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Becoming a Bilingual Family

Becoming a Bilingual Family
Help Your Kids Learn Spanish (and Learn Spanish Yourself in the Process)

Unique among language study aids, this book gives English-speaking parents the tools to create a bilingual home and help their kids learn Spanish in their earliest years, when children are most receptive to learning languages.

January 2013
This is a print-on-demand title. Expedited shipping is not available.
254 pages | 6.125 x 9.25 |

Would you like your children to grow up bilingual, even if you aren’t yet? Then speak to your kids in Spanish as you learn the language along with them. Becoming a Bilingual Family gives English-speaking parents the tools to start speaking Spanish with their kids in their earliest years, when children are most receptive to learning languages. It teaches the vocabulary and idioms for speaking to children in Spanish and offers practical, proven ways to create a language-learning environment at home.

The first part of the book introduces parents to many resources—books, audio books, music, television, computer programs, childcare workers, school, and friends—that can help you establish a home environment conducive to the acquisition of Spanish. The second part is a Spanish phrasebook that takes you through all the typical activities that parents and children share, from getting up in the morning to going to bed at night. Few, if any, other Spanish study aids provide this much vocabulary and guidance for talking to small children about common daily activities. The authors also include a quick course in Spanish pronunciation and enough grammar to get a parent started. Spanish-language resources, kids’ names in Spanish, and an easy-to-use index and glossary complete the book.

Take the Markses’ advice and start talking to your kids in Spanish, even if it’s not perfect. You’ll learn the language together and share the excitement of discovering the peoples and cultures that make up the Spanish-speaking world.

  • The Journey to Bilingualism

    • What This Book Is About … and Other Thoughts
    • The Bilingual Home
    • A Few Things about Spanish
  • A Phrase Book for Talking to Kids
    • How to Use This Phrase Book
    • Getting Up, Getting Going
      • Good Morning!
      • The Weather
      • Getting Dressed
      • Accessories, Hair, and Makeup
      • Moving About
    • In the Bathroom
      • Going to the Bathroom
      • Brushing Teeth
      • Bath and Body
    • Feelings
      • Where Does It Hurt?
      • Emotions
    • Family and Friends
      • Family
      • Describing People
      • Visits and Sleepovers
      • Our Animal Friends
    • Behaving and Manners
      • Getting Along
      • Helping Out
      • Talking on the Telephone
    • Play, Preschool, and School
      • Just Playing
      • Drawing, Coloring, Cutting, and Pasting
      • School and Extracurriculars
      • Television, Movies, and Music
      • Computers and the Internet
    • Family Excursions
      • Getting out the Door
      • Car, Bus, Train, Plane
      • Holidays
    • In the Kitchen
      • Cooking
      • Mealtime
    • Bedtime
      • Goodnight!
      • Storytime
    • Especially for Baby
  • A Quick Course in Spanish Pronunciation
  • Grammar Enough to Get You Started
    • Numbers and Counting
    • Nouns
    • Adjectives
    • Colors
    • Possessives
    • Demonstratives
    • Comparatives and Superlatives
    • Personal Pronouns (and the Personal a)
    • Regular Verbs
    • Irregular Verbs
    • Compound Tenses
    • Continuous Forms
    • To Be or Not to Be (ser, estar)
    • To Be or Not to Be (tener, hay)
    • Commands
    • Pronomial Verbs
    • Forming Negatives
    • Asking Questions
    • Por and Para
    • Time
  • Spanish Language Resources
  • Kid Names in Spanish
  • Index / Glossary

Stephen Marks is Professor of Law at Boston University. He and his wife, Mary, have raised their three children, Olivia, Claire, and Saraí, to speak both English and Spanish. He and his family have traveled extensively and lived in Latin America and Spain.

An advocate for bilingual-bicultural education with a professional career in languages spanning twenty-five years, Jeffrey Marks is Assistant Professor of Spanish at Ohio University. He has long been interested in language acquisition and has taught children and young adults both in the United States and abroad. His children speak English, Spanish, and French.


What This Book Is About . . . and Other Thoughts


This is the tour guide and phrasebook for the voyage of a lifetime, a voyage that you will be taking with your kids. It is a voyage to bilingualism and, more than that, a voyage to the cultures and the peoples that make up the Spanish-speaking world. It is a voyage that begins in your own backyard, for indeed millions of your paisanos (countrymen and women) are fluent speakers of Spanish.


