Do you think my boys give two hoots about Spanish being a beautiful, romantic language that might give them an edge when dating in the future? Do you think they care if being able to speak more than one language might make them smarter and more valuable to future employers/one-percenters/slave-drivers/overlords? Do you think that at ages 5 and 3 they comprehend the geopolitical and sociocultural forces at work in their heritage, when Skyping with their Abuelita and Tía on weekends just robs them of precious Lego-playing time?
No, they don’t care. What they do care about is that what little television they get to watch at home is comprised mostly (and as of late, almost exclusively) of cartoons in Spanish. And when you expose a boy to 40 minutes of “He-Man Y Los Amos Del Universo”, all he wants to do is get up off the couch, wield any broomstick or tennis racket as if it were a sword, and yell at the top of his lungs: “Por el poder de Grayskull!”. That, my esteemed readers, I recently learned is an example of what’s called “perceived need”.
Recently, I watched an impressive Google Hangout led by the brilliant ladies from SpanglishBaby where they and a group of other bilingual mothers discussed their experiences and tips for dealing with the “bilingual rebellion” stage – that point in a child’s development when no matter how much you’ve suffered to give the ungrateful little brats all your time, money, and what’s left of your wretched soul, they turn around and say: “No, thank you, I’m done talking your ridiculous foreign language”.
At some point in the conversation, Roxana talked about “perceived need” – the understanding that a child needs to develop (or be taught) about why speaking the second language is important. And as the moms discussed the different ways in which they approach this process, it dawned on me how different my experience is — as a Scandinavian recluse trapped in the body of a short little brown Colombian, I’m the first to admit that I haven’t provided as many opportunities as I could for my children to experience Spanish as a necessary language (other than putting them in a Spanish-speaking daycare, which has been great) . And being the attention starved man-child that I am, I took the liberty to share with the SpanglishBaby Google Hangout viewers my own experience: That the “perceived need” in our household is that my boys love, love, love super hero stories and super hero play, so making that hot commodity be predominantly available in Spanish, makes them surprisingly willing to play, speak, read, write, and watch in Spanish.
I realize I’ve written several times before (here and here) about this idea of play or role-playing in our family and how powerful a tool it’s proven to be to ensure that our kids practice and expand their Spanish. But it wasn’t until this week that I realized this is their “perceived need” – my boys want to play, they want to wrestle, they want to pretend they’re He-Man and Lion-O. Their perceived need came from within and it wasn’t taught or hinted at – it was kind of a happy accident. And I believe the role-playing element helps remove any awkwardness they might feel about not being as comfortable with Spanish as they are with English. It takes me back to my pre-teen years in Colombia when pretending to be Axl Rose from Guns ‘N’ Roses or James Hetfield from Metallica made me excited about learning their songs, speaking English when there was no one around to practice with, and pretending to be a bad ass rocker when in reality I was a short nerd.
So, my advice to parents trying to raise bilingual children: make the language an integral part of play: If your boy or girl wants to be Ariel, get the DVD of The Little Mermaid dubbed into the language you’re trying to teach; I’m sure you can find it somewhere on Amazon.com, on YouTube, or through other shady means. Make their favorite character an integral part of your play – pretend with them that you all are the characters from the movie, say the dialogue, expand on it, draw the characters together and talk about it, make up bedtime stories together that take characters from the story but take them to unexpected places and situations. In other words, give up your personal life and work on this, people. It pays off.
I’ll leave you with this long wacky story-telling session with my boys (they are telling me the stories). It starts with Gabe (age 5) telling me a story and running out of steam quickly, and then Sam (age 3) borrowing his brother’s characters and plot and making them his own, and then losing focus and telling the rest of the story while running laps and flailing his arms around the dinner table (not before letting us know that all children on earth will be eaten, which piqued his brother’s interest – “even me?!”). You’ll notice their difficulty with some words (where they resort to English), but overall, they perceive the language to be necessary to our storytelling, and we lose ourselves in the wackiness together.