“Eso fue SO exciting!” “Mamá, dónde está mi casqueta?” and “Quiero una pomme de terre!” are typical phrases you’ll hear on a daily basis in my casa. Frenglish, Spanglish, Esfrañol is what happens when you add more than one language into the mix. My family’s adventure into becoming a multilingual household began in 2012. I am not an expert in linguistics or any relevant language field, yet the wild idea that began as wishful thinking of gifting my kids more than one mother tongue has shown to be fruitful, chaotic, and enriching.
I never envisioned having multilingual children. But then I married JP. You see when I met him in Mexico, apart from being completely smitten by him, if I had to describe him in one word, it would be: multicultural.
He was American by birth, but Mexican by family heritage. He spoke English and Spanish perfectly. You couldn’t tell which was his mother tongue. The way he dressed, the way he talked or engaged in conversation, well, to me seemed very American. And I liked that about him. He was different.
So I did what any sensible girl would do. I went after the guy, pretended to be his friend for six months, stuck my fist in my mouth at a nightclub to get his attention…just kidding. Not really. But that is for another time.
Back to the story. We started dating and I learned that he also spoke French. Cool, I thought – For when he takes me to Paris or to help me pronounce French wines (Two things I still have yet to accomplish by the way). But little did I know that this single fact was going to change the way I live my everyday life now.
We got married in 2010, moved to Mexico City in 2011 and a year later found out that we were pregnant. We decided that I was going to speak to the baby in Spanish and that he was going to speak in English. Then we moved to San Antonio, and our plans had to change. Since English was going to be learned organically, and I would speak to our baby in Spanish, he told me “Okay, I´ll speak to her in French.” Et voila.
I could tell it was hard for him. Not the language part per se. He is fluent in French. But the part of having to force yourself to use a language that doesn’t come naturally when speaking tender words to your newborn. Spanish came more naturally to him in that sense. But that didn’t stop him. He adapted.
He also had to learn new words. He had to learn how to say things like diapers, strollers, pacifier, blankie, and all the new vocabulary he obviously didn’t have the need to learn when he was a twenty-something living “la vida“ in his year abroad in Montpellier. He even learned nursery rhymes. We became fans of “Monde des petits tounis” an online French channel with songs and stories.
He persevered. He stuck to his word. He, to this day, only speaks in French to our four kids. I couldn’t be prouder of him.
Let me also say that, we didn’t know if what we were doing was right or if we were going to mess up and confuse our kids, honestly. We were told by a good friend who is a teacher that as long as he spoke only in French, and I only in spoke in Spanish to the kids, it would work.
I cannot express the satisfaction I saw in his eyes when our daughter started babbling her first French words. Like “lo-lo” for water (l’eau) or “neh-neh” for nose (le nez). It worked!
For a year or so you are practically just feeding information to a tiny human, not knowing what the outcome will be. Then you see the result and it is just fascinating. As everyone says, babies truly are like sponges!
Now our kids are 7, 5, 3, and eleven months old. In some ways the language part has become more challenging because now with English being so prominent in their lives, we have to be diligent about keeping the other two languages relevant.
I did a little research and found out that what we actually do in regards to raising bilingual or in this case trilingual children, has a name. It is called the OPOL method, or “one person, one language” approach.
Tips for Using the OPOL Method at Home
If you follow OPOL method like we did, these would be the seven things I would recommend.
Only speak to them in that language.
This can be hard especially if it’s not your first language. For me it is easy because I grew up speaking Spanish. For my husband on the other hand, it can be challenging. Sometimes the words come out easily in the language you are used to speaking the most, but your children will respond better if you follow this. They will identify you with that language. Each parent is a different scenario for them. They switch languages very easily and they do so instinctively.
Pay close attention to the pronunciation. Since you are the most important source of language to them, whatever mistakes you let pass will become harder to correct in the long run. Make it playful. In Spanish, for example, I make them roll their “r’s” with a poem. But if not, a simple repetition of the word in the correct pronunciation, is enough.
When they talk to you, it has to be in the same language.
It is very easy to fall off the wagon with this one. My kids often ask me for things in English, and because I understand them, I could very easily respond to them back. Instead, I just tell them, “en Español” or if they don’t know the word I tell them the word in Spanish and then they repeat it. Don’t tell them “I don’t understand you” if you actually do. Because kids are smart. Just remind them in what language you speak something like: “Daddy speaks to you in French,” or “In Spanish please.”
Have them learn about the culture behind the language.
This has played a huge role in their love for both their Spanish and French knowledge. Language serves as a gate to expand our love for cultures, people and places. Have them read about the country your language comes from. Show it to them on a map. Have them try native foods. Teach them about the festivals, traditions, and history of the place or places where the language comes from.
Have other people talk to them in that language.
Listening to different accents in the same language will train their ear. I notice that when we come back from a trip to Mexico, their Spanish improves greatly. In our case, we don’t have people close to us that can speak to our kids in French. So, the next point is very helpful.
Take in movies, books, and materials in those languages.
Have your kids watch everything that is available to them in the less-used language in your household. To our delight, both Disney + and Netflix have many shows in French which is always our first option. If not, Spanish comes in second. Having all this available to them will reinforce the language in a fun way.
Music. Lots of music in that language.
I love this one. Music has such a powerful impact. As I am writing this, my husband has his music on in the kitchen, and sometimes I don’t even realize it is in French as I am so used to it. So are my kids. It is a very natural, almost intuitive way of learning and appreciating another language.
Make the language relevant.
All of these “rules” if you will, that I am sharing with you have one single goal: to make the language relevant in the lives of your kids. If they love it, they will learn it. If they are proud of it, they will continue to pursue their knowledge of it even if you are not around to enforce or teach it. If you make it an essential part of who they are, the grammar, the pronunciation, the spelling, everything will be easier to learn.
What started as an experiment with our daughter has since become a beautiful part of our family life. Mexican, French, and American cultures permeate many aspects of our life. I can even say that I have been a lucky bystander recipient to my husband’s gift to his children. I proudly have the French vocabulary of a seven-year-old and I can hold my own if need be in simple, casual conversations.
I am so thankful for all the wonderful content, music, poems, and movies that I have been exposed to thanks to his willingness to teach his children. A whole world of new enriching entertainment has been made available to me. And that is just the cherry on top.
Being a multicultural, multilingual family can be challenging, and often we want to throw the towel in and call it quits. But most days, I am glad he decided to put in the extra effort.
“Is my dad from France?” my daughter asks.
“No,” I say. “He was born in the United States, but he is also Mexican.”
“And why do we speak French?”
“Because he wants you to know what he knows,” I tell her.
In other words, Le juice is worth le squeeze.