Siblings and language choices

As parents we make a ton of decisions on behalf of our kids and languages are no exception. We decide what language we will each speak to them, when, what language books to buy, which type of school to send them to, which language to speak in our couple…. But something we have no control over – or very little – is what language our kids will speak to each other. I’ve been waiting impatiently to see how sibling dynamics will develop between my two kids and now the little one is actually talking, there is finally something to observe. He can say things like “Mummy eating toast, daddy eating porridge.”  If he sees a book he likes, he says “Want-it have-it book. Please mummy story.” So now that we actually have some verbal communication to speak of, here is an update on my two kids and the three-and-a-bit languages we live with.


reading together

reading together: “C’est quoi ça ?”

The oldest (4 years and 3 months) is fairly articulate in both home languages and knows quite a bit of vocab in Spanish, her school language. I have to be vague about her knowledge here, as she hates being quizzed, so I have no idea exactly what she has taken on board in the last month of full-time Spanish school. I know she knows her numbers, most colours, greetings and a fair bit of everyday vocab. I’m pretty sure she must understand the common instructions at school because her teacher says she does what she is told. She doesn’t mix languages, never has.

The little one, at 2 years and 1 month says hola and gracias in Spanish, along with hundreds and hundreds of English and French words. He doesn’t mix languages, always speaking English to me and French to his dad. He often says something to me and then turns and translates to his dad.

As for Arabic, the little one can use half a dozen words and my oldest, my little Beiruti, can understand a few expressions in addition to a limited vocab. Arabic exposure is minimal. This is just what they get from me and a few books I read them.


The interesting bit is listening to them speak together. I had expected them to speak English to each other above all else. After all, I look after them all day while dad works (though the oldest is now at school in Spanish until 2pm). I was afraid they would pick English and stick to it, even though at meals and on weekends, their dad talks plenty of French to them. As a couple, we speak a fair amount of English in front of them, even though we also speak French together whenever I have the energy. With the oldest being a girl, it could also be that she mimic me, her mother, more, and play mother on the “baby” of the family. That would mean English.


However, I’ve been delighted to see that they switch language regularly, and speak both English and French together, though not randomly. Whoever starts the conversation seems to dictate the language, and the second speaker follows suit. They are definitely influenced by who is around. When with me, they are more likely to speak English amongst themselves, which is only natural and socially normal. When they are with their dad and I am out of the room, I hear them talk together in French more. However, external presence isn’t the only influence. They will both start talking in French together about a French book. Or recycle a joke they had enjoyed in French with daddy. Basically, they adapt to whichever language is favoured by the context around them.


I am looking forward to eavesdropping on a further facet next week - the cousin dynamics, as we have my sister’s family coming to stay. They are also bilingual but living in France, schooled in French. As is common in this type of bilingual set up, the minority language (English) has decreasing influence as you get further down the birth order, while the importance of the community language grows. Maybe my kids will speak English with the older cousins and French with the younger, or maybe they will be influenced by us mums chatting in English all day.


It’s too early to say if my kids will continue switching between the two languages together. Maybe they will settle on one. If we stay here in Spain a long time, I can’t help but expect them to end up speaking the community language – Spanish – together . My husband speaks French to his parents but English to his siblings because of living in the US for the first 14 years. I think I’d feel funny about my kids speaking a language I wasn’t fluent in as their preferred language together. Then again, if we stay that long I’d better be fluent!


Tricks with tenses

The pretérito perfecto is the sneakiest false friend I have met so far. Yes, it’s true that most of the time it equates to the English present perfect. It’s true that we say, “Have you (ever) eaten paella?” and “Has comido paella (alguna vez)?” [both pretérito perfecto], whereas we say, “I went to Rome in 2012,” and “Fui a Roma en 2012,” [both simple past]. English speakers can just translate I did as hice and I have done as he hecho, word for word… for the most part. They have an advantage over the French who have only one form: j’ai fait.