We wrote this book for English-speaking parents who wish to raise their children to speak both English and Spanish. From our own experience in raising bilingual children, and from talking to many other parents, we have become convinced of four things: First, raising a child bilingually is one of the most valuable experiences in early childhood education. (More on this later.) Second, many parents recognize this value and would give the gift of bilingualism to their children if they only knew how. Third, most parents are interested in sharing this learning experience with their kids but do not know where to begin. (This included us.) Finally, traditional language instruction materials do not prepare parents to talk to their kids. Indeed, even parents who have studied a significant amount of Spanish find that they have neither the vocabulary nor the sentence structure for "kid talk."


Over the years many parents have approached us, some complete strangers on the street, to ask us how we have managed to raise our kids bilingually. As we have come to share our experiences with others and to reflect upon them ourselves, we have found ourselves giving advice that really boils down to two simple and related educational principles. The first is that bilingual education for young children is simply a matter of creating a bilingual environment. That is, language acquisition in young children is not at all about instructing children in the language. Rather, it has everything to do with creating an environment in which children are in contact with the language. Because children are gifted language learners, they do not need language classes. They only need a bilingual environment to attain proficiency. The next chapter in this book shows you how to create a bilingual environment in your home and in your child's life.


The second principle is that you the parent are a very important part of that bilingual environment. Your willingness to learn along with your children and speak Spanish to them, especially in the early years, will enhance their bilingual environment in two ways. First, it will give your children an additional source of Spanish, a bit more of the day in which they hear and speak the language. More importantly, however, the mere fact that mami or papi is speaking Spanish in the house provides a powerful role model for your children. The fact that you are interested in Spanish, that you find it fun and exciting, will be internalized by your children and will contribute to making language learning a lifelong love of theirs. This motivational aspect of your child's environment leads us to the one cardinal rule underlying this book:


¡La regla más importante!

(The Most Important Rule!)

Speak to Your Kids in Spanish!

(Even if incorrectly.)


This book is designed to give you the confidence to speak to your kids in Spanish. It provides you with the vocabulary and structures you will use daily. You will be learning along with your kids.


Why Raise Your Kids Bilingually?


Most of the parents we meet are convinced of the benefits of raising children bilingually. Your interest in this book suggests that you have already considered the merits of this endeavor and are intrigued by the possibility. Occasionally, however, parents who do not understand why we would do such a thing ask us to justify our choice.


Part of the answer is the old notion that parents inflict upon their kids that which they wish their parents had inflicted upon them. (Yes, our kids take music lessons as well.) Like many people, we have a fascination with language. Yet language acquisition can be a trying proposition for adults. If only our parents had taught us a second language as children! In "Bilingual Babes: Teach Your Child a Second Language," Ilisa Cohen explains:

Why are so many families jumping on the bilingual bandwagon? "In our increasingly global world, parents realize that their kids will benefit from knowing more than one language," says Nancy Rhodes, director of foreign-language education at the Center for Applied Linguistics, in Washington, DC. "There's definitely been a grassroots push for more bilingual education in preschools." Exposing your child to a second language will help him learn about other cultures. Research has shown that bilinguals tend to be more creative thinkers than those who speak one language, and one study suggests that their brain functions may stay sharper as they age.


There are many reasons to raise children bilingually, including the following:

