Language Learning When You're in Survival Mode


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Last week, I wrote about the difficult holiday season that our family had this year. Sinus infections, ear infections, and food poisoning—those were the “highlights” of our December.

Except that I had one little secret that I didn’t share in that post: in the midst of all that illness, I was also trying to survive my first trimester with a new baby. While we are excited to announce that we’ll be welcoming a new member of the family in August, I will also admit that these past three months have been very challenging!

Keeping up with bilingual homeschooling (and this blog!) through extreme nausea and exhaustion was no small task. Many, many times over the past few weeks, the phrase “survival mode” flashed through my mind. While I tried to give myself grace, I also knew that I didn’t want to completely abandon our homeschooling goals, so over these past few months, I’ve had to be extra-creative with finding ways to keep up our momentum within my suddenly severe limitations.

I’m sure that I’m not the only one who is trying to teach through difficult times. Maybe you also have a baby on the way, or a sick parent to care for, or you’re preoccupied with challenges that your family is facing. If that’s the case, I hope that these strategies can be an encouragement for you to keep going, particularly with your language learning goals.

Here are a few things that I did to keep language learning going while easing the burden on myself:

1. I relaxed my standards (everywhere!) and focused on long-term goals.

I’ll be completely honest here: when I was spending my days lying on the floor of my kids’ playroom, trying to hold in the vomit (and also nap in 30-second increments), I was not speaking any Spanish to my boys. I had barely any physical energy at that point, and I certainly did not have the mental or emotional energy necessary to engage with them in my non-native language. Our home necessarily shifted from a mostly-Spanish environment to an mostly-English one.

At first, I felt very guilty about this, especially when I thought about my preschooler, who is old enough to notice the change. I worried that I was wasting all of the effort that I had previously put into giving my children a rich bilingual learning environment. I worried that once I was ready to switch back to Spanish, my kids would totally resist it. I worried that I was becoming a fraud—after all, I love to talk about the importance of consistency in language learning—and I was doing a terrible job at it!

Except here’s the thing: language learning is not a month-long, semester-long or even year-long endeavor. For our family, it is a lifelong process. So in the midst of the hardest weeks, I tried to remind myself that raising bilingual children is a long-term goal, one that wasn’t going to be undone by a few bad weeks.

I would venture to say that the same is probably true of any academic subject: short-term setbacks will not spoil a child’s ability to learn (math, music, grammar) over the course of his/her entire education. As the wise Julie Bogart says in her new book The Brave Learner (go get it!), “There are no educational emergencies.” That means that not only can we customize our children’s educations to their needs, but also to ours! Of course, I’m in no way advocating educational neglect. I am advocating being realistic and gentle with yourself about your limitations and seeking ways to work creatively around them.

By the way, here’s a list of a few other things that I gave up during this time. Do you need permission to drop some of these from your own to-do list? You’ve got the okay from me!

  • Vacuuming. I vacuumed twice in two months. It’s not as bad as you might think.

  • Grocery shopping. I switched to Instacart—better than vomiting in the grocery store.

  • Extracurriculars. Playdates, museum visits, family hikes? Nope, nope, nope.

  • Cleaning my kitchen counters daily. They got a little scary, but nothing started growing.

  • Cleaning my microwave. Too high to reach, too much effort.

  • Sweeping under my dining room table. I outsourced this to my preschooler.

  • Meal planning. Since I could not think about food without becoming nauseous, I bought (and prepared) whatever sounded least disgusting in the moment.

  • Social media. If you’ve been wondering why my IG account and Facebook group have been so quiet these past few weeks, now you know why! I’m back in the game now, so thanks for your patience!

2. I “outsourced” as much language exposure as I possibly could.

I allowed a little more screen time than normal—in Spanish, of course. We made good use of our Netflix subscription to watch a few movies available in Spanish—Tarzan and Peter Rabbit were big hits—as well as a few episodes of our favorite children’s shows in Spanish. We also used YouTube to find Spanish-language documentaries that would satisfy my older son’s current obsession with Ancient Egypt. I especially liked Happy Learning’s five-minute overview of ancient Egyptian history and Xavi loved this (shamelessly sensationalized, but perfectly appropriate) exposé on the riches of King Tut’s tomb.

I downloaded a number of new Spanish-language podcasts for kids. Xavi and I have been greatly enjoying Allegro Mágico, which teaches kids about classical music. It’s perfect for the preschool-age and up crowd, and we’ve now worked our way through nearly all of its 33 episodes. Xavi’s favorite so far has episode #30, Jugando a los piratas, and we’re looking forward to learning more with the new season! I’ve also downloaded a few episodes of Música en familia for us to listen to next—more music appreciation in Spanish!

I hired a Spanish-speaking babysitter to come twice a week so that I could get a few hours to work and nap. My kids loved their time with our fabulous sitter and I was so, so grateful to her for caring for them.

I found new audiobooks of classic children’s stories in Spanish. We listened to "Puss in Boots” and “Cinderella,” translations of the original Charles Perrault stories. I also had my older son start listening to the Boxcar Children in Spanish during his daily rest time—he’s a fan!

I read the easy—and beautiful—stuff. There were some times over these past few months that I could not finish reading a picture book to my kids—in either Spanish or English. However, even with such limited energy, I usually found that I could get through a poem or two. We enjoyed some impromptu Poetry Teatimes in Spanish with this lovely (and affordable) anthology of Spanish-language poetry for kids.

3. I developed a plan for getting back on track once I was feeling better.

While I was forced to accept these limitations during my first trimester, I also wanted to make sure that they didn’t become our “new normal.” To that end, I prepared for a time when I would be feeling better by making a list of Spanish read-alouds for the new year, requesting new Spanish-language non-fiction books from the library, and hunting down playlists of new Spanish worship music to listen to with the kids. I’m happy to say that, having now entered my second trimester, I’m feeling mostly back to normal. I’m still having some “off” days, but on the whole, our homeschool has bounced back to its normal routines. And guess what? My kids actually don’t seem the worse off for it!

Do you have any other tips for continuing language learning in difficult times? Please share them!