Raising Bilingual Kids: What We Have Learned
Since Monkey was born, we have worked hard to raise him to speak both English and Spanish. My husband speaks to him only in Spanish, and I speak to him only in English, a method known as One Parent, One Language. (For more on the most popular methods, read this post on teaching your child a second language).
For a very long time, I have skated by on the fact that my husband is a native Spanish speaker. I could boast about my son’s bilingualism, all the while having a very easy time speaking to him in my own native language, surrounded by other English speakers. Too bad for others that didn’t have this advantage, but how nice for me!
Yet here we are nearly three years into our “experiment” – as we affectionately call our son 🙂 – and I have to face the fact that raising our kids to be bilingual is going to require a lot more work on my part.
Monkey’s comprehension in both languages is high, but since we live in an English-speaking country and he spends most of his time with me, Monkey speaks mostly English.
As a stay at home mom, I consider Monkey’s education to be part of my job description. So just as I have been systematic about teaching him numbers and letters in English, I should be doing the same in Spanish if I expect him to have an even somewhat comparable level of comprehension.
I am proud of all that we have done with Monkey so far, but of course there is a lot of room for improvement. And now that we are starting the process all over again with Baby, it is a good time to take stock and make some changes.
Here are some things I wish we had done differently:
- Spanish at home: I think it would have helped tremendously if my husband and I had spoken to each other more in Spanish. It would have greatly increased the amount of Spanish Monkey was exposed to on a daily basis, and it also would have helped him to hear more conversations between Spanish speakers (instead of just hearing his father speak to him in Spanish).
- Other Spanish speakers: We have a number of dear friends that speak Spanish, and they are great about speaking to Monkey in Spanish. Unfortunately, things are so busy that we don’t see them as often as we like, so I wish we had made more of an effort to be around them. Also, with Skype it is so easy to chat with family in Costa Rica, which is great not just for Monkey’s language development but also for building his relationship with relatives so far away.
- Spanish immersion: We have made several trips to Costa Rica, including one three-week visit last year, but because of the distance and expense, it is difficult to do this often. But you don’t have to travel to find opportunities for language immersion. I wish I had made more of an effort to find a Spanish playgroup for Monkey when he was younger or gotten involved in local cultural groups. I am pleased that he has just started a Spanish class, conducted by a close friend from Mexico who is a former preschool teacher. I can’t wait to see what comes of this!
- Spanish language media: One step that would have been so easy to take would have been to make better use of Spanish language media. Living in California, it is so easy to find Spanish cartoons on TV, plus there are so many DVDs available to rent or purchase. When Monkey was younger he loved watching the Pocoyo cartoon, but after he got bored of that, I didn’t make much effort to find another Spanish program. I also wish I had looked into the great programs out there specifically designed to help youngsters learn another language. One that I have come across recently is Little Pim. This is a really well-done program to teach Spanish and other languages. It is fun for kids to watch and makes it easy for them to learn. The little panda is adorable, and Monkey loves watching other kids. Each segment is relatively short and teaches a number of related vocabulary words, with a review at the end of each. The DVD we have focuses on eating, so kids learn words for common foods as well as associated terms like fork and spoon. I was so pleased to hear Monkey repeating after the video, since he speaks Spanish so infrequently. My only regret is that I didn’t start him with this at an earlier age. Although the video says it can be used up to age six, I found that it really seemed designed for younger children. It reminded me a lot of some wonderful baby sign videos we watched when Monkey was much younger. He loved those at the time, but lost interest by about age two. Still, Monkey will watch this Little Pim video occasionally, so it does help, and I am glad to have it for Baby Monkey later on! A friend was experiencing a similar problem with her four year old losing interest in the Little Pim DVDs and so came up with these great activities to reinforce the DVDs. Will have to give these a try!
As with anything in parenting, raising bilingual kids is a learning process. I am happy with what we have accomplished so far with Monkey, especially because it was all done in a loving, stress-free way. Ultimately, helping our sons gain a love of both languages is more important than exactly how much they speak one versus the other.
How has your parenting changed as your kids have gotten older? What do you wish you had done differently?
This post was written for inclusion in the monthly Raising Multilingual Children Blogging Carnival.
Disclaimer: We were provided with a free copy of Little Pim’s “Let’s Eat!” DVD for purposes of this review. All opinions are my own.
I truly enjoyed reading your post. 🙂 It’s a never ending learning process for parents trying to raise bilingual children. For a minute there I thought Monkey was fully bilingual.;) Oh, and thank you so much for including my Little Pim activity! (Such a nice surprise!)
