Questions for a multilingual family

These are the questions I asked before having kids. I still ask some of them every year or so. The kids grow; we move country; they start school… language is such a fluid thing so everything is up for change. Looking back on the six years – nearly seven – since my daughter was born, I would say that some things were easier than we thought. But the biggest surprise was the difference that personality makes.


What is your current linguistic landscape? 

Mum (main caregiver) – English; Dad – French; Community – Spanish


Is it really enough if there’s only one person speaking a given language to them?

Much of the time, the kids only get French from their dad. Because he is bilingual, it would be easy for us all to slip back into English, so we have to be on guard against that. I have nudged French into being a main language at mealtimes, though without directly talking French to the kids. We’ve had to make sure they get lots of time with their dad at weekends, but their French is perfectly fluent, probably as good as their English, and always has been. We’ve relied on books to broaden their vocabulary, but always choosing them for interest first and foremost. They probably make more grammar mistakes than monolingual kids their age. Things like “She sended the letter,” or “Tu as allé au parque?” or “Ça ressemble comme…” from the English “it looks like” or even in the reflexive, as in “Ça se ressemble à …” from the Spanish “Se parece a…“. Still, they are switching between three languages every day, so I figure some ongoing interference is inevitable.


What about the language delay?

What language delay?


What if they reject a language?

This hasn’t happened to us so far, although there is plenty of time left for teenage angst (or is it preteen angst these days?) and other life changes to throw the cat in the pigeons. I ward against it by speaking highly of French language and culture (in age appropriate-terms, so “French culture” = croissants, by the way). As for Spanish, I’m enthusiastic about learning it myself, and we both try hard to speak Spanish to locals even when we could get away with English. Although my 6-year old is not a big fan of school, it hasn’t been an excuse to reject Spanish, and so far we haven’t had any linguistic issues.



Do they mix?

As in do they randomly switch language mid sentence? No, not unless they are talking to bilinguals. Do they sometimes use a French word in an English sentence? Yes, and vice versa. Usually because they have forgotten the word or never learnt it. Sometimes they break off and turn to one of us to ask “How do you say XYZ in French?” Sometimes they adapt a word to make it fit. The other day my son was talking in French about “la lavadoire”, a new take on the Spanish lavadora / French la machine à laver (washing machine). You can’t blame him, I mean it does sound French.


Still, it’s a question of knowing what to use where. I think of how often I say “thingy” or “truc” when speaking, and how I would naturally eliminate that in a job interview.

It’s also a personality thing. My oldest would never use a French word on her English grandparents, for example. My son might. My daughter focuses on expressing information precisely and succinctly and can get blocked if she doesn’t feel she has the right word. She’d rather stay quiet. My son, in complete contrast, communicates more in terms of a general feeling, and he’ll just keep chattering on until you get the word from the context. As he grows we’ll do our best to provide enough vocab to keep up with the chatter.


Overall, though, they are very clear about addressing me in English, their father in French, and the outside world in Spanish.



What about the kids between themselves?

They used to opt for one or the other, depending on what game they were playing or what book they were reading, or who was in the room with them. Then they spent a year speaking almost only French to each other. Even if I said in English, “Go and tell your brother it’s time for dinner,” it would be relayed in French. I think this was triggered by a bit more time spent with cousins (a bit older, so quite impressive) and it could have been influenced by French being closer to Spanish which was becoming a more important language for us all.


But now they have swung back to switching. So far no Spanish between them, though I feel my younger, more talkative, less pedantic child would be perfectly happy if his older sister made a move that way. Not sure how we can keep that at bay, but for now pedantry is on our side.


How can you boost a language if you feel it lacks support?

My quickest and easiest tip is songs. If daddy spends all day at work and comes to the dinner table tired, shortly before bedtime, they’re not going to get much French input. But we make sure to learn lots of French songs and just humming one in the afternoon can get them singing in French together. It’s also great for car journeys, long or short, when the rush to get out the house without forgetting something vital has usually wiped our minds of any brighter, wittier conversation.


Books are a great crutch, and keeping the telly off so they can actually appreciate reading has been a big part of that, I believe. The Petites Poules series was a great hit when my daughter was five and just starting to enjoy reading alone in French. Secret Seven and Tintin followed at six. And they are now rereading Énigmes à tous les étages with great delight. At four and six they need an adult to read it with them first, but they get no end of pleasure out of rereading it alone or huddled together. Now I could really do with new ideas for chapter books or a short story series in French, so leave a comment if you can recommend something!



