When A Third Language Is Like A Slap In the Face

My daughter is learning Chinese. Every day at school, she spends one hour singing songs, playing games, and learning vocabulary. I sat in on her class one day, and it was incredible. I watched her raise her little hand and gleefully translate from Mandarin to English. And I was blown away.

And then I was like, what on earth?

We've been trying to get our kids to speak Spanish since birth. And they rarely do. But now, I hear myself hollering, "Stop fighting about Chinese!" from the front seat of the car while the two of them bicker about make believe dialogues Gabriella has created in the back.

I feel a weird mix of utter amazement that my kid is learning three languages, and how proud of her I am, and how wildly awesome the human brain is. But I also feel frustrated, and just a touch like I've been slapped in the face.

Why can't my kids be arguing in or about Spanish? (Bigger question: Why can't they just stop arguing altogether... or at least for six consecutive minutes?) But why does Spanish so often feel like a chore or a fight when Gabriella will eagerly sing me Mandarin songs or watch YouTube videos from class next to me on the couch?

So I had to step back and really think. And I actually have a few ideas why she's more engaged in her Chinese language learning. And thinking through these 5 reasons has also given me some fresh thought about how to re-engage her in Spanish once again.

#1 Technique

Often, the ways we're using Spanish is functional. We practice how to ask abuelita for breakfast when she's babysitting or how to talk about the day on video chat. Chinese, on the other hand, is fun. It's silly songs and robot bodies with Hello Kitty heads.

Check out this list of 101 Spanish Shows on Netflix and let the bilingual binging begin!

#2 - Expertise

In our house, Gabriella is the Chinese master. Billy (and to a lesser extent, me) is trying to learn along with her, and he's constantly asking her questions. She's already miles ahead of us all. Compare that feeling with the frustration she experiences when she tries to understand Billy in Spanish or attempts to communicate, but can't find the words?

#3 - Community

We know other bilingual English and Spanish kids. But every day at school, she gets to practice Chinese with twenty-two of her favorite classmates. Social motivation is huge for Gabriella, and she loves being along for the ride with all her péngyǒu (friends).

#4 - Culture

Gabriella recently asked if we could go to a Chinese restaurant and eat Chinese food. She's learning about culture at school, and she's fascinated. I've always been intentional to include Guatemalan and Latin American culture in our life and home, but I forget that, to her, American-Guatemalan cultural heritage is "normal." So she wants to explore something new, which is fun and interesting.

#5 - Consistency

Oh, language learning consistency. And as much as we try, we are simply not consistent with Spanish. Which means Gabriella gets excited for a minute ("We're going to always speak Spanish at dinner!), but then interest wanes when we get out of practice. And it prevents her from advancing as we're always starting back at the beginning, it feels.

Where do we go from here?

I'm thrilled Gabriella is learning a third language. But I do worry it will eclipse her Spanish skills in the long run. And while there's not much good that can come from fretting about that, I can learn from her incredible Chinese teachers and consider how we can reignite her interest in Spanish.

How can we make it more fun? Where can we help her achieve a sense of accomplishment? How can we incorporate community into the learning experience? Are there new ways we can engage culture? And can we develop more consistency to help her grow? (I already have an idea the answer to that last one, but we'll keep trying!)

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