¡Hasta luego mi amiga!
Frances, you are so right! It really is a never ending process, but I suppose that is true of parenting in general! Glad to include your post – it is such a great idea!
I found your post through random pinterest repins. Anyway I am very happy to find support in your opinion here.
I’m French, married to an American and we live in France. We choose to speak English at home (and switch to French if we ever move back in the US). Our kids are 2,5 and 1 and so far our oldest speaks more English than French. But school will start soon and I’m pretty sure the tendency will reverse then. I get a lot of comment, sometimes positive (how great to have bilingual kids etc) but also some not so positive (why do you speak english to him, it’s not your native language.. Aren’t you afraid he’ll pick up an accent? You should speak French and Daddy English etc. )
Our calculation was just what you said. If I (stay at home mom) doesn’t speak English to them they will not speak it easily, they will be completly immersed in French the moment they start school (and I assume they will start playing in French and speaking it together as the big kid brings it home from school). There is nothing wrong with that! 🙂 But if we want a bilingual home we have to go heavy on the language that foreign.
All the videos are in English. It also adds a bit of cultural background. I know it’s silly but the fact that our kids know bob the builder or thomas the train (thanks to netflix) can be a common cultural background if we move back sooner than later.
We also listen to podcasts and radio mostly in English and we let people know that we love books, especially in English. We received that way 2 boxes of kids books from expatriate friends which have been most helpful!
For French the kids are exposed a lot with simple everyday life (family, friends, park, shops) and I will speak to them in French when there are people around. I usually say something, and then repeat it in English.
My main worry is that my own English isn’t perfect and my husband is not around enough to correct me everytime. I still can’t say the word “doll” properly is it like a ball? or like a dog? But I consider these hesitations are minor as opposed to the benefits of being fluent in two main languages.
thanks for your post, sorry my comment was so long!
I couldn’t agree more! Going in I thought that it would be best to have us each speak our native language, so that the kids wouldn’t confuse the two languages. I now know that you can achieve this in other ways – for example, speaking one language at home and another language in the community, etc. I agree, that for our situation, in order to have a bilingual home it would be better to have the minority language reinforced at home. Sounds like you have a really great way of doing this with your kids! I wouldn’t worry much about the accent. As you say, the benefits outweigh the risks, and they will easily overcome any hesitations, especially with being exposed to other native speakers and media. Thank you for sharing your story!
I agree with your four points:
1. Speak the foreign language at home
2. Socialise with other native speakers
3. Have video calls with family abroad
4. Build a library of media in the foreign language
We practice all of these at home! But we do it in French not Spanish 🙂
Thank you, Daniela! Best of luck, and thank you for outlining this so clearly!
A lovely post with great points Leanna – I can’t wait to hear more about the Spanish class!
Thank you! I am really excited about the class. She really encourages them to speak in Spanish plus it is good for him to be around other kids who are learning Spanish, too.
I have been following you for a while now and I find your blog very interesting and useful. I have a 5 months old baby and we will like her to be bilingual. I am the Spanish native speaker and my husband is Hungarian. We live in Hungary and I have always have the fear that all you are saying can happen to us as well since she will grow up here in Hungarian. Your post give me ideas to strength her Spanish skills, for example, I know I need to try to find a group with other Spanish speakers so she can be more exposed to the language.
Greetings from Budapest
Thank you for your comment! I think often the children tend to follow the language of the mother or primary caregiver, so you will have an advantage there. But if you can find a group of other Spanish speakers, that will not only help your daughter but be fun for you as well!
I enjoyed reading your bilingual journey with Monkey and the ideas you shared with us. I think Monkey is going to have fun with the Spanish class. I am looking forward to hearing more about it.
Thank you! I am really excited about the Spanish class, so I will be sure to update you all on that as we go along!
Our son is fast approaching 2 and we are already speaking the foreign language at home, building up a media library and using Skype to talk to family back in the UK. After reading your post I have got in touch with a few friends here in Brazil who are native English speakers and have kids. I proposed we all go out for a curry together this weekend to talk about getting all the kids on a play date. Thanks for the inspiration.
That’s wonderful! Best of luck to you!
Congrats on the birth of your new baby! Having my second child (born 2011) around means that now I get to take advantage of all I learned about using my nonnative language (French) with my son (born 2008), including what mistakes to (try to) avoid and what materials to use more of. I’m tweaking as I go, like you, and it’s a little easier this time around.
We have not yet been able to give the kids an immersion experience in French, so contact with native speakers through French playgroup and French storytime at the library has been invaluable. And I keep meaning to set up Skype sessions with francophone friends with young children, but haven’t managed that either.
