the US State Department, and private tutoring. All of those helped me with the technical parts of learning vocabulary and grammar. But the absolute best thing I’ve ever done was go to the grocery store. When I first move to a new country, going to the grocery store can take several hours – I walk up and down the aisles, trying to figure out what things are called, trying to read labels, etc.  So see if you can find a native speaker that will take you on field trips around town. You’ll learn to do all sorts of things like get your nails done, buy groceries, and explain to the plumber what’s wrong with your faucet. Oh, and how to ask where the bathroom is. Also a very important life skill.

Pocket Translator  This has been a very handy tool while I am out and about. No more calling Hubbie twenty times a day to ask “what is ____”. I’m sure he appreciates that.

So there ya have it. Great ways to include a second language in your family life, even if you can’t move overseas to do it. Please comment below and let me know of any other ideas you might have, because I can always use new ideas!