BUT in English you do not use the present perfect with a specific moment in time. You cannot say “I have taken the train on Saturday.” Or: “I have eaten breakfast at 10 o’clock.” Or: “I have been to Italy in 2012.” Or even, “I have been to Italy five years ago.

In Spanish, on the other hand, you CAN combine the present perfect with a moment in time. What matters is not so much whether a precise moment in time is mentioned; what matters is if the general period of time is over or if it is still ongoing, or very recent and relevant to now.

At 11am you can still say: “Esta mañana he desayunado a las ocho.” In fact you should say it, because the morning is not over yet. But once you are home for dinner, you can say “Esta mañana desayuné a las ocho.” Because the time period (la mañana) is completed.

NB In Latin America, the simple past (hice) has gained ground over the present perfect (he hecho) apparently influenced by the same phenomenon in US English compared to British English. If you are in one of the Americas and this post doesn’t make sense to you there is a good reason for that!

How I plan to learn Spanish fast

I’m really not very patient with languages. I do like them, but being bad at them is not a stage I enjoy. I have been on a plateau for the past year. Any improvement has been unnoticeable. Now, with one of my two little ones in school, I finally have time to learn properly, and I want to learn fast. So this is my plan. Feel free to share your language learning plan, too.


Step one: Enrol in classes

Technically I should be able to get my oral practice from the neighbours and my grammar from the books, but I find classes a real motivation, and you do learn from others’ mistakes as well as your own. I’ll be aiming to get my money’s worth by taking the teacher all the awkward questions that come into my head between lessons.


My faithful grammar guide

My faithful grammar guide

Step two: Use a good grammar guide

Not a textbook, just a go-to guide with an irregular verb table and the grammar rules spelt out. A guide like this keeps different tenses and other concepts in their places.

Step three: Use every opportunity to talk

Even though I am living in Spain, at my level of non-fluency, these opportunities arrive and then disappear very fast. Once you’ve greeted some acquaintance, like the other mums at my daughter’s school, the conversation can either tail off or get interesting. Most of my conversations tail off very quickly. Even in a shop, you can either get by with a few words and gestures, or you can find the accurate way to ask for what you want and include some details. To try to get more practice, I have started planning what to say in situations that I know are coming up – the doctor, teacher, shops, anything. Since you actually do use what you plan, it gets embedded in your memory; it’s way more effective than memorising vocabulary for some theoretical future use.

Jumping on opportunities also means accepting to use very, very basic language to start a conversation, or even asking a question you think you probably already know the answer to, just to get things started. Hey, at least if you’re right then there’s a fair chance you’ll understand the answer. It’s tough having to look stupid to all these new people you’re actually trying to make a good impression with, but I figure I’ll feel cleverer when I can actually speak Spanish.


Spanish in the park (with the toddler on the next swing)

Spanish in the park (with my toddler on the next swing)

Step four: Work at home

Or in a café. But on my own (that is, with the baby), going through the class notes, revising new vocabulary, looking up any words I wanted to say but couldn’t think of, checking my grammar guide for the right way to conjugate some verb, or to form some tense. Also talking with friends about my language questions, as well as things I’ve just learnt. Teaching others is one of the best forms of repetition for a learner, so make sure to tell someone the new stuff you come across. I try everything out on my husband, who fortunately also wants to learn. When I was learning French I would revise classes with a fellow student afterwards.

Step five: Read for pleasure

Roald Dahl, here I come again. The local library has a few translated Roald Dahl books marked 10 years and over. They are just the right level for me. You want to find books where you can understand the story without a dictionary, or else it’s too slow to be motivating. When you meet unknown words you can guess, look them up, or skip them. Dahl’s books are good because I have vague memories of the storyline from, um, about 20 years ago. But it would be better to have books originally written in Spanish, I just haven’t had time to scour the library shelves and find the right level along with a good read. Reading isn’t just about books; packaging labels, newspaper headlines, adverts, posters and graffiti – they all count. I still remember the satisfaction of finally understanding the cultural references and bad puns in slogans on the billboards in the Paris metro stations.

