We’ve lived in Mexico on-and-off for five years now and my two older children’s Spanish was forming in their brains… they understood almost everything but were reticent to pass those words to their mouths. This month we moved to a gated community in Playa del Carmen, the kind of 1970s suburban dream where packs of kids play unsupervised in the neighborhood and soon little boys and girls are buzzing into your house, asking, “Can they come play?” (In Spanish, because of course most of the kids don’t speak English, especially the younger ones.)
“Tu quieres jugar?” my daughter asks and quickly adds, “Yo quiero jugar!” and runs to get her shoes. She doesn’t pronounce Yo, like I do. She’s modified her pronunciation of Yo as Jo and had the cadence of the language so well even with her limited vocabulary native speakers assume she’s completely fluent.
What does it take to get kids to speak a language?
1. A need
2. A strong desire
3. No other options
So the other night, my son explained in stilted Spanish how to play Marco Polo in the pool, because the kids didn’t speak a lick of English. Close your eyes. Hide. Find me. “Marco Polo,” he sang, nodding furiously–and it worked. It was broken Spanish, but for a kid who has been repeating the phrase, “Hablo espanol un poquito” as his greeting for years, he was now playing in Spanish, utilizing his vocabulary and picking up new words everyday. Funny thing is, he has has no idea that his Spanish is getting better. He still says he can’t speak it. Yet, there I was, holding the baby, sitting by the pool, watching my 7-year-old convince two pre-teens to play Marco Polo with him, completely in Spanish.
This explosion in speaking skills has made me think we did it wrong for many years: entering ourselves in city centers, surrounded by adults. Now we’re far from the cultural hubs, but the access to kids who only speak Spanish has changed everything.
Want to recreate this experience?
First, find the area you want to live in. Start with large cities: Puerto Vallarta, San Miguel de Allende, and Playa del Carmen. Look on Facebook for rental groups for that area. (For some reason much of Mexican real estate has moved to FB.) Or look at Viva Anuncios (popular in Oaxaca and other areas), Andale (for Playa del Carmen) or Craigslist (usually vacation properties) and look for a house in a fraccionamiento — preferably a gated community with a security guard so you know your kids will be contained to your neighborhood and there won’t be thru traffic. This means your kids are safe to run around from house to house, play together in the community area and won’t be in danger of traffic, wandering off or strangers getting past the security guards.
The next level is to hire a Spanish-speaking niñera (nanny) at about 25 pesos per child per hour, and you’ll be well on your way to bilingual kids. Even if you don’t speak Spanish, with a little help from google translate, you can post a listing in a local FB group (search for expats plus the name of your city – for us it was called “un bolso de trabajos en Playa de Carmen.” Be sure to select someone who won’t speak English around your kids. (Our nanny understands English but has promised to never speak it, and in three months has kept her word.) The kids get sopita for lunch, with tortillas. If they want more water, it’s “Quiero agua.” If they speak in English, she doesn’t respond. Hunger and thirst do wonders for a child’s willingness to use a language.
In the beginning they grunted Agua! (water) And Mas! (more) at her, but over these past few months she’s worked on their phrasing, and they now ask more politely in complete sentences. They always knew the words, but now they use them in a more culturally appropriate context.
Since I speak Spanish (albeit imperfectly), I use Spanish when the Nanny is around (9am-5pm), when talking to the kids and to her. When she goes home, we switch to English.
We’re a homeschooling family, but I know if I also put them in a local school it would go even faster. However, for us we have other goals… my oldest wants to learn robotics and my other two are too little for school. So we’re compromising a little on the full immersion with writing, history, math, science and other subjects in Spanish to pursue other academic goals. For us, it’s a good balance.
Bilingualism isn’t just a goal, but an entrance into the community. My kids have always wanted friends and after being burned hard when traveling families leave (and we miss them), we now have a permanent community where my children can form bonds with no risk of them jetting off to Europe next week. We still intend to travel, but this homebase and community has been so important to my young (7 and 4) children’s happiness. It just so happens they are picking up Spanish along the way.