  1. Knowing another language is an asset that will help our children survive and thrive in the world. The world is becoming more international every day, and those with language skills are more in demand and have a greater variety of prospects open to them. On average, bilingual speakers exceed their monolingual counterparts in earnings.
  2. Learning two languages early on makes additional language acquisition in adulthood that much easier. Barbara Zurer Pearson, bilingualism expert and author of Raising a Bilingual Child, notes that children "acquire precocious knowledge about knowledge, a capacity called 'metalinguistic awareness,' which is one of the foundational skills for learning how to read and write. Metalinguistic awareness will also help children when they want or need to learn a third (or fourth or fifth) language." Thus if your kids ever want to learn French, Italian, or Chinese, they will find it much easier if they already have experienced learning Spanish.
  3. Recent studies have shown that learning another language as a child promotes cognitive development that carries over to other intellectual activities, such as mathematics and logical reasoning. Dr. Pearson summarizes the results of a study on "divergent thinking," noting that "bilinguals were able to generate three times more high-quality hypotheses for solving science problems than the monolingual students." They also showed a distinct advantage in selective attention, focusing on a specific aspect of a task while suppressing others. In a 2004 article titled "Being Bilingual Boasts Brain Power," Miranda Hitti summarizes the results of a recent study published in Nature: "People who are bilingual have an advantage over the rest of us, and not just in terms of communication skills. The bilingual brain develops more densely, giving it an advantage in various abilities and skills, according to new research."
  4. Studying languages promotes interest in and teaches about the world and its people. It is a history, culture, and geography lesson rolled into one.
  5. Learning another language, and learning about the related cultures, promotes tolerance and understanding. "A bilingual is more likely to understand that his or her perspectives are just two out of many. This is the basis of greater tolerance," writes Dr. Pearson. (The latest studies in the field of bilingualism are fascinating, and Pearson's Raising a Bilingual Child provides excellent insight into these discoveries.)
  6. Learning another language will eventually open another beautiful world of literature to our children. Much of the world's greatest literature is written in Spanish, including, for example, Cervantes's Don Quixote, One Hundred Years of Solitude by Nobel laureate Gabriel García Márquez, and the poems of fellow laureate Pablo Neruda.
  7. Learning another language creates self-esteem. Our kids are very proud that they speak two languages. They recognize it as something special and powerful.
  8. Learning another language creates opportunities for travel and exploration. (So far, we have spent summers in Mexico, Spain, and Costa Rica and have traveled to Argentina, Chile, and Ecuador.)
  9. Learning a language is an intellectual activity that you truly can share with your kids (and one in which they may learn better and faster than you).
  10. Learning a second language is fun. It is fun for you and fun for your child. Learning along with your child will keep you in the mix on a daily basis. You will be practicing your Spanish throughout the day. Since parent-child interaction is intensive by nature, you will probably be getting more speaking experience than you would if you were vacationing in Spain or Mexico.


Finally, it should be noted that though many believe monolingualism to be the norm—based, no doubt, on their local experience—it is actually the exception. More than half of the world's population speaks two or more languages. In "A Global Perspective on Bilingualism and Bilingual Education", G. Richard Tucker notes that

… there are many more bilingual or multilingual individuals in the world than there are monolingual. In addition, there are many more children throughout the world who have been and continue to be educated through a second or a later-acquired language, at least for some portion of their formal education, than there are children educated exclusively via the first language.

For those parents interested in going deeper into the research on bilingualism and bilingual education, we have included a recommended reading list of books and articles and have provided some websites of interest at the end of the book.


Are There Any Negatives?


Some parents worry that learning Spanish may slow the development of English, which is admittedly the most important language to acquire for someone living in an English-speaking country. Researchers have studied the effects of bilingualism on the development of a variety of language skills. These studies are complex because of the multitude of factors that need to be taken into consideration. For this reason, outcomes from these studies have varied somewhat. The bulk of the evidence, however, suggests that bilingual children develop linguistically as fast as, or faster than, their monolingual counterparts.


Granted, it takes a certain amount of interest and initiative to create a bilingual environment in your home. This book is designed to make that project easy and enjoyable. The next chapter discusses how to go about creating a bilingual environment for your child. Part II of this book is designed to make it easy for you to contribute to that environment directly, while working on your own language skills, by talking to your children. When we started speaking Spanish to our kids, we had to figure all of this out ourselves. This book will give you the benefit of our experience so that you have everything at your fingertips.


When to Begin?


Babies are well equipped for language learning from birth. They are, in essence, little language-acquiring machines. The Multilingual Children's Association puts it this way:

You could say the brain is "primed" the first three years of life with synapses at a peak, busily setting up the optimal neural pathways to mediate language. This construction of the brain's language chip continues, but at an ever-slowing rate until late childhood. Even if you don't start from birth, the earlier is truly easier for both you and your child. By the early teens, the baby's special abilities are completely gone. Besides, the younger the child, the less likely they will care about blatant errors. They'll just happily chatter away until your ears are ready to fall off. What better learning conditions can you ask for?