Step six: Pay attention to culture

This comes in conjunction with all the other steps (that’s why Roald Dahl isn’t as good as native Spanish options, but it’s better than nothing). This is more than knowing the stereotypes. There’s a difference between knowing that the Spanish have a late lunch and knowing that the builders are going to disappear at 12 noon for something they call desayuno. See below for more.


Men called Maria

I already knew that all Spanish women of a certain age seem to have Maria as part of their name. When I had to find which parent was collecting the school supplies fee, and asked one of the other mums, I didn’t get all of her response. I understood it was “Maria” who was standing over there wearing a “camiseta gris”. I couldn’t see a mum in a grey top at all. “Con las gafas?” I asked, but she said no, dark hair, no sunglasses. The only one I could see with dark hair and no sunglasses had a pale blue top on. I wondered if the mum helping me was colour blind since she was definitely pointing that way. So tentatively I approached the blue top lady. Only to have a guy come over and introduce himself as José Maria and offer me a receipt for the fee. The penny finally dropped. Thinking of Maria as a woman had blinded me to his grey T-shirt. I should have known this, as France has its own share of men called Jean-Marie and the like, but they are usually not the same generation as me (think: Le Pen). The moral of the tale? Knowing what to expect is half the hard work.

First impressions of Spanish school

My daughter has now been at school for a fortnight. I wish I had more feedback on it, but trying to get information out of her is no easy task. So far she has done a fair amount of dancing to music and colouring in, has played a great deal, and has watched Peppa Pig twice. They eat their 11 o’clock snack sitting in the classroom before the break rather than during. The school day runs from 9am to 2pm with a half hour break. There isn’t any half-day option. When I was five, back in the UK, we had a break in the morning and the afternoon, as well as a lunch break. In comparison, the Spanish hours make for quite a long day at four years old (and a few kids in her class will still be three). I guess it explains the Peppa Pig, though I’d prefer some kind of free choice activity/play instead of television. We parents are supposed to send a pack of wipes, a spare outfit and 50 euros’ worth of books along with her for the year. The school provides the other supplies, and parents pay a 30 euro fee. The books are colourful workbooks, full of illustrations and stickers! Not like in my day…


curriculum for a four year old?

curriculum for a four year old?

As for my first week at school, I’m relieved to be finally doing something about my Spanish deficit. Having taught a fair amount of English, I know that being able to read and write a language doesn’t mean you can speak it. Although Spanish looks understandable to me on paper, I still struggle forming very basic accurate sentences in real life. So when I went to the A2 level Spanish class (beginner II) and found it fairly straightforward, I was not sure whether to ask to move up or not. The teacher told me to go ahead and try the class above, and I’m glad I did. The course will definitely be harder, but I’m willing to be stretched.


One major advantage is that the harder class is half the size, so that means twice as much practice in class. It seems at least half of the students doing the lower level don’t bother continuing to the intermediary stage. There is also less disparity in levels in my new class. In the A2 level, there were 20 students, of very varying abilities, even though many had been there the year before for A1. Interestingly, just over half were British, whereas in the B1 class I am the only Brit. There are a couple of North Africans, a couple of Iranians, a Frenchman, and a couple of Scandinavians. Of course, different ones have different strengths, especially those who are working and are therefore quite integrated and know a lot of vocab and expressions related to their jobs. The primary school vocab I’m learning isn’t that useful in other contexts. My only strength is my impatience – I should use that on some job interview question about my failings. Actually, the Instituto Cervantes, which devised the standardised DELE levels describes A1 as Breakthrough (acceso), A2 as Waystage (plataforma) and B1 as Threshold (umbral). I definitely don’t want to be on the plataforma any more, and I can’t wait to get past the umbral.

Check out their site if you want to try past exam papers and the like.


A few words from my week:

AMPA – parents’ and teachers’ association, pronounced “ampa”.

asistir – to attend

ausentarse, yo me ausenté – to be absent, I was away

la rutina diaria – the daily routine

ama de casa – housewife/homemaker/stay at home mum; careful - the Spanish say el ama, just like el agua and el aula (classroom) even though these nouns are feminine because they start with a stressed ‘a’. If it helps you to swallow this phrase, the ama is not from amar (to love) meaning someone who loves housework so much that it’s all they want to do in life, but actually from amo, owner.

soy perfeccionisto/a – I’m a perfectionist (somebody else said this, not me, believe it or not.)


