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!

School Enrolment in Spain: Grand Finale

Finales ought to be exciting. Be warned: this one isn’t. True to many people’s expectations, we didn’t get a place for my 4 year old at the nearest school. Not at first, that is. Following the application in March 2015, I returned a fortnight later as instructed to find, not the results of the application process, but the first stage of the results. It was a list of applicants and which class they had applied to at the school, along with the number of points each child had been awarded.

Since we parents already know which class we applied to, this seemed a little superfluous, but actually wasn’t, since they had my daughter down with the 3-year olds, whereas in 2015 she turns four. (Spanish school works on a Jan-Dec birthday basis.) I remembered them actually writing “4 años” with an orange highlighter on the file they made for her, so I wasn’t worried, and sure enough they sorted it out within a week with no harm done.

school books for 4 year olds

school books for 4 year olds


Over a month later, at the next stage of this lengthy process, they posted a list of those kids who had been accepted by their first choice of school, and those who hadn’t and were still in limbo. My daughter was on the second. Since the class I had applied to was already full, all the kids having started the year before, the three applicants for it were all refused, regardless how many points they had. I was told I had to wait until other schools knew what places they had before opting for one of my less-preferred choices.

In a final twist to the school application saga, though, while we were in Lebanon, friends called and told us that our kid had after all been accepted. I suppose others had moved out, or our preferred school had stretched its numbers a little bit, as public schools sometimes have to when more people move into their catchment areas. That was early June. On the first working day we were back in Spain, a Friday, I went and got the matriculation papers, which were due by the final deadline of the following Monday, 8 June.

Now it’s late August and I have obtained the school books we were told to get – 50 euros worth for about six brightly coloured workbooks. All I need to know is when term starts. Cue another trip to the school, where I was told: “About 10 September.” Which is as much as I already knew.

For the rest of the saga: School Enrolment in Spain Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3.

“I am Arabic.”

A few months ago, my three year old stumbled onto the topic of where we all come from. I have never tried to tell her she was any particular nationality. It can be quite a false measure of culture, and it’s easy to get the two confused at a young age. Still, I often talk about the facts of where we were all born or were living at a given time. Curious to see what she had understood I asked her a few questions, starting with the easiest:

“So where does mummy come from?”

“England,” she answered confidently. Of course. I left the UK an awful long time ago (I was 18), but we always visit my parents in England, in the house I grew up in, they speak only English, and I always speak to her in English. Not too hard. Next up:

“What about you? Where are you from?”

“Beirut,” she replied, without missing a beat. This made me smile, as even her dad never says he’s from Beirut, having lived most of his life in the US and France. Plus we left Beirut two years ago, and she only knows about a dozen Arabic words.

“What about daddy, where’s he from?”

“We don’t know,” was her succinct reply. And I think that about sums it up. Her dad is a mix of three distinct cultures. The origins of a third culture kid can’t really be packaged up neatly, which is what makes the questions “Where are you from, then?” or “Are you more cultureA or cultureB?” pretty tiresome. But what tickled me was her assumed independence from us. Why should her origins have anything to do with ours?


Merci kteer 7abibté. Killik zo'.

Merci kteer 7abibté. Killik zo2.


Another generation, another new country. Apart from being brought up in a country which is new to all of us, our kids already have parents from different cultures. Does that make them fourth culture kids?


In any case, I’m glad my little Beiruti will feel the part when we return to Lebanon next month. Even though I call her that tongue-in-cheek because it is ironic that she have come into the world during the years we were there. Had it not been the case, Lebanon would have been a distant dream by now. A completed episode, a mere fling, back when we were young and childless. Instead we will always carry around Beirut with us – on her birth certificate, in her Arabic child health record, in my memories of childbirth, and defining my introduction to motherhood.


Today the topic of Arabic came up.

“I am Arabic,” announces my daughter.

Clearly we haven’t worked on ‘Arab’ versus ‘Arabic’ and I’m not intending to. It’s confusing enough for a three-year old that there’s no country called Arabland and that all Lebanese speak French and English to her.

“Yes, well… you’re Lebanese,” I say, “and you have a Lebanese identity card.” She loves her passport, her zoo pass and library card (both photocards), so I thought she’d like that idea. She did, apparently.

“Does the card say ‘thank you for being Lebanese’?”


“Does the card say ‘thank you for being Lebanese’?”

I can only suppose my little Beiruti is muddling with the thank you cards we make for friends. Or else she has a marginally overblown sense of her own worth to the Lebanese government.

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.


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.