So how is Spain?

“So how is Spain?” our friends in Paris asked us all summer. And I didn’t really know what to tell them. To be brutally frank, changing nappies in Spain is quite a lot like changing nappies in Beirut or in Paris. This year will not be the year of discovering Andalucia’s charms. In fact, we did far more of that in just a fortnight, pre-kids, than we have in the ten months we’ve been living here. Hopefully we’ll be freer to do more soon. But apart from this being that awkward stage of family life where naps and bibs and accidents make staying out all day long more trouble than it’s worth, there’s another reason I find that question hard to answer.

When we decided to move back to Europe, one of the reasons we chose southern Spain was that it struck a neat compromise between proximity to family in Western Europe on one hand, and on the other the Mediterranean feel we so loved in Beirut. The easy ways, good weather and outdoors culture (which will always be ‘plastic chair’ culture in my head) have a lot in common with Lebanon. The summer heat, the home cooking, the way the mountains rise up just behind the coastal towns. People take their kids to work when school is closed, stay out late into the night with them in summer, and view customers with kids as normal, not a nuisance. Just like Lebanon.

On the other hand, I am surrounded by more English people than I ever have been ever since I left the UK 13 years ago. English is spoken in the street everywhere, especially near the beach. I overhear chatter about ‘council tax’, the NHS, fish and chips, cheap beer. Then there are the expressions that I haven’t heard in years too, that remind me of my Granddad. In places where my poor Spanish won’t suffice, important matters at the bank and at the doctor can be discussed in English. I haven’t spoken my mother tongue to a doctor or banker abroad ever. Except three words during labour and he wasn’t listening anyway.

I don’t really aspire to living in “England in the sun”, so I’m very grateful that there are also many people here who don’t speak any English which gives me the chance and the motivation to keep practising my Spanish. But it definitely isn’t the most foreign place to live. Coming from Beirut it feels extremely tame. The consensus among the English here is that the Spanish are terrible on the road. Personally I haven’t noticed a thing so I guess I must be terrible by now too, though I do indicate a lot which is very un-Lebanese. I don’t reverse on the highway either. I don’t run red lights. I’m doing alright, aren’t I?

[For more on Lebanese driving see here.]

So how is Spain? Well it’s a bit like Beirut and a bit like Britain. And a bit like Morocco and a bit like France. You get the idea.

School can wait

Some parents worry their kids won’t learn the language of their adopted country well enough. I tend to worry about the opposite. Many people ask me now whether my daughter is speaking Spanish yet. For the record, we lived in Spain for two months last year and five months this year so far.

I suppose if she had gone straight into kindergarten, then by now she would be speaking Spanish (after a fashion). She spends an hour or two once a week with a Spanish babysitter and she’s already starting to respond in Spanish. Surely I should be in a rush to help her learn Spanish as soon as possible, as young as possible. Otherwise she’ll already be behind the other kids when she starts school. Except that she won’t be starting school very soon anyway. Because it gets worse.

Do you really want to shock people? Make them leap to their feet and ask you But why? How could you?! Have them shake their heads disbelievingly as you walk away convinced that you will soon rue the day you made such a terrible decision? Try not enrolling your 3-year old in school. Judging by the reactions where we live in southern Spain this is tantamount to giving them a bedtime bottle of whiskey. Same in Paris. And a lot more places, I suspect.

I would have had to enrol my oldest last March if I wanted her to start this September at the grand old age of 3 years and 1 month. After much consideration, I decided not to. What a can of worms to open.

Do I not realise that starting late will put her at a disadvantage? Odd as this may sound, I don’t mind her being at a disadvantage for a while. Let me explain. I don’t really think that getting total immersion in Spanish five days a week would be the best thing just yet. It already takes a conscious effort to keep her French strong; so far her world is dominated by English. Preschool would reduce her exposure to French and English. English would survive, but I’m not sure French would. I’m not the only one in this situation. Peer influence is so much stronger than any parents’, so I am willing to put off – for a little while – the pride I’ll feel when my daughter starts spouting fluent Spanish.