Although I never speak directly to the kids in French (save on a few very rare occasions for the sake of others), I’ll happily read to them in French. In fact their love of books has grown so that not only will my 6 year old happily read Tintin to herself, so will my 4 year old, even though for him it’s just looking at the pictures and repeating lines he remembers, in French. While daddy’s at work, that’s a big gain in terms of exposure to their minority language.



How does it feel to have trilingual children?

Go to India or Africa and ask mothers there, they’ve been doing it much longer.



Writing and more writing

To prepare the writing part of the DELE exam I have been churning out as many writing pieces from old exam papers as possible. About three texts a week is all I can manage, although in the C1 exam I’ll need to produce two pieces within 80 minutes. It takes me an hour of absolute concentration per piece (not to mention the preceding hour of procrastinatory coffee-making and paper-shuffling), 40 minutes to write, plus extra to work myself up to it and ensure I won’t be interrupted. Mentally, it’s tougher than facing up to a sinkful of dirty pans. In fact it made attacking the mess in the attic room look positively manageable.


What I’ve noticed, working with a stopwatch and counting the words at the end, is that there is no time to write about anything outside of the pautas, the guidelines. By the time I’ve covered the four to six points in the description fairly succinctly, I’ve not only run out of time, I’ve hit the upper word limit. Especially if you take the trouble to link the different ideas in (hopefully) a natural way. You are only given a certain number of answer sheets to write on (three for task 1 and two for task 2) so you can’t just write an essay even if you are a perfectly fluent speed-writer. You obviously don’t want to waste time counting words in the exam so (now the printer is working) I have been printing the official answer sheets from the website and using them each time. That way I have a clear idea how full the pages have to be, so I can see at a glance how I’m doing in the exam and I can adapt while I’m writing.


Blah blah blah

Blah blah blah

Speaking of word limits, nobody can quite agree on the exact figures. Task 1 is usually listed as 220-250, and task 2 is down as either the same, or less: 180-220. El Cronómetro disagrees with itself on the issue (see p.45 vs p.46), and no wonder because the official DELE website is not entirely consistent. The teacher I paid specifically to prepare me for the oral seems to think it is impossible to know. Apparently there has been a change in recent years so I’m sticking to the current guide which gives the longer word limit (sigh) for both and ignoring old test papers that give a lower limit.


I’ve also discovered that in contrast to what it says in El Cronómetro (p.47), there is NO time to write a draft copy – no way. This website corroborates. A brief outline maybe, but then again the pautas act as a rough outline anyway. There are fewer instructions for the first task, the one based on a 5-minute audio, because a lot of the information has to be surmised from the audio. Usually the instructions could be summarised as the following: What does the speaker argue and what do you think and why.


The official website is helpful with old exam questions and an example of a failed prueba and one which passed. From this I was able to work out that I should make more direct reference to the speaker in the audio, saying thinks like: “El punto de vista expuesto por el conferenciante es que…” Or “En la conferencia se exponen tres perspectivas…” It is important to present clearly in the text which ideas are from the speaker and which are your own.


Since Tarea 1 includes a 5-minute audio which is played twice, I figure that text will take me more than half of the 80 minutes, so I need to practise completing Tarea 2 in around 35 minutes. Tarea 2 often includes the option of a letter; I was told by one teacher that you should put your address at top of the page (as in real-life letters) but the example text marked APTO in the official guía only bears the place of writing and date, so I will not be wasting time on a full postal address.


I get my texts corrected and then I review the corrections, sometimes recopying them in categories. Although it’s been a struggle to find the time and the quiet to work, I’ve been buoyed by a noticeable improvement in my writing. I find now I can start a sentence without knowing exactly how I will end it and yet I still manage to end it. I’ve also seen my word count rise very slowly from below 200 in February to 250 words in 40 minutes, and I feel like my texts are more nuanced than before.


I want to keep up the writing practice until the exam, but I somehow have to squeeze in some proper Oral and Listening practice too. If nothing else, this autonomous exam prep is forcing me to be more self-disciplined. And the attic looks a lot better now.

