How my toddler is learning different languages

Hola kaibigan! How my toddler is learning different languages
This morning, my toddler was reading the Spanish translation of How to Catch a Star. He started moving his finger under the words and reading them out loud in “Spanish.” Unfortunately the words weren’t real Spanish words, but in his mind I’m sure it was—he even said them with a Spanish accént-o!

At two years old, my toddler speaks English and Tagalog and knows a lot of Spanish words. Even though my husband is Mexican and I’m Filipino, we’re terrible resources for languages because we don’t speak them often enough (and definitely not to each other). Instead, we rely on our families to expose him to different languages. My aunt (who watches LO when we’re in the office) speaks to him in Tagalog so he can speak and understand that language quite well. And when we’re at Grandma’s, my husband reminds his mom to speak to LO, “¡en español, por favor!”

We also borrow at least one Spanish book a week at the library that his dad reads to him (sadly there aren’t many Tagalog translations of popular children’s books). He may not follow the story as well, but we’re hoping that hearing the words will help him remember and understand them, especially in relation to the pictures he sees.

And we substitute words in English for Spanish and Tagalog. For instance, we say ibon for bird or gato for cat. The downside is that he doesn’t hear or speak the languages in proper grammar; we’re still using the English grammar. So we might say, “Look at the ibon flying in the air!” or “Do you see the gato?” But at least he’ll have a general translation of some common words. In fact, when we’re out and about and he hears a conversation in Spanish, he’ll point out that they’re speaking “Spanish!”

Ironically, I’m not sure if my toddler will speak or understand the two languages when he grows up. Unless he’s immersed in the language where he hears and speaks it every day, he’s likely to lose it in preference for English. I’m a classic example: I grew up in the Philippines for the first eight years of my life, but two years after living here in the States I stopped speaking Tagalog (even though I can still understand). I’m guessing that unless he constantly practices, he’ll probably just understand the languages as well without speaking them.

Why do we still promote different languages then, if there’s no guarantee that he’ll even speak fluently as an adult? I’ve read a few studies on the benefits of bilingualism on early brain development, including better focus despite distractions and the ability to disregard irrelevant information. For instance, if you show a bilingual child the word “red” written in blue and ask him what the word says, he’s likelier to say “red” whereas a child who speaks only one language is likelier to say “blue.”

We also like exposing our toddler to different languages because that’s such a huge part of a people’s culture. Especially since he’s mixed ethnicity living in the U.S., we want to raise him with an awareness and appreciation of his culture and family. He’ll hopefully understand how global our world is, and that there’s a wider scope beyond the small world he has known.

Do you teach your kids a second (or third) language? What benefits have you seen?

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4 thoughts on “How my toddler is learning different languages

  1. Hi,
    this is so true.
    I try to speak Urdu to my son,
    “moohn kee kulo,” (open your mouth) but I don’t know it nearly as much as my husband. He speaks Urdu to the baby sometimes, but he finds himself speaking English also. We video chat with his parents in PK and they speak Urdu, but I am afraid that he won’t know very much Urdu. the only other thing is that I do play Urdu songs for him. Have you checked out Putumayo Kids Presence, they have some world compilations, but I know don’t if any of their songs are in tagalog.
    Great post.

    • Thanks so much for telling me about Putumayo! I just looked through the site and have bookmarked the page with the CDs. I may even be able to find some at the library.

  2. That is awesome! If I knew another language, I would definitely be teaching it to the children. My almost-four-year old knows a few of the prayers in Hebrew, but I doubt she knows the translations. It’s simply memorization and an understanding of the basic premise behind the prayer, such as “this means it’s now Shabbat” or “this means we can eat dinner.” What an amazing thing for your child to be exposed to so many languages and cultures.

    • It’s still pretty cool that your four-year-old knows her prayers, even if it’s more out of memorization, because it still roots her to her culture in some way. I still remember when we had to learn the Hail Mary and for so many years I would recite it, “blessed is the fruit of diamond Jesus” instead of “blessed is the fruit of thy whom Jesus” hahahaha.

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