Bursting the bubble

This my second vuelta al cole in Spain, the second time I have been here at the start of a new school year, when summer winds down, temperatures become pleasant, and town gets quiet.

The first was a non-event as nobody in our family went to school, to the surprise of our neighbours. This time round has been quite different with my four-year old now officially escolarizada, which actually meant braving the seasonal flurry of stationery to buy books (for preschool!). She wasn’t the only one. I am now enrolled in the Casa de la cultura for Spanish lessons twice a week, as I attempt to keep up with my daughter as long as I possibly can!

This is the third time I have moved to a new country and thrown myself into learning the local language. But this time is more complicated than the previous two.


unas mochilas

unas mochilas

The first time was the simplest: I moved to Paris and immediately started a French degree. I knew a lot of other English students but I did plenty of activities in French, listened only to French radio, wrote all my notes in French, and read constantly in French. I had no internet at home for the first two years, so no BBC Radio, no English TV, no Skyping family all the time. Instead of looking things up on the Web I had to find everything out from the locals. It was true immersion.

The second time was in Lebanon. I started lessons after a few months. Lebanese is a harder language to break into, as there’s no real written form of it. But by the end of three years I could understand most of what went on, even in fast-moving social situations. However, meetings and the radio were still very hard. I also had my work (in French and English) and soon a baby to take up my time, as well as other priorities.

This time round is the longest I have left it before starting any classes. I’ve spent the last year and a half in a bubble. I speak Spanish every day, but only the smallest of small talk, buying the veg, other mums at the park, neighbours in the stairwell. I have a few Spanish friends who speak reasonably good English. Life is too busy for me to go out looking for new friends just because they are Spanish. However, this time round there are also some advantages. The local language seems so much more accessible. Unlike Arabic, you say everything like you write it (albeit at top speed). Plus it is so similar to French. I’m not just talking about words like timide (FR) and tímido (ES – shy). Even phrases like no vale la pena (it’s not worth it), and hacerse pasar por  (pretend to be) are so similar in form to the French equivalents ça ne vaut pas la peine, and se faire passer pour.


There wasn’t a placement test for the classes at the Casa de la cultura. The secretary just enrolled me in the A2 level. From what I can tell, A1 is for absolute beginners, A2 for basic tourism, B1 for actually communicating, B2 for competency, C1 for fluency and C2 for mastery.

When I got home and researched the levels, I decided A2 could be a bit slow. I know there will be stuff in it that I don’t know – in fact there’s probably a fair bit in A1 I don’t know yet. But with a kid in school, I am now officially out of my bubble. Not only do I have to talk to her teacher and to the other parents, I have more time to talk to everybody I meet all week, and more time to learn on my own. Also I know the past tenses, the future, the conditional and the subjunctive, when I see them. And I’m willing to work at it because I’m impatient to be able to communicate.

So I tried the online tests, which I passed, up to and including B2. I’ve always been better on paper than in real life. Sad, but true. In fact, when I sat a similar placement test for Classical Arabic lessons years ago, I asked the teacher to enter me into a lower level than the one I qualified for, and the class I ended up in was plenty hard enough. There I was at a disadvantage there compared to many of the other students. Most were of Arab origin, so that gave them some background knowledge, concrete examples they knew were right, and a bunch of random vocabulary they could call in to play. This time I don’t feel any such disadvantage, as most foreigners here are English or Scandinavian or Dutch and can’t call on any knowledge of Latin languages. So I have been swotting up on my conjugations in the hope the Casa de la cultura will bump me up a level when I start.


