Toddlers love to use a certain word that all parents of toddlers come to abhor. This word is an ancient word consisting of two measly letters. But oh the power that comes from being able to wield this word! ‘Tis as the power of a knight errant who wields a broadsword to slay his foes.
The boy doesn’t want to eat his turkey and squash for lunch. He looks you square in the eye and says the word that must not be named. You know the word I’m talking about.
Being a Spanish teacher has led me to do tons of research on how language is acquired. After countless hours of study, I have come to the conclusion (as did the scholars who did the heavy lifting) that one ingredient is far superior to all others: input. The more a child hears a word and understands its meaning, the more likely the child will acquire that word. If it has a strong communicative value—if it helps the child communicate his/her message— that word will be acquired even faster.
So I did my darndest to not teach my son “the word that must not be named”, although this is a difficult task in Spanish. But try as I might, he picked it up anyway. Learn it he did, my friends. Learn it he did.
Interestingly enough, he didn’t learn it from me directly. Instead, he learned it from that darned Dr. Seuss and his famous Huevos verdes con jamón (Green Eggs and Ham)… For weeks on end my son wanted to hear that story over and over at bedtime. He found the pictures engaging and the words to flow in a pleasing manner, I suppose. Irregardlessly, I must have read him this book hundreds of times and the most frequent word in the book is “the bad one”.
If you haven’t figured out the word by now, let me give you a snippet of the input my son was getting on a daily basis from the doctor’s nameless, hairy, and green-egg-repulsed humanoid:
¿Te gustan los huevos verdes con jamón?
No, no me gustan nada, Juan Ramón.
¿Te gustarían aquí o los quieres allá?
No, no me gustarían aquí ni allá, aquí allí o más allá.
¿Te gustarían en un caserón? ¿Te gustarían con un ratón?
No, no me gustarían en un caserón. No, no me gustarían con un ratón.
You can guess what my son started saying as soon as he figured out what it meant. And he hasn’t stopped saying it. In fact, this new word has become his favorite word, driving his mother and me up the wall on many occasions. He will sometimes refuse to eat he likes to eat or do things he likes to do, simply because he can say the word “no”.
All of this to illustrate that comprehensible input is the most important thing we can provide our kids in terms of language acquisition. By reading that fateful book to my son over and over, he heard the word “no” in a meaningful context hundreds if not thousands of times before starting to use it (Thanks, Dr. Seuss! /s).
If you want your children to pick up more than one language, they need to hear the desired languages and interact with people who speak them on a frequent basis. Moreover, they need to understand the language being spoken to them. That is to say, you should try to use high frequency vocabulary in a context that makes it easily understandable.
Naturally, a child hearing a discussion on nuclear fission using complex jargon will acquire very little. But if I have some fresas (strawberries) to eat and I ask my son if he wants some of what I’m eating, it won’t take him long to pick up that the sounds “f-r-e-s-a-s” in that particular order mean a delectable treat is coming his way. It might take many thousands of reps before he understands the difference between “¿Quieres fresas?” (Do you want strawberries?) and “¿Te gustan las fresas?“(Do you like strawberries?), but at least he gets fresas, and that will give him context through which to parse new phrases related to strawberries.
Let me end this post with a semi-related thought, which I’ll start with a disclaimer: I’m not sure every child will process multiple languages the same way. In fact, I’d wager that each child is different in when they start to exhibit signs of being multilingual. That being said, when my son picks up a new word, he learns the how to say the same word in the other language very quickly. I know he’s not intentionally doing it… he’s just a sponge and is getting better at picking up words through context. Even though I know intellectually how this process of acquiring language works, I’m constantly astounded to see it in action!
Thanks for keeping us company!