Countdown to the DELE C1

In my house, all worthwhile projects begin with… buying a new book. Because nothing says working hard like spreading lots of resources out on the dining table. With a tonne of papers out, and maybe a highlighter or two, it’s practically a given that I am going to accomplish something. At least I can’t forget I actually have work to get on with.


The countdown to the DELE exam has begun. I won’t sign up until I really feel capable of passing as I don’t relish the thought of paying twice and working myself up to it twice! But I have undertaken to prepare seriously in the hope I’ll be ready. Plus it would be good to justify six months of clutter on the table.

Books out, so I must be working, right?

Books out, so I must be working, right?

However, doing occasional Spanish mock exams is not going to be enough. I have a strong feeling I’m going to need an extra push to get to the lofty C1 level. So here is my action plan, including extras:


  • Work through my C1 preparation book of choiceEl Cronómetro, completing one of the four mock exams about every two weeks. This allows time to do all three writing options for each mock exam (only two are required in the actual exam) and get them corrected, as well as practising the mock orals. By spacing them out I’m hoping to actually see an improvement. When you are studying alone you need some kind of motivation!
  • Writing prompts, lots of them. When you struggle for vocabulary it can block your whole text. You have to express such specific things in such a short time. I was shocked to find out that the writing exam is the same duration as for B2, that is, 80 minutes, but you have to write more words (instead of 2 x 150-180, it’s 220-250 + 180-220, and there’s a 5 minute audio to listen to first for Task 1). It’s already cost me a fair amount of primetime, those rare quiet moments when the laundry is out, the dishwasher is sloshing away, the kids are at school, and I have that thing called FREE time. Since January I have churned out a dozen B2 writing prompts and I am now ready to begin El Cronómetro C1.
  • Read novels – a good way to use even a few quiet minutes. Following a recommendation, I brought La Sombra del Viento home from the library, I think the level is right (B2/C1) but it’s a lot longer than I had expected!

    La Sombra del Viento

    La Sombra del Viento

  • Read books about Spanish (or about Spain) in English – at the moment I have In the Garlic on my bedside shelf. It’s so easy to read a few entries at a time.
  • Watch a Spanish sitcom (or whatever takes your fancy). Documentaries and more serious telly would be good for the writing exam. But the listening includes a fair few colloquialisms, so lightweight watching is good for this, better even than reading dialogues perhaps, since you get the body language. It’s also a way to do some easy Spanish when you just can’t face all those great books you ordered off Amazon.
  • Talk more. I’m not someone who normally strikes up conversations with strangers, but drastic measures are required here, so you might find me chatting with old biddies in the park, with the librarian who thinks he has Irish roots because he likes whiskey, and with anyone else who crosses my path. Just one way that learning a language can alter your personality!
  • Listen to the radio. In France I had the radio on all the time because I was living on my own. But now I have my own family I barely ever turn it on. The house is rarely quiet enough, and if it is then I enjoy the fact that I can hear myself think for once! I got through the B2 listening by speed-reading the texts before the audio came on, but I won’t be able to do that with the C1 as the texts are longer as well as harder, and the options are much more subtle. These days at least you can choose a podcast on a topic you are interested in.
  • Get some professional help for the oral. I am considering going to the language centre where the exam takes place for a few private lessons in which I could practise the oral in the month or two before the exam. I could do with some guidance from accredited examiners as this is by far my weakest point.


La Sombra del Viento

La Sombra del Viento


Here are some of the expressions I’ve been learning to squeeze into writing pieces:


  • no obstante – nevertheless, however (makes a change from sin embargo)
  • ahora bien – however (less formal), that said
  • o sea – or rather, in other words
  • por lo tanto – therefore
  • a modo de ilustración – a variant of por ejemplo
  • en cuanto a – as for
  • no se puede negar que – it cannot be denied that
  • de toda evidencia – evidently
  • esto nos lleva a la conclusión inevitable que – this leads us to the inevitable conclusion that

Being British about being rubbish

I found in my letterbox this week an advert for a language institute, with upbeat promises of imminent proficiency and the slogan A hablar se aprende hablando! Granted, but there’s a very British obstacle to learning to speak by speaking which was particularly evident during my course.


This is my third year of the Casa de Cultura course. Although there are – officially – four levels, students of any level are free to join the class at any point over the year. Despite the lack of structure and the fact that it’s only three hours a week, it has actually been an invaluable course which got me through the DELE exams (B1 and B2), along with websites like and my trusty exam guide El Cronómetro.


