A few months ago, my friend Krystel emailed asking for tips on how I’ve gone about raising bilingual bebés. Let me preface this by saying that Krystel is a Cubana who speaks Spanish beautifully. She’s also an educated mamá with a law degree and an MBA. So I figured, if this súper mamá is asking me for pointers, I’m sure other people wonder the same thing. Now I feel like Ann Landers sharing my response and tips with all of you.
I’ve heard so many reasons why Spanish speakers don’t teach their children a second language:
“I’m not completely fluent.” Neither am I, but I don’t let that stop me and I know enough to provide my children with a solid foundation.
“My husband/wife/partner doesn’t speak Spanish.” Neither does mine. Amado speaks to me in Spanish and to his papá in English. He learned to code switch when he was two.
“It’s a lot of work.” It might feel unnatural at first, but I’ve spoken to Amado in Spanish since he was born, so it became our special language and now it would feel unnatural to speak to each other in English.
Now, back to my email from Krystel. Here’s what she wrote:
I wanted to pick your brain about how you’ve been so successful raising Amado to be bilingual. My baby isn’t quite talking yet, but I worry so much that he won’t learn Spanish well, since my husband doesn’t speak Spanish and our primary language at home is English. Any advice / things I can do?
P.S. Your kids are adorable…like crazy amounts of adorable.
I’ve broken down my response to Krystel into bullet points below. My focus is on how I manage a Spanish and English household, but the same can be applied to any dual-language home.
Commit to early exposure – pick a language and stick to it. From day one, I’ve only spoken to my children in Spanish. Period. Whether we’re at home, the grocery store, the library, or anywhere else, I speak exclusively in Spanish to my children without worrying what others think. I’m the Spanish speaking parent, and my husband is the English speaking parent. And just like children can learn to differentiate which shoes are mamá’s and which are papá’s by the time they’re about two years old, they can do the same with language. I remember vividly cuando me cayó el veinte when two-year-old Amado once said, “Mamá, quiero un dulce,” and then turned to his dad and said, “Papá, I want a candy.”
Make speaking a second language fun. When Amado was younger, I used to act like I didn’t know English if he’d speak to me in English. Now that he’s fully aware that I speak both languages, we say it’s our special language. It wouldn’t even feel natural if I spoke to him in English now because we’re so used to communicating in Spanish. I’m doing the same thing with Valentina, too and now Amado speaks to her in Spanish. Sometimes Amado will even flip the script and tell me, “mamá, no te entiendo,” if I say a word in English.
Set language goals and establish a support network to increase Spanish exposure through daily interactions. My husband is fully supportive of our bilingual journey and we agreed that we wanted our children to be fully bilingual. This meant that we would expose our children to as much of the language as possible at home, through the One Person, One Language policy. My husband started off trying to speak to Amado in Spanish, but by the time he turned two, Amado began to correct his papá’s grammar, so he figured he might as well stick to English while I focused on Spanish. Now that Amado is in school, we also agreed to send him to a bilingual charter school. My relatives and friends who know Spanish also support us and make it a point to communicate with our children in Spanish. I make the extra effort to meet with friends who are also raising Spanish-speaking children so that our kids can play together, and so that Amado sees the need for Spanish outside of conversations with me.
Use media, literature, and music to support your bilingual journey. There is so much wonderful content available for children in Spanish these days that even if you don’t speak Spanish, but want your children exposed to the language, you can have them watch movies and shows in Spanish. When Amado watches TV, we look up Netflix shows and movies that are in Spanish. If something he wants to watch is not available in Spanish, we move on until we find something that is. There are even Planet Earth-type shows in Spanish, which he loves. Keep in mind that screen time will not teach your child a second language, but can serve as a fun tool.
When it comes to story time, everything Amado and I read together is in Spanish. Now that he’s six, we began reading chapter books in Spanish. We read a chapter or two each night, which he really enjoys because it gives him something to look forward to the next day. We also really like the Sol Book Box and bilingual Highlights subscriptions.
And since we always have music playing at home, we listen to it in español. We even to practice yoga in Spanish with the YOGIC kid classes on YouTube.
Make a dedicated effort to travel to a country where the target language is spoken. In other words: immerse your child in the language and culture. Being bilingual is so much more than simply speaking a second language. This is precisely why the kids and I spend at least a month in Mexico each summer. Amado, and now Valentina, go to a school with locals where they’re fully immersed. There are plenty of schools for international students to learn Spanish, but what I’ve found is that if Amado is in a setting where he is learning Spanish, but the other children speak more English, he’ll resort to the language the children speak. I don’t want that to be an option, so I put him in programs where his classmates only speak Spanish. While a month can be a long time for some people, even one to two weeks of full language immersion can make a huge difference for a young child. I learned Spanish as a child and knowing a second language is one of the greatest gifts my parents could’ve given me – one that I hope to share with my own children.
