I have been given the opportunity to be a short-term nanny for a wonderful family. This position was set for an eight-week term, and I decided to see what this two and a half year old could learn in that short time.
When I first met her, she was very shy of me in general, going through all the anxieties that a child does when they have a new caregiver. I did use English with her in the beginning. However, within the first week, I switched to at least one hour a day of straight Spanish. This meant the random comments you make when on a walk. "Mira, el zacate!" It also meant I used Spanish when she was doing something she should not and I needed to correct her.
Let's say she was standing on the chair. She knew she shouldn't do this. It didn't matter what I would say. I could say "Gesunheit" if I wanted. She would know by her actions, my facial expression, and the tone of my voice what I wanted. She sat down, even though she didn't know all (or any) of the words. So, is she really learning Spanish if she's just floating along in a world of misunderstanding, guessing based on other factors?
Yes! You see, the world is like that already to a two-year-old. When you put a show on the TV, they don't understand a majority of the words. They pick out the words they do know and begin to form a picture about what the rest mean, So, by introducing a toddler to Spanish at such an early age, she uses those same techniques that she uses constantly in the world around her. She takes the cues from my body language to understand. Then, when she hears the words repeated, she remembers them. Soon, she understands the pattern and begins to use them herself.
After three days of this process, she said her first, unsolicited word in Spanish- "estrella." We were making stars in the play-dough. Each time I made one, I would say the word. Sometimes, she copied; sometimes, she didn't. But then, I made it, and I was a little slow to say the word, so she jumped in to say it for me. Then, I began to connect it to other stars in her world, so she could understand the word correctly- not just think it was the word for making something in play-dough or play-dough itself. I pointed out stars on her toys or in the pictures around the house. She began to see the connection and pointed them out herself.
Once she reached that milestone, I began to narrate her life. She enjoyed opening and closing the door, so I said the words for open and close each time. She began to repeat them and connect them to other situations.
Sometimes, she and I went back and forth a little. I say "azul." She counters with "blue." She looks to me for assurance to see if this is right. I nod, smile, and repeat "azul." After a few rounds, she may or may not say "azul". But what she is beginning to see is that there is more than one way to say things.
Toddlers are smart. They are capable of learning, and they are best able to learn when they are young and using those deciphering skills so frequently. I have enjoyed working with this little girl and seeing how quickly she picks up words. This is a great age to begin language-learning, and I suggest if you have a child this age that you take steps to take advantage of their eagerness to learn. Give your child the gift of language!