Apart from it being cheap and very close to my home, two major pull factors for me, the other big selling point is that all nationalities are mixed together so the course is entirely in Spanish. Spanish taught through Spanish, not through your native tongue.


Murderous identities, or, In the Name of Identity

Murderous identities, or, In the Name of Identity


I noticed, however, in the lower levels where there are many Brits, lots of them group together and chat through class in English or murmur the English translation to each other at the first hesitation. They are choosing to learn through English. They would rather a quick translation than a Spanish explanation of a word, learning through context.


They also spend a lot of time insisting on how rubbish they are, in fact each one is adamant that they are more rubbish than the other. It’s all very self-deprecating, which breeds good feeling. Speaking well, you fear, would have the opposite effect, generating suspicion, mistrust. Someone who can pull it off, instead of inspiring admiration, would have broken ranks. In fact, in the face of class participation, the atmosphere is very much what it was when I was 14 and sitting in French class with Mrs Prowse. When called upon to talk, surrounded by their compatriots, the British say a few words in Spanish and then tail off in English. The teacher repeats what they were trying to say in Spanish, and they answer, “Yep, that’s what I meant”. Needless to say, the Finns in the class don’t talk to the teacher in Finnish, nor the Russians in Russian.


The embarrassment of attempting to speak or even passively learn a foreign language while among one’s compatriots is fearfully strong. Students seem both intimidated and discouraged by their self-applied label of “Rubbish at Languages.” Yet something in us fights against openly trying to improve. Somehow our skin crawls at the mere idea of pretending to talk Spanish, because after all it does feel like a pretence. Pretending to be foreign. Putting on an accent. Putting ourselves out there. Like trying to do improv in a crowded metro. Except this is a language course, attended by people who have all paid to learn a language.


The ubiquitousness of English has become a shield for these British who get out of bed for a class twice a week but revert to their own language as soon as possible. Not because of laziness but because of embarrassment.


Why is that? Are we just afraid of getting it wrong? If so it would apply to all subjects. I don’t know any other topic where the students go to learn but seem bent on failing. Is it altogether too earnest for us Brits (cf “earnestness” in Katie Fox’s Watching the English)? Do we fear we look like we are trying to be clever, to be posh, to …heaven forbid… better ourselves?


Although I have always liked languages, I do know this fear. I can’t separate it clearly from other forms of self-consciousness that clutter the landscape. But I remember when I threw it off for French, when I was 15 and visited my sister in France. I spent a lot of time on my own visiting Paris and somehow the walls dropped. French wasn’t “foreign” in Paris, it was natural, necessary. I didn’t think I would suffer from it again, not in a serious ability-cramping way, but I did. When I lived in Beirut and had made local friends using English, I found it really hard to begin using my very limited but improving Arabic in conversations. I felt like it meant saying Look at me! I’m speaking Arabic! I also wanted to have proper conversations, not ones that were dumbed down to my language level – that is, small talk! But I could have mixed languages. I should have mixed. After all, the real Lebanese always do.


Lebanese pastries

Lebanese pastries


I’m still angry at myself for living in Beirut for nearly four years and not coming away fluent. The upside is that this regret goads me on in Spanish. I refuse to leave Spain without learning the language. I refuse to be prevented from learning by the fact that I don’t know everything. And the words of Amin Maalouf ring true: ‘Linguistic diversity is the pivot of all diversity.’ If you can learn a man’s language, you can walk in his shoes.


The less sweet side of Beirut

The less sweet side of Beirut


To my relief, I found that in the class for the higher language levels, this gregarious linguistic suicide doesn’t happen. People are openly - dare I say earnestly – trying to learn. Even those with a sense of humour. I wonder why. Is it just chance that there are too few Brits in the higher classes to trigger any kind of herd behaviour?  Is it because those who are too crippled by the embarrassment just can’t progress any further? Does their self-assigned failure become a self-fulfilling prophecy? Do socially “normal” Brits keep themselves back to be socially acceptable? Is moving forward uncomeradely, disloyal? The British are the biggest foreign community in this town, yet in my class they are decidedly underrepresented. There are three Finns, two Russians, two Ukrainians, a Persian, two Italians, a Dane, a Belgian, a Bulgarian, a Chinese and a Moroccan.