Many bilingual children learn both languages from the very beginning. They essentially have two "first" languages. It is also common, though, for bilingual children to acquire a second language after their first language is well established. Each of these scenarios is effective, though they have different advantages and disadvantages on a cognitive level. It should be kept in mind, however, that there is a window, through puberty, during which children learn language with the greatest ease. There is now some physiological evidence confirming this, although why this window gradually closes in early adulthood remains a mystery. A recent study compared the brain activity of two sets of fluently bilingual adults. The researchers discovered that those who learned both languages as young children used the same part of the brain for both languages. Those who learned the second language at a later age used a different part of the brain for each language.


By no means should it be interpreted that older children and adults are incapable of achieving near-native proficiency in a second language. Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, older children and adults have some advantages over young children. Because of their greater experience, both in the world and in their first language, older children and adults will be able to master more complex structures and achieve more nuanced meaning through applied study. Using the rules of grammar, which younger children are not likely to understand, they can make fast progress in a second language. It is true, however, that people who learn a second language after puberty are more likely to have a noticeable accent than those who acquire their second language earlier.


So the answer to the question of when to begin is the sooner the better—but you can't start any sooner than now.


Why Spanish?


The language we chose was Spanish. Of course, this will not be everyone's choice. Some couples are bilingual, and for these the choice of the two languages may be quite natural. One parent may be a native English speaker, for example, and the other a native French speaker. In this case, raising the children in an English-French environment would be logical.


In the case of Mary and Steve, neither had any special competence in a second language. They chose Spanish for a variety of reasons. First, it is widely spoken. Second, Spanish is relatively easy to learn: pronunciation is straightforward; the alphabet is the same (with the exception of the ñ); the vocabulary, being Latin-based, has something in common with English; and the grammar is manageable. Third, they have access to abundant resources in Spanish, including books, videos, audio CDs, and computer programs. Many people in their community speak Spanish, and one often hears it on the street in their Boston area neighborhood. Finally, they have always loved Spanish and Latin American literature, even in translation. Thus, for Mary and Steve, Spanish was a natural choice. For Jeff's family, the choice was even easier: both parents are Spanish and English speakers.


Educating Mom and Dad


Once you decide to raise your kids bilingually, you will probably want to study Spanish yourself or brush up on that Spanish that you learned way back in high school or college (it does come back to you!). In the chapter Grammar Enough to Get You Started, we give you a fairly complete guide to basic Spanish grammar so that you will need only one book close at hand. Becoming Bilingual Together is not intended as a complete course of study, however. Here, we have organized the material thematically so that you can easily find what you want to say, whether you are getting your toddler ready for the playground or discussing your ten-year-old's soccer game. Spanish courses for adults organize their material by grammatical concepts that your children will not know, nor need to know, as they acquire the language through contact with it in their daily environment. From an adult perspective, then, this book should be considered a supplement to formal study. You may want to take some courses at the local college or through an adult education program. Or, perhaps, you will want to buy instructional books or CDs. We learned this way, primarily through books and CDs. (The commute to work, if you have one, is a great place to learn a language.) A wealth of well-designed materials is out there to make home study effective and enjoyable.


You will find, however, that these classes, books, and CDs will leave you still stumbling when it comes to speaking with your kids because these materials are directed at adults. The dialogues and vocabulary generally focus on businesspeople, university students, and travelers. We are not aware of any other book that provides the vocabulary and sentence structure for talking to kids. Even those parents who have studied Spanish for a number of years often have no idea about how to ask a child if she has to go to the bathroom, if she wants to play hide-and-seek, if she has a dirty diaper, if she wants to be pushed on the swings, or if something hurts. This book fills that gap. It supplements your adult language study in that it extends your vocabulary and, most importantly, assures that every day you are putting into practice the Spanish you are learning. You have a captive, attentive, and loving audience for your practice!


How This Book Came About


Over the years we have interacted with a multitude of parents who were in the process of bringing up their kids bilingually. We might find ourselves on a park bench or at a playground each discussing our experiences of what had worked and what hadn't. It soon became clear that we were all looking for resources that were not readily available anywhere. We were piecing together what we could from whatever sources we could scavenge. Parents who were interested in beginning to parent bilingually would often confess that they didn't know where to begin. Many had some Spanish in their background but found the prospect of speaking to their kids in Spanish for any length of time a daunting one. How could they go about creating the right environment? Where could they learn the idioms needed for speaking with their kids? These were questions we had to confront in the beginning as well.