Amado and I have been spending summers together in Mexico since before he was walking and talking. These trips always serve to improve both of our language skills while being immersed in a beautiful country and culture. More than anything, I’m so happy to see the sense of cultural pride my children have at such an early age.
Now Little Miss Valentina makes the trips with us!
Amado has friends in Oaxaca that he visits every summer. We stay in touch throughout the year, too. He also has a bilingual penpal who he writes to every time we visit somewhere fun.
We love visiting bookstores in Mexico because the book selection is so much better than anywhere near where we live and they’re not translated books for children learning Spanish, they’re books written for Spanish speakers. Before Amado began to read, we absolutely loved the My First Touch and Feel Picture Cards. Now Valentina uses them. They’re great because every card pack series contains 16 sturdy picture cards, each with a vibrant image and touchable texture. The back of each picture card has word translations in Spanish, French, German, and Chinese, and phonetic spellings to help with pronunciation and questions related to each image.
On our last trip to Mexico City, we took the kids to the Museo de Antropología and to Frida’s Caza Azul. They’re too young to appreciate the exhibits, but they both enjoyed exploring the outdoor garden areas.
More Resources for Raising Bilingual Children
Here are a couple of podcasts where I’ve shared my knowledge and experience raising bilingual babies:
“Keeping Traditions Alive in a Bicultural Home.” Super Mamás.
“Getting out of your comfort zone when raising bilingual Children.” Bilingual Avenue.
I also called on my bilingual mamá friends and asked them for some tips and here’s what they shared:
“One big tip I have is making sure your kids experience a need to speak Spanish (otherwise they may feel like, what’s the point?). Parents can do this by speaking only Spanish at home like we do, but also in lots of other ways (having kids take classes in Spanish, writing little lunchbox notes in Spanish so they can practice reading, visiting a Mexican restaurant and letting kids know they’re in charge of ordering their own food in Spanish, doing Face Time or Skype calls with Spanish speaking friends and family). The need can be big or small, depending on what works for your fam!”
Some favorite resources:
1. This feels funny to include since I wrote it, haha, but I went through & summarized tons of research on best practices for raising bilingual kids to write my free email course. And I get emails all the time from parents who say it was really helpful!
2. I also really love the Entre Dos podcast for resources and tips as a parent.
3. I like the Ven con un cuento podcast on Spotify (though I really wish there were more episodes!) for my kids.
4. BOOKS — impossible to choose favorites! If I had to choose just one I’d start with a book of nursery rhymes though (like Pío Peep). I also know of a handy subscription service that sends you books in Spanish.
— Vanessa Nielson, Founder of Sol Book Box and mother of three bilingual bebés
“I think the special thing about what we are doing is showing our kids that we can learn, create and express ourselves in two languages and it is so much more fun than just knowing one language.”
Here’s some things we do:
We try to watch shows and movies in Spanish as much as we can. I’ve found that many Netflix shows and Disney movies actually have Spanish versions so whenever possible we choose those.
My kids know that they can speak to others in English (like some family on husband’s side who only speak English), but when they speak to to me it is always in Spanish. Even if we are at a family gathering, the only language spoken with me is Spanish. Gemmita has tried to speak to me in English before, but I just pretend not to understand her. When she realizes why, she switches her language back to Spanish.
My husband is not 100% bilingual, so he does tend to incorporate some English. However we try to make it a rule that the kids always speak Spanish to both of us, especially at home. His support and desire for the kids to speak Spanish (and to fully learn it himself) has been a major factor in helping our kids to be bilingual.
Finding childcare in Spanish when they were not yet in school was great for us. We had two different nannies while I was still working. They were both Spanish speakers and this helped tremendously in establishing a strong foundation. We found both of them by asking teachers and other parents at the schools where we worked.
My number one motto has been to have Spanish be their first language. They will learn English when they are in school (which I know is what happened with me and what I see has happened with Gemmita). So now is the time while they are little to help them learn Spanish. This also means that the parents have to make an effort too and remind the kids. I think as bilingual people ourselves it might be easier sometimes to respond in English or use the English words instead. We need to make sure we are leading by example and talking to our kids about why being bilingual is important.
Some favorite resources:
1. We like the Disney+ subscription because almost everything on there is available in Spanish.
2. For great games in Spanish with the Sesame Street characters, we like sesamo.com. PBSkids.org also has games in Spanish that we really like.
3. Netflix also has a lot of great shows in Spanish. My kids like to watch PJ Masks, Octonauts, and Ask the Storybots.
4. The public library is our favorite place to get books. Every library has a different selection so we like to go to different ones and pick different books for a couple of weeks.
— Gemma Aguayo-Murphy, Founder of Everyday Latina and mother of two bilingual bebés
Lola Wiarco Dweck
Lola is a Mexican-American recipe developer, writer, and cooking instructor who loves sharing her culture with the world. Growing up in California and spending summers in Mexico, Lola celebrates her family’s Mexican recipes and vibrant culture through Lola’s Cocina.