If she were at school there’d be no more leisurely breakfasts with dad, and maybe no shared lunchtimes. Interactive French exposure would be limited to little more than busy weekends and short evenings – with only about 1h30 between dad finishing work and bedtime.

Besides, in her post 5 Myths About Raising Multilingual Kids one multilingual mum cites the misconception that “You must reinforce the environment language at home.” 

So how will I feel about her starting school aged four (just) and not understanding what anyone’s going on about? What if she can’t learn at the same speed as the rest?

I figure that just living here with a little Spanish babysitting, she’ll pick up enough to get by and not feel entirely lost. She won’t struggle learning to read, write or count. She already knows her numbers and letters, knows her right from her left, and can read a little in English (words like park, window, basket and splash, and in my opinion, enough to work out the rest on her own without any teacher). Converting all this to Spanish is easier than learning it in the first place. What’s more, reading Spanish is a doddle in comparison to English, given the simplified spelling and consistent pronunciation. Spanish is an easy language for a French-speaker – my decision might have been very different if she could go to school in Arabic.

This decision will affect her brother too. I’m guessing that within six months of starting school she’ll be starting to use Spanish with her little brother (who’ll then be 2 years old) as the language of play as I’ve seen happen in so many families where the community language was different to that spoken at home. So I’m also glad to stave off the influence of the majority language on him at an age when he’ll only just be starting to string sentences together in his mother and father tongues.

Finally, as eager as I am to return to a world of adult conversation, I do consider myself fortunate to be around as she makes those precious early discoveries about letters turning into words, about a banana looking oval if you bite it on a slant, and how sand makes for better cake dough when wet.

Colour Factor

That’s it: I’ve finally ordered my Colour-Factor Set. I can’t wait to start using it with my oldest. Created by Seaton Pollock in the early sixties, its a way of using 3D objects to represent the relationship between numbers. Pollock found it strange that so many kids hate maths and consider themselves bad at the subject. He wanted to overthrow traditional teaching methods which he blamed for putting pupils off maths. His new way was to teach maths using something other than numbers: a set of coloured blocks for making shapes which “behave” like numbers.

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You can do this orally, of course.

Many schools in Britain had a copy of these blocks in the seventies, but it seems most teachers didn’t know the method. I vaguely remember the remnants of a similar set kicking around at my primary school in the early nineties, but nothing was really done with them except perhaps to compare lengths. Now I didn’t do any maths at all after the age of 16, the British educational system being what it is. But I got so excited about the Colour-Factor Set I’ve even been reading books on mathematics – a first for me.

Apart from the major sleep debt that begins when you have a baby and just grows from there, I have grown myself a reading debt which I find equally disturbing, and any precious moments that I get with a book are gold dust to me. So it’s got to be a really good read.

Part of the reason I’ve invested my tiny reading allowance in this little-used, largely forgotten method is because it’s another gem from Anything School Can Do You Can Do Better, by Máire Mullarney. I already tried her approach to teaching literacy and in practice, it worked wonderfully: my three-year old now reads. So why not maths too? It looks fun, and the first phase of the method centres on playing with the blocks and doesn’t include any actual number work. I’m not planning on working on sums in the near future; rather, these blocks offer a way to start understanding numbers before even introducing them.

I also got really excited about this set because I need to visualise numbers and I tend to associate colours to number values anyway. I know how different it feels to succeed at something because I get it, and to succeed only through perseverance and memorisation. In the latter case you don’t bother taking things any further than you have to.

So far I’ve read the following books:

Colour-factor mathematics: A general introduction based on the colour factor set 

Colour-Factor Mathematics: The First Year Part 1: Pre-Number Mathematics [This is the pupil's book.]