We soon developed a network of parents with whom we would share experiences and resources. This motivated us to be more systematic in collecting, recording, and organizing the materials we would ferret out in our own efforts at bilingual parenting. This book grew out of that process and so represents a culmination of our experiences over the past nineteen years in raising our own children. We had to figure out how to obtain materials for our home and how to say the Spanish expressions that come so naturally to us in English. We had to brush up on our Spanish usage and pronunciation. Fortunately, we have had access to native Spanish speakers. They all have been very kind in answering thousands of questions about how to say this or that. Over the years we have compiled these materials and, largely through a process of trial and error but also through some research, we have developed our approach to bilingual parenting. Though the process has sometimes been difficult and frustrating, it has always been fascinating and rewarding. This is why we are now thrilled to be able to pass on this information to you. Read on and let the journey begin.


The Bilingual Home


Raising kids bilingually is simply a matter of creating a bilingual environment. There are many ways to do this, and all of them will help you to learn along with your son or daughter. In this chapter we suggest ways to enhance your child's bilingual experience. The more types of Spanish experiences you can bring to your child, the more quickly your child will develop facility in both languages. While all of these ideas may not work for everyone's personal family situation, you can choose the ones that are feasible for you and incorporate as many as you can.




Talking to kids, in any language, is essential both for language development and for general cognitive development. A recent study indicated that the best predictor of kids' future academic success is whether the family talked during dinner. This factor ranked higher than whether parents read to their children! For children learning a second language, talking with their parents is all the more important. When you speak Spanish with them, you will be practicing your own language skills, advancing along with your kids.


Conversational Opportunities


There are many opportunities to converse with kids. Mealtime is one of the best. Another is just before bedtime. At bedtime you can take advantage of your child's natural inclination to stall. One nanosecond before the lights go out, our kids invariably blurt out, "Can I tell you something?" Then they hesitate as they are trying to figure out what to tell us to keep us in the room one more moment. We often just lie down with them and talk for a few moments. Another great opportunity is while reading a book. Here you can ask them questions about what is going to happen, what they think about it, exactly what is happening in the illustration, what else might be going on (where do you think Goldilocks's mother is?), etc. We will help you learn the Spanish you need to do this. Yet another "captive moment" is when your kids are strapped in a car seat.


Conversing with kids means having some questions to ask. After that, you may have trouble getting them to be quiet and eat their dinner. Of course, you have to have the right questions, and this requires a bit of specificity. You'll find help with this too in these pages.


Who Speaks What?


In a two-parent household, one of the first things that you will have to decide is who is going to speak to whom in which language. One popular method is the “One Parent, One Language” system, which was first formally introduced by French linguist Maurice Grammont in 1902. This is, in fact, the method that Steve and Mary have been applying. Steve speaks Spanish to their kids, and Mary speaks English. The disadvantage of this system for nonnative speakers is that it puts a greater responsibility on the designated Spanish-speaking parent, although it also provides that parent with a greater opportunity to advance in the language.


It is interesting to note how kids progress under the One Parent, One Language approach. If you begin this process at infancy, there are three distinct phases:

  1. Mixing languages. As your child first begins to speak, both Spanish and English are used. Spanish words are adopted for some concepts and English words for others. As far as we could tell, our children chose the most easily pronounced word (for example, "book" instead of "libro," "agua" instead of "water").



  • Assigning languages to persons. Steve relates: "By about two years old, the kids were speaking strictly English to Mary and strictly Spanish to me. For example, at the dinner table Olivia would tell Mary something in English and then turn to me and, almost in the same breath, switch to Spanish. It was not clear that she even was aware of what language she was speaking or hearing. I experimented by saying something to her in English. Her response was in Spanish. In effect, she had an automatic switch. Each person was assigned a language."


  • Switching at will. Somewhere between the ages of five and six, children will discover that they have a choice as to which language to speak. That is, they consciously choose which language they want to speak with whom.


