Even in a family friendly and worldly metropolitan area like the Twin Cities, a parent can find himself in a bind. The long, dreary, cold winter can some times limit your options for kid activities, so when you’ve taken your children to the Zoo, the Children’s Museum, the Science Museum, and the indoor playground so often in recent weeks that your children threaten mutiny and the museum and the mall staff begin to recognize you and flash you a gaze of quiet judgement and disappointment, you have no option but to keep everybody home.
But those extended periods of self-imposed house arrest can be a boon to bilingual upbringing if you can muster the energy and mental fortitude to do the work.
Starting this past Thanksgiving, I began to notice that both my boys (especially Gabe, the older one) were resorting to English words, and even entire sentences, when speaking to me. I attribute this both to exhaustion and overstimulation as a result of the festivities, but mostly, I attribute it to the increased amount of time they spent with their English-speaking relatives and my having to be away for a couple of days due to work. So our post-Christmas and post-New Year’s breaks were catch-up time for Papá.
How does one counterbalance the influence of the mainstream language when it dwarfs your children’s exposure to their Papás wacky native tongue? — You talk a lot!
In my case, the key lies (and here is where energy and mental fortitude are needed) in engaging your kids in conversation about things they give two hoots about. I know I’m stating the obvious here, but how else am I going to fill a page today? Bear with me:
How this covert “yap in Spanish” operation plays out with my kids is that you can tell them stories about super heroes for hours on end without them getting tired (what happens to my almost middle-aged brain is a different story). And the super hero narrative can then be applied to whatever activity you come up with in your desperate state of cabin fever. So for as long as I can speak without wanting to yank my tonsils out, I will sit down with them and tell them ad lib stories about our own private cast of ridiculous super heroes (e.g. “Friendly Ninja”, “Super Photo”, “Owl”, “Soup Man”, etc). Then we’ll horse around on the rug while pretending to be the aforementioned super heroes or one of the villains (“Guadalberto”, “Neutro”), peppering the kicking, wedgying, and couch-jumping with highfalutin and grandiose dialogue that allows me to throw in some fancy words and complex dialogue (think “this is the end of the road for your sinister plan, oh wretched foe” or something like that). Once we’re all sweaty enough, we will move to our typical spear, hatchet, or spaceship-making out of recycled cardboard and duct tape, again verbally declaring our plans and intentions to crush our enemy. And if we still have time to kill before dinner and bath, we can wind down by drawing and coloring the fantastic, testosterone-fueled ubermale worlds we’ve been acting out all day.
It could be just a coincidence, but for the past two weeks, I find my boys’ Spanish to have been virtually fine-tuned. There is very little slipping into English and there is a magnified and totally exhausting enthusiasm for our cast of super hero characters. But like I’ve written before, beyond the language benefit of all this talking, reading, drawing, horseplay, cutting and taping, there is a palpable closeness that comes from our shared silly super hero mythology.
What all of this provides to an unfocused and undisciplined parent like me who doesn’t dedicate enough time to reading about parenting and about bilingual upbringing is a neatly packaged set of proven tactics that help me be close to my children while they learn my native language without even realizing it.