From now on I’ll be sharing what I learn here. I figure it makes an extra outlet to ease the avalanche my husband faces every time I come in the door, spouting all the expressions and grammar explanations I’ve learnt! For now, here is a bit of vocab from the scolastic baptism of fire.



la mochila – back pack, specifically at my school they want them to be sin ruedas, without wheels, so none of this small suitcase business


la vuelta al cole – the back-to-school period or start of the school year


el cole = short for colegio – primary school …NOT British college (16-18y), not French collège (11-15), and not US college (18+). After el colegio comes instituto – secondary school


infantil – the preschool section for ages 3 to 5


la maestra – teacher, or of course el maestro if you have a male teacher


el desayuno – breakfast of course, however my school papers say the children must have desayuno before school but also bring desayuno with them in their mochila to eat before el recreo (break). So elevenses, or playtime snack, or tuck if you like. Le goûter for the French, but at the wrong time.

The Bery Fungry Caterpillar

At the beginning of the summer, we came across The Very Hungry Caterpillar at the local library, the Spanish version. Curled up on the sofa with my nearly-four-year old, I read it in Spanish, pausing when I think she can fill in a word she knows, like luna (moon) or hambre (hungry). After all, in September she starts school – 100% Spanish school.
When I get to hoja (leaf), I pause, thinking she might know it. She suggests “feuilla?”, her own variation on the French word feuille. She’s completely wrong, but I’m pleased all the same. Clearly she has seen how similar French and Spanish are. Most of the time at least, even if not for the word leaf.
pastequa anyone?

pastequa anyone?

When the caterpillar goes on a major binge on Saturday before building its chrysalis, I pause for her to guess at a couple of food items, like ‘queso‘ (cheese) which she gets right. The last thing the caterpillar eats on Saturday is ‘un trozo de sandía‘, a slice of watermelon. When I pause tentatively, my daughter suggests: ‘pastequa?’ from the French pastèque.
Learning Spanish naturally pushes you to draw on French or any other Romance language you may have some grounding in because of so much vocab in common. In addition, some grammar is more understandable to English eyes, for example, Spanish has two present tenses, giving equivalents to I do and I am doing whereas French only has one, je fais. And to top it all off, Spanish has a large vocabulary of words taken from Arabic, though many are altered past recognition. In fact, Arabic is said to be the second largest lexical influence on Spanish, after Latin, accounting for 8% of the Spanish dictionary.
So with some knowledge of French, English and Arabic, I feel we should be able to get to the bottom of Spanish. Except of course there are some words which, at first, seem to have come from nowhere. Like hoja (leaf/feuille), for instance. Or hogar (home/chez soi). They don’t seem to have anything in common with their French, English or Arabic equivalents. It feels a bit odd, when words come from nowhere, because that’s just not possible. But then I noticed a pattern between Spanish and French.
Hoja – feuille (leaf)
Hija – fille (daughter)
Higo – figue (fig)
Hinojo – fenouil (fennel)
Hambre  - faim (hungry)
Hilo – fil (thread)
Hila – file (row, queue)
Harina – farine (flour)
Hogar – foyer (home)
There’s definitely a shift from the initial F in Latin to H in Spanish. And I’d say there’s some kind of complicity between the L and the Spanish J – someone out there who’s done some Spanish linguistics would know. All of a sudden the fog clears and hoja does look a bit like feuille, or at least like folio and its variations. And while hogar can’t be made to resemble chez, it happens to share its root with foyer (from the Latin focus, or fireplace; and of course hogar and foyer also mean hearth). Even hacer, a word I learnt so long ago I never wonder about its origin, is apparently a cognate of faire.
I even came across a Spanish sign asking people not to fumar (smoke, French: fumer) as we were in un espacio sin humo (smoke-free area, in French literally un espace sans fumée). So there you have both spellings in the same word group. Once you’ve got the pattern, all sorts of words make sense and become easier to learn. Now I know an F can hide an H just like J can replace an X, or like the German J often turns out to be a Y in English. The language nerd inside me is relieved, triumphant even; it does make sense after all.
Funnily enough, it turns out sandía is from an Arabic word, but not the one I know, bateekh بطيخ , which is, however, the one which pastèque comes from. Sometimes with etymology you seem to end up right back where you started.