My opinion of videos like Little Pim is not very favorable–it seems like this genre (Brainy Baby, Language Tree, Baby Einstein, “Bonjour Les Amis,” Little Pim, etc) is designed for very young children whose parents want them to pick up words in a second language (as opposed to learning to converse and communicate), not for kids acquiring two languages simultaneously. And, of course, all the experts warn us not to expose kids under two to any screen time!
(Longer explanation here: http://babybilingual.blogspot.com/2010/06/from-too-young-for-any-videos-to-too.html)
I like your friend’s ideas for making Little Pim more interactive–thanks for sharing the link. What’s key, I think, with all videos for kids (in any language) is that we parents watch with them and talk about them and help the kiddos make connections to real life.
Have you seen the GlobeToddlers DVDs? They’re more culture-based than the others, I think. There’s one called “Adventures in Mexico.” (Here’s a review of their “Adventures in France”: http://babybilingual.blogspot.com/2010/09/dvd-review-globe-toddlers-adventures-in.html).
I’ll be interested to hear more about the Spanish class that Monkey is taking. My son did a couple of French classes for preschoolers, but they too were designed to introduce French, not enhance and enrich it.
Thanks for your post!
Sarah, not sure how I missed this comment last year – not sure if you will even see this reply since it’s coming so late! I agree that the genre of DVDs does seem to be more geared towards kids acquiring a few vocabulary words as opposed to those already learning the language in an immersive setting. It is fun, though, and in our case helped my son to be enthusiastic about a language he was resistant to speaking.
I hadn’t heard of the GlobeToddlers DVDs – I love that they teach about culture as well.
As it turned out, the Spanish class didn’t last long because of lack of interest, which is really too bad because it was wonderful. They did crafts and activities, all in Spanish, and she had lots of fun ways to get them to practice pronunciations. Now I’m considering doing a Spanish play group, will keep you posted!
Hi…I just wanted to say my son is 4. My mother tongue is english and DHs is Greek although we each speak both languages. DH only speaks greek to him and I speak greenglish because that is how I talk.
We now live in greece so he speaks mostly greek.
Things I have done to help me along the way: All kid shows were in english, have started an at home english pre-school, we have lots of books, and we now have a kindle to keep up with our book collection and to download apps. He understand everything in english and I actually think he is advanced in it…but not in his speech but that is because he has noone to practice it with. When I put him in a class his speech will explode.
He speaks more greek but his knowledge of things in this language are limited…due to me reading in english and his tv shows in english.
I am always playing catch-up 1 language at a time and at this point it is ok…I’m hoping by 1st grade there will be some leveling out.
It sounds like you are doing an amazing job! Yes, the level of acquisition of each language will be different because of the difference in settings, but you are really setting the stage for his language learning in both languages. Wonderful!
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Thank you for this article, Leanna. My children are being raised in our home with their father speaking only Turkish to them, and me speaking only English to them. I agree with you that I need to be speaking Turkish more with my husband so that they hear more conversational Turkish. However, our children never speak in Turkish back to him so we thought a long trip (2 months!) to Turkey would help them learn the language. We are in Turkey now and were SURE they’d speak Turkish here, but now we have realized that even thought they understood everything in Turkish, speaking is a whole nother thing! 😉 I’m sad that it took coming all the way to Turkey to realize I should have been doing more to support their bilingualism.
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[…] Educational videos are also a great way to reinforce Spanish for kids. I really recommend Little Pim DVDs for young children. The segments are fairly short and teach related groups of words (such as food vocabulary in Little Pim: Let’s Eat), with a review at the end of each segment. Little Pim is one of the most well-known language programs for kids, and with good reason. For more, you can read my full review, included in this article on bilingual parenting. […]
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I’m quite late to this. I found you through pinterest. I speak French as a second language. My husband speaks none. I want to teach my children, but I am no longer fluent. It’s difficult for me. I have been attempting to only speak to them in French most of the day, but I find myself forgetting so much! I am afraid the children will not be at all bilingual.
Yes, it is a difficult situation! I would say first of all, not to give up, but know that whatever exposure you give your children will benefit them! Are there other French speakers you could expose them too? Also, never underestimate the power of media! Letting them watch French cartoons, or listen to French music can be really fun for everyone and a great learning experience as well. You may be interested in this post about raising bilingual kids as a non-native speaker: https://alldonemonkey.com/2015/08/19/raising-multilingual-kids-can-a-non-native-speaker-raise-bilingual-children/ Be sure to check back in and let us know how it is going!