Spanish speaking sitters and nannies are in high demand these days. Eager to give their kids the benefit of a second language, parents are seeking out sitters who will speak Spanish with their little charges.
For nannies from Latin America, the trend is a boon. Suddenly, their Spanish is an asset, not a barrier to getting a job. For families, their kids get an immersion in a second language that no lesson program could hope to match.
Raising a bilingual child is hard work. Even in families like mine, where one parent is a native speaker, the second language often doesn’t “take”. Having a caregiver immerse your child in it for many of her waking hours helps their little brains absorb the language skill and use it.
And more and more research shows how beneficial a second language is for young children. It doesn’t make them “smarter”, but it does lead to more creative thinking. Plus, being multi-lingual is a practical skill all on its own that they can use throughout their lives.
Bilingualism often causes verbal delays; children may speak later, and be slower to expand their vocabulary. But once they do start speaking, they come out with both languages at once.
Cognitive scientists think learning two languages at once in the early years helps to develop the part of the brain that has to do with decision-making. In addition to your verbal skills, it also helps in identifying patterns and solving puzzles.
My daughters were bi-lingual for the first three years of their lives. Their dad is a native Spanish speaker. After 8 years with him, I’ve picked up a very little bit of the language.
My Spanish is about as good as your average toddler’s verbal skills. I can point to a few dozen objects and name them. I can say, but not conjugate, a few simple verbs. When our conversations consisted entirely of, “More milk, Mama!” and “Pee-pee!” and “I want a hug!”, I could get through a whole day without speaking to them in English.
Since they started really speaking, they’ve done so almost totally in English. My husband sees them just a few hours a day, and doesn’t want to speak only Spanish with them. He loves his language, but he loves his family more. Having a conversation with his kids that excludes their mom doesn’t feel good to him, so at home we speak English.
For a few years, the kids had a Brazilian babysitter. Like my husband, she spoke both Spanish and Portugese as well as English. She rarely spoke English with the kids, and under her care, my daughter’s Spanish flowered. Those language skills wilted when we moved away.
That’s typical. To keep a language, children have to use it. Even if they forget the vocabulary, though, they should be able to pick it back up more easily when they’re older because they had the chance to form those phonemes as toddlers.
Do your kids speak a second language at home? Do you wish they would?
Photo: Phil Campbell