I’m the lone Brit. With no-one to whisper the answers to me. No one to murmur jokes to. No one to make me embarrassed about trying to talk “foreign”.

Exam book review: El Cronómetro

El Cronómetro – Edición Nuevo DELE B2

I got this book about 2.5 months before the exam which, I have to be honest, is not enough. Unless, of course, you are studying Spanish full-time and are lucky enough to focus on one project at a time. I imagine this is highly unlikely if you are reading my blog (or rather, my hotchpotch of child education, multilingualism, parental stress and blank spaces) instead of one of those super-focused, determined, ambitious, successful blogs Linkedin keeps throwing in our faces.

To help you pass fast!

To help you pass fast



El Cronómetro is not a book for learning Spanish; instead it aims to teach you how to squeeze your existing knowledge in to the shape of the DELE exam. The book cost me about 20 euros. Given that it is not the first edition, I was surprised to still find a few inaccuracies and typos which I thought ought to have been smoothed out by now. More on that later.



This book includes 4 model exam papers, a CD, and the answers (claves). Four may not seem a lot. However, bear in mind that one of the writing exam tasks has two options, meaning you can try out a total of 12 writing tasks using this book. The CD provides the listening exams and the oral prompts. Private Spanish language schools will usually provide you with past exam papers (- ask before you sign up -) but if you are doing things on the cheap like me and taking municipal classes or no classes at all, you really need to get hold of some old papers along with the couple that can be found online.

Tracking your progress

Tracking your progress

Personally I find there is nothing better than sitting mock exams to prepare you for timing and content. You can correct yourself using the answers included in the book for the listening and reading tests. I liked the idea of the Resumen de la preparación, where you record your scores. Hopefully you should see an improvement as you work through both the exam papers and extra exercises, though I didn’t see much probably because of only spending two months with the book. I only filled in my overall scores for each of the reading and listening tests I did, as I couldn’t really grade my writing and oral prep. Having boxes for my grade in each exercise (tarea) of each test was overkill for me, and I noticed that the headings (Lectura, etc) were missing.

Of course there are no answers for the writing and oral tests but I paid a friend to correct my writing exam prep, and I figure it was a very worthwhile investment. Although I didn’t have actual grades for these parts, it was still helpful to tick off the exercises in the resumen table as I completed them.

Ticking off the writing tasks

Ticking off the writing tasks

After the old exam papers there’s an appendix of exercises. This section is practically the last half of the book, almost as long as the model exams. The exercises are divided into three sections linked to the reading, listening and writing tests. I genuinely found these helped to develop one skill or another for the exam, along with a fair amount of vocab and grammar reminders. Again, the answers are included so you can correct yourself, and isolate and eliminate your failings be that por vs para or Latin American accents or whatever. Some exercises were a bit bland. I also didn’t feel inclined to note my opinion down about all sorts of things, as encouraged by the book. The author recommends you do the exercises prior to and in between the model exams. I didn’t have time to do most of them before (reminder: two months of normal-commitments life is not enough!) and chose to focus on the test papers instead, but after the exam I did them as I’m sure I’d need these issues resolved before the C1 exam.



I thought the book wouldn’t help much for the Oral, but fortunately I was wrong. I found that the simulated oral prompts on the CD were as good as you could expect in terms of a substitution for a living breathing native Spanish speaker with time on their hands to help you practise the oral exam. The book suggests you record your speaking, and I found this a really good idea. I used the app Easy Voice Recorder on my phone and it was dead simple. I couldn’t bear to listen to the recordings much, but just the fact that I was recording made me continue talking instead of trailing off, or starting over, which really isn’t an option in the real thing. With one hand I’d play and pause the CD to get the examiner’s questions, and with the other I’d record on my phone, and it resulted in a better simulation than I had thought.

So it wasn't just me...

So it wasn’t just me…



There were a few printing errors (typos, and more, eg p. 135) and also one of the recordings of the exercises was done with the wrong person speaking the wrong lines, but it was a practice exercise, not one of the exam tasks (pista 51, p. 158).



Overall this book was worth the money. It is good for when you feel you already have the knowledge for the exam but need to practise writing/talking with prompts and keeping to exam time; it helps you identify which of your weaknesses you need to improve to pass.

Disclaimer: I benefit in no way whether you buy the book through a link you find here or not. I write purely out of linguistic interest and unfortunately cannot be bothered to monetise.