One Parent, One Language is only one of several approaches. Such an approach clearly is not possible for one-parent families. Even two-parent families may find that it does not involve both parents in the experience as much as they would like. Another possibility for two-parent families is to trade off. One day papi speaks Spanish, the next mami speaks Spanish. A third possibility is to divide the day or the week into Spanish and English. This method is available for both one-parent and two-parent families. (The two-way bilingual public school that our kids attended one year used this system: three days in one language, two in the other.)


Indeed, you may want to switch systems at some point. For example, for Jeff the natural choice in the beginning was to speak English while Emilia, who is Spanish, spoke Spanish to the children. As the kids got older, however, and their English-speaking outside environment (school, etc.) became more influential, they switched to both speaking Spanish in the home as a counterbalance. This is generally referred to as the Minority Language at Home system (MLaH).


There is not much evidence as to which method works best—kids seem to pick up the language irrespective of the method chosen—so you should choose the method that works better for you. The only requirement is that the children have a significant amount of Spanish in their environment and that they hear Spanish at least some of the time from a parent. Speaking Spanish to your kids not only provides them with a vocabulary of words and phrases; it also gives them a powerful role model, especially in the early years. In fact, we believe that the role model function of speaking is more important than the actual content or the grammatical correctness of what you say. Let us once again emphasize the cardinal rule:


¡La regla más importante!

(The Most Important Rule!)

Speak to Your Kids in Spanish!

(Even if incorrectly.)


When your kids hear you speaking Spanish, they want to do it too. Do not be worried if you are not speaking correctly. Take a cue from your kids. They will freely speak both Spanish and English without the least concern that they are making grammatical errors. So should you. This is great for your progress as well. Language teachers will tell you that one of their greatest challenges is overcoming students' inhibitions, particularly with adults. Instructors strive to create a nonthreatening environment for their students, and most are careful not to "overcorrect" because this stifles language acquisition. If you can get learners to use the target language freely, advancement is nearly assured. Though later on in the process you may have the delightful surprise of occasionally being corrected by your children, they are the perfect guinea pigs for your practice as they are unlikely to be judgmental about your language skills. Particularly in the initial stages, they will pay attention to your content more than to your form. (Minding what you say is another matter!) As you interact with them daily, and for hours each day, you will quickly become accustomed to speaking Spanish at home and will soon find yourself unselfconsciously conversing in Spanish with them in the park or supermarket in front of others. Though Jeff teaches relatively small classes at his university (about twenty students per class) and tries to maximize their speaking opportunities through the use of group and pair work, he estimates that each student's actual speaking time in the classroom is well under two hours a week. When speaking with your kids, your opportunities for meaningful interaction in Spanish will be easily ten or twenty times this amount! It is plain to see how great progress can be made.


In the following sections we will show you how to make sure that your kids get their Spanish from many sources. So you can relax; you will not be their only linguistic model. They will figure out what is right and what is wrong and will soon be correcting you! The most important thing that you can give them is the love of learning, speaking, and understanding Spanish.




One of the easiest and most rewarding experiences that you can have with your child is reading. ¡Colorín Colorado!, a bilingual website specializing in helping children read, says: "It's never too early to read to your baby. As soon as your baby is born, he or she starts learning. Just by talking to, playing with, and caring for your baby every day, you help your baby develop language skills necessary to become a reader. By reading with your baby, you foster a love of books and reading right from the start."


In the United States children's books in Spanish are widely available. Many of the most popular English-language children's books have been translated into Spanish, including Goodnight Moon, the Spot series, Where the Wild Things Are, Going on a Bear Hunt, and the Berenstain Bears series. For older kids there are excellent translations of Charlotte's Web, the Ramona series, and the wildly popular Harry Potter books. In addition, there are many, many children's books by Spanish and Latin American authors. (We have provided a list of sources in the appendix.) These have the important advantage of imparting cultural information as well.


Steve describes his experience this way:


I have always liked reading to my kids. First, it teaches them a love of reading that they will carry with them all of their lives. Second, when I read to them in Spanish, I am confident that they are getting the correct vocabulary and sentence structure. When I speak off the top of my head, I am more prone to making mistakes. Third, I learn a lot of Spanish myself, new vocabulary and phrases that really help me advance! And, lastly, it is a great way for me to practice pronunciation. I can concentrate on the sound without worrying about grammar and vocabulary.


