Learn Safari is very excited this guest post from Carol Cox. Carol is an accomplished English teacher from Venezuela and her bilingual story is very inspirational. We hope you enjoy!
My Own Bilingual Journey
Growing up in Venezuela, you would think that I had grown up speaking Spanish, right? Think again! My parents are originally from Luffkin, Texas. They moved to Venezuela in 1948, during the oil boom. Daddy sold industrial laundry equipment and while making a sale to Creole, he took over their laundry concession and the rest, as they say, is history. Mom and Dad never learned to speak Spanish correctly nor fluently, too many of their friends wanted to practice their English with a native speaker, and Mother did her best to conserve her lifestyle; American foods, English-speaking church, trips home in the summer. My sister and I were born in Venezuela, but attended an International School where we received 2 hours of Spanish a week. Exposure to Spanish was limited to shop people and the housekeeper.
This all changed in high-school. My dad decided that he wasn’t going to send us away to college in the US, so we would study in the excellent universities of Venezuela. To do that, we needed to speak Spanish. Thus he enrolled us in an all-girl Catholic school. Talk about culture shock! We had been attending an English-speaking school with small classrooms, no more than 10 students per class. And suddenly we were thrust into classrooms of 45 girls who spoke no English. Believe me, we picked up Spanish very quickly, and made some life-long friends along the way. We were teased because of our accent, but corrected when we made grammatical mistakes. I was put back 2 years due to differences in the curricula. But we learned to speak, read and write in Spanish to the point where we are both completely fluent in both languages.
My First Born- a Late Talker
I never made it to college. I met and married my husband right out of high-school, and two years later we welcomed our son into this world. He was a happy baby, with a deep belly laugh that was highly contagious. Loved and spoiled by both sets of grandparents. They were saddened to see us move to the US while my husband studied in the university, and I traveled back and forth with the baby. He would chatter away but he didn’t actually say anything. By the time he was 3, I took him to several doctors to check his hearing, but the results came back fine, he just didn’t want to speak. The pediatrician suggested I enroll him in a pre-school, and so I did. He started talking clearly 3 months later. Back then we had never heard of OPOL, we just did it. I constantly exposed him to English, speaking and singing to him, putting him in an English-language day care. My sister would send me Betamax tapes with Saturday cartoons for when we were in Venezuela and I bought story books, lots of books. My husband’s family spoke to him in Spanish. And he eventually attended Venezuelan schools. We would spend summers in Texas, as my parents had retired there by then, and my sister had moved there with them. He loved Texas! And his English has a strong hint of a Texas accent. He is grown up now and still bilingual. He reads and writes it well, even though he never formally studied English. Exposure to the target language seemed to have worked with him. He still lives and works in Venezuela and now has 3 sons of his own. He and I have worked hard to make them bilingual as well. It is working so far.
My husband graduated with a degree in Broadcast Management, in English!!! Before we left for him to study in the US, he had attended a newly opened binational language center to learn English and take the TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language). His teachers there were native speakers: Canadians, Trinidadians, Grenadians, a few British ex-pats. Remember English is the primary language in many countries and islands of the Caribbean. He learned very proper English and had a big problem understanding anyone in Texas! But after a few months of total immersion, he picked up the “lingo” fairly quickly.
My Daughter - a Refusal to Speak English
Four years after our son was born, back in Venezuela, settled in and both of us working, we decided to try for a second child. Our daughter arrived kicking and screaming right on schedule. We tried to follow what we had done with our son, exposing her to English and Spanish through the OPOL method, VHS tapes, books and songs. She spoke earlier, by age 2, but preferred Spanish. We continued going to Texas during summers to stay with my parents and she attended Venezuelan day-care. However, by the time she was 5 or 6 years old, she told me firmly – “no English, mommy. No quiero English”. I continued to speak to her in English as did my parents, and she would answer back in Spanish, so I knew it was being assimilated. She studied in Venezuelan schools, where she was taught 2 hours of English a week in high-school.
When she turned 14, she suddenly decided she needed to speak English. So we enrolled her in the same bi-national center her father had studied in years prior. She took a placement test and was placed fairly well. Being a good student, she learned quickly and well, graduating with top grades. She went on to study in a Venezuelan university majoring in Graphic Design with a minor in Education. She worked for 10 years in an English language Day-care, and with a major publishing company in their teacher training program, before marrying her long-time boyfriend and presenting us with a granddaughter. She is now working virtually from home (as Community Manager for none other than Learn Safari!) and is dedicated to teaching her child to be bi-lingual. She has cable TV with English-language options, laptops and tablets, and many books, which are all wonderful tools for language learning. Our son in law speaks to our grand-daughter in Spanish and exposes her to heavy metal and car-tuning shows. It seems to be working well, so far.
A Surprise – My Trilingual Child
Did I mention that when I turned 40, I had one last child? Our 2 older children were 18 and 14 respectively. My parents had returned to Venezuela as retirement bored them and 3 of their daughters lived here with their families. I was working for them so my children were very close to their grandparents and their aunts and cousins. Family is important in many ways, including language learning. I began having random “female troubles”, so I went in for a medical check-up. I was recommended a hysterectomy. Imagine my surprise when I went for a pre-surgery sonogram and was told I was 10 weeks pregnant! Our last child, a daughter, was born without complications 2 weeks early. She has been a bright, happy child. I quit my job when she was born and was a stay at home mom. We spoke to her in English and Spanish pretty much as we had with her brother and sister. I enrolled her in daycare and went back to work. This time at the bi-national center as an EFL/ESL teacher. I could work fewer hours and be at home when the kids were home from school.
By this time my parents became very attached to my youngest child and would “kidnap” her for several days at a time. She spoke mostly English until she was 7, when she entered first grade in the Venezuelan school system. She would spend her summers with me at the Center’s summer English program for children. So Spanish was a problem for her. She could speak and understand it, but English was her first language. You could see her visibly switching from one language to another. It wasn’t a fluid transition. What could I do about it? One solution was theater. There was a theater group at the bi-national center and she was active in it. She was always involved in the book-club at the library and a girl scout for a few years. So, total immersion in Spanish helped her a lot. Today she has graduated from the university in Spanish, is fully bilingual and does most of her work on line, in both languages. By the way, she also speaks Japanese. In her late teens, she found a private teacher who would accept her as a student. She has really enjoyed it. Being multi-lingual is a distinct advantage on her resume as she begins job hunting.
As it turns out, there are many ways to raise bilingual children. We did not have a formula, we did not follow a plan and specific rules. We trusted our instinct, we loved our children, and we made adjustments along the way to meet their individual needs. The important factor is to make sure they are exposed to the target languages and that you never give up on them, or yourself.
What language strategy do you use in your household? We’d love to hear your story in the comments!
About the Author
A long time English teacher in Venezuela, Carol Cox is an amazing baker and crafter. She is the mother of 3 and the grandmother of 4. You can get to know her more by following her on Pinterest.