Colour-Factor Mathematics Teachers’ Handbook to Parts 1 and 2 of The First Year 

They are short and have me more convinced than ever it is worth a try. Mullarney dedicated chapter 8 of her book to The Teaching of Number, and Colour Factor is discussed there (pages 36-40 or search for “color” à l’amércaine) if you want to check out her persuasive explanation, though without the blocks in front of you it’s a bit confusing. I’ll do regular updates on how it goes with the Colour-Factor, though to be honest since the first phase seems to be largely playing with blocks, there may not be a great deal to say. If you have any experience of Colour-Factor or similar methods, do share.

You are what you say

My Beirut Baby turned three last week. Watching her language develop still astounds me. And it’s not just linguistic; listening to her speak teaches me a lot about her personality, too.

My little control freak, having breakfast on the terrace:

“Wind, don’t blow my hair when I’m eating!” …or…

“Fly! Fly! Come to me!”

My little humorist, who loves the huge calendar I make her every couple of weeks, with a cheeky smile:

“Is there a “L” in the middle of Wednesday and we say ‘Welensday’?”

Or, deliberately showing me her “Domino” box upside down:

“Do we say ‘Onimod’?”

My little obsessive (eating an olive oil biscuit called torta con aceite) the day after discussing how we don’t say the last letter often in French:

“Do we say the s at the end of torta when there’s lots of tortas?”

Finally I have someone to talk language-nerd talk to. Recently she has begun to pretend she is someone else in the family. “I’m being Daddy,” she says, putting on her red dress-up glasses. “Dans ce cas, pourquoi tu parles en anglais et pas en français comme moi ?” asks her dad (In that case why are you speaking English, not French like me?)

Her response: “I’m being Daddy talking to Mummy.”

We still speak predominantly English as a couple, but much more French than before. Her French is also coming on in leaps and bounds, but her expression has again dropped slightly behind her English. However, we’ll be swapping the churros for croissants and spending a chunk of the summer in France, so I can ease up worrying about that Anglo-dominant tidal wave swallowing her up just yet.

Wolf at the door?

I know I’m not the only parent in families with several languages to obsess over how much exposure our progeny get to each language. When I read other blogs or forums there’s often a sense of the struggle for survival. Parents racing to stay ahead of the majority language, an unstoppable wave. If we hesitate for but a moment, we’ll see the minority language(s) engulfed by it.

Just to update on our situation, Beirut Baby is nearly three, and Paris Baby is now ten months. I speak English to the kids, my husband speaks French (one of his three family languages) to them and together we two speak English and French. We have been living in Spain for a few months. We spend a lot of time with English friends and there aren’t many French living in the area.

I was delighted to realise that French had drawn level with English during the seven months we were in France. Now I hear her English stronger, both vocab and syntax. She has forgotten some words she used to use. A few times recently she was talking to her dad and turned to ask me a word in French to complete her sentence. And a couple of times when she’s upset and we were both present she has switched from French to English as if it were the easier choice in which to air her grievances.

I’m also concerned about little one. My first baby, born in Lebanon, was surrounded by far more French than my second has been here in Spain. We spoke a lot of French to friends and out shopping, especially when I was out of my depth for Arabic. Whereas here there is next to no French influence from outside the family. Her first few words were French, but I’d be very surprised if his were.

But it’s quite hard to boost the minority language without actually speaking it to your children. I want to stick to OPOL with her as I feel if I mix languages soon enough the kids will mix too and then take the path of least resistance (ie English only). And when she goes to school Spanish will overtake English as the majority language and her dad and I will both have our work cut out keeping our respective languages alive.

So here are a few ways I’ve been trying to keep in touch with the minority language. Please do add any suggestions.

  • writing a menu for the dinner as I prepare it. I write out the meal in French for daddy and my daughter suggests what drinks and desserts we might offer him. “A yoghurt? Ok, how would daddy say it? Ok, yaourt, and shall we add melon?
  • writing little notes and messages for daddy: “Veux-tu venir manger…maintenant? dans 10 minutes? jamais?” (Do you want to come and eat…now? in 10 minutes? never?)
  • playing a game and then preparing to play it with her dad.

It’s not much but it helps her not to put French aside all day long, and just as important, it sparks lively vocab-rich conversations with her dad over dinner.