If you use the One Parent, One Language method, one parent will read in English and the other in Spanish. Again, other approaches are possible, and we vary our routine on occasion. The important thing is to read as much and as often as possible. Your kids will love it!


Audiobooks (on Tape, CD, or MP3)


Children's stories in audio format are readily available in Spanish (see the appendix). Of course, kids always prefer that Mommy or Daddy read to them. Nevertheless, such books do have their advantages. We tend to use them on long car trips, and sometimes we let the kids listen to a book on tape as they are falling asleep at night. Many audiobooks come with a printed book with pictures so that you can read them to your kids as well. One advantage of audiobooks is that you can be assured that the pronunciation is correct. In fact, listening to these books along with your kids is a good way to improve your own comprehension and pronunciation.




Children tend to love music, and there is a lot of Spanish-language music out there for kids. We listen to music all the time. The kids usually figure out the songs and begin to sing along before we do. They often go to sleep with some kind of music. In addition to helping with language acquisition, this exposes the kids to music, another discipline that, according to recent studies, is important for cognitive development.




When Mary was first pregnant with Olivia, Steve and Mary would discuss the role of television in their soon-to-be-expanded family. Here is how Steve recalls it:


I argued that we should throw the TV set out the window and live a TV-free existence. (I admit I go to extremes.) I conceded that occasionally there is something valuable on. However, I felt that television just wasn't controllable and that it would end up taking over our lives. Mary was more moderate and argued that we could indeed control what the kids watch and that TV certainly would not turn into an electronic babysitter. Our decision to raise our kids bilingually gave us a middle ground in this tug of war. What we finally agreed upon was that we would keep the television but we would limit what the kids watched to programs and movies in Spanish.

Television can be a tremendous asset in language acquisition. Many an immigrant will tell you that he or she learned English primarily by watching American television. Of course, with kids, this can be overdone; limiting our children's TV viewing to programs in Spanish allows us to be sure they are getting something valuable out of it.

What do they watch? Well, we must confess that we have most of the Disney animated children films in Spanish, including Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, The Great Mouse Detective, The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, The Lion King, and many more. There are also many nonanimated kid movies with Spanish soundtracks, including Mary Poppins, Babe, Free Willy, and Fly Away Home, to name just a few. It is also possible to get a Mexican version of Sesame Street (known as Plaza Sésamo). (This is not a dubbing of the American version, but rather reflects its Latin American setting. There was also a version, known as Barrio Sésamo, that ran for many years in Spain.) Additionally, there are many programs specifically designed for kids who are learning Spanish.


Computer Programs


If your kids play on the computer at home, know that there are now many programs specifically designed for kids who are learning Spanish. One that our kids enjoyed was the Living Books series, in which a book is read in either English or Spanish and then the kids can play with the interactive images. More programs are becoming available every day, including such favorites as the game Where in the World Is Carmen Sandiego?


Child Care


Many parents require at least some child care during the workday. This represents a tremendous opportunity to give your child or children a bilingual environment. In many communities, child care workers who speak fluent Spanish are readily available. Here are some possible scenarios.


Families often hire child care professionals to come to their houses several times a week to care for their children while the parents are at work. If you can find a child care professional who is also fluent in Spanish, it is important to instruct this person to speak to your children exclusively in Spanish. (Most such professionals also speak fluent English.)


Some parents hire live-in caregivers through services that place au pairs from foreign countries; others hire live-ins locally. In areas with sizable Hispanic populations, it is often possible to find live-ins who are native Spanish speakers. Universities also are good sources of Spanish-speaking child care. Some university students are willing to exchange child care for rent or for room and board.


Steve and Mary often have exchanged room and board for part-time child care, typically with a young Mexican woman who is hoping to perfect her English. Not only has this been a great source of fluent Spanish for the kids, but it also has been rewarding in many other ways. They have come to know several families in Mexico and have continued to interact with them for years after. Jeff's family has employed several au pairs from Spain who have come to do graduate work at the local university.


In short, if you require some hours of child care each week, it is often possible to make that experience part of your bilingual environment.


School and Preschool


Besides individual child care, an increasing number of day care centers, preschools, and schools provide bilingual environments. Over the years, Olivia and Claire (Steve and Mary's daughters) have attended a preschool in which only Spanish was spoken. Their youngest daughter, Saraí, attends a school where Spanish is incorporated into the curriculum. The preschool was little more than a group of parents who got together and hired a bilingual teacher. A local church provided the space.


Bilingual elementary, middle, and high schools are becoming more popular. Other schools and preschools incorporate Spanish into their curricula. Thus opportunities may exist in your community. At least one school that our children attended incorporated Spanish into its curriculum after parents indicated that this would be attractive to them.




This was a greater challenge than we had anticipated. Ideally, we would have found Spanish-speaking friends whom our kids could have gotten to know and play with. However, political rhetoric to the contrary, most kids in this country who speak Spanish fluently also speak English fluently. Although these kids may speak Spanish in their homes, if they sense that your child is more comfortable with English, they will switch to English in a heartbeat.


In spite of the challenges, it pays to be vigilant to whatever opportunities do arise. We occasionally meet families who are new to the country or who are here for short stays and whose kids are native Spanish speakers. Although these opportunities may appear infrequently, they should be seized upon. Not only will they provide Spanish at a peer level for your children, but they also may provide you with contacts and relationships that you may find rewarding later. In its "Steps to Raising Multilingual Children," the Multilingual Children's Association calls this "establishing a support network":

Get your support from others like you. Most things are more fun and rewarding if you share them with like-minded people. Not only do you have a peer group to discuss the art of raising multilingual children and benefit from the experiences of others, but you will build a network of other speakers of your minority language. Equally important, it gives your child the opportunity to hear, speak, and interact with other children in the minority language. This is an enormous motivator for them (this time, group pressure actually works in your favor!). And playgroups are among the best and easiest ways to do it. They may even remain friends with a few of the kids for a long time. Play friends are probably the best way to ensure continuous language exposure over the years—especially when Mom and Dad lose the coolness factor.


One important resource you have now that we did not have when our children were young is social networking via the Internet. It is much easier now to find people with common interests. Popular networking sites, such as Facebook, are avenues for this, or you might use a site such as Meetup ( in order to locate a group of parents raising their kids bilingually, or form your own. The founder of one such group in Bloomfield, New Jersey, confesses that she began the group "out of frustration for the lack of support I find in this particular area for bilingual children." Her group has had twenty-four meet-ups so far and now boasts a "membership" of forty-two parents.


If you have room in your house and if you are amenable to such experiences, hosting exchange students, usually high school age, is an excellent way to introduce your children to Spanish-speaking friends. And finally, another great way to find friends and playmates with whom to practice the language is by traveling to Spanish-speaking countries.




Travel to Spanish-speaking countries is an excellent way to reinforce the bilingual environment. The advantage of travel is that it surrounds kids with Spanish and helps them realize that Spanish is an everyday part of life in many parts of the world. (It is not just a weird thing that their parents are trying to foist on them.) In addition, the adventure of deciphering this foreign experience creates an excitement and a feeling of accomplishment. Again, kids begin to understand that bilingualism really is something special.


Because of our focus on bilingualism and biculturalism, the nature of our travels has changed somewhat from those we enjoyed in our former, pre-kid days. No more do we embark on trips that promise thirteen cities in fifteen days. Rather, we find a location, typically a small town, and settle in. We get to know the people. Although we do get to make a few side trips to nearby areas of interest, mostly we focus on the people. We take walks; we become frequent visitors at the local park, city pool, or plaza where the kids hang out; and we get to know the neighbors, the local grocer, and the shop owners. Sometimes we have managed to get the kids involved in school.


Travel serves as good Spanish language practice for you and your kids. More importantly, however, it serves as inspiration. It adds excitement to language, especially for older kids. We have spoken to many American kids in our travels who are excited to be able to speak another language, even if just a little bit. Travel also serves to expose kids to another culture, another world. These experiences are immensely enriching, even apart from the linguistic benefits; speaking the language makes them all the more valuable.


Which Options Work for You?


Again, there is no one way to create a bilingual environment for your children. Not all of the ideas we have presented are possible for every family. It is important, however, that children get frequent exposure to Spanish. And it is important that you, as a parent, are involved, that you, too, find language an important part of your life. Kids really do not need a structured language program. Instead, give them a bilingual environment: books, movies, music, child care, travel. Read to them, talk to them. Learn with them. As gifted language learners, they will do the rest.