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Raising bilingual kids: benefits and techniques

Children who have the opportunity to learn a second language are given a world of opportunity. It opens up new opportunities in terms of who they can communicate with, what they can read, and where they can travel with ease. It is a partial cure for closed-mindedness. Those are the obvious benefits.

But learning a foreign language also has broad cognitive benefits. According to the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Language, it:

  • is beneficial to the development of problem solving abilities, memory skills, reading abilities, ability to hypothesize in science, and even mathematics*

  • correlates with higher academic achievement, including standardized tests and college level academic performance

Overall, there seems to be a correlation between learning a second language and overall intelligence and open mindedness.

linguisticabilityImage credits: Plastic Earth by Brooks Elliot and Pop Quiz Math Clock by _ES both on flickr

*I found it interesting that students who take time away from the study of mathematics to learn another language still do better on mathematics tests than the students who were doing more math (source).

What is the best way to help your child learn a second language?

There are many different ways to learn a foreign language and I have had the opportunity to be exposed to a lot of them over the years.

I grew up speaking only English at home, but learned French in a French immersion program in school. I also learned some Spanish and Italian in college, learned a bit of Japanese from friends and on my own, and studied German at university. I spent a few years living in Germany, where I met my husband. My husband grew up in Germany, spoke  French and German at home and went to a German school where he took English and French as foreign languages. We speak English (me) and German (my husband)  with our children at home and our son is in his third year at a trilingual school where they speak French, English and Spanish (our daughter starts next year). On top of our own experiences, we have many friends here and overseas who have taught their children multiple languages using many different formations and techniques.

In this post, I want to share some of what I have learned and experienced about second language acquisition. I want to explain what usually works and doesn't work and why. I want to encourage you to give your child the opportunity to learn a foreign language even if you don't speak one yourself.

The earlier the better! The younger your child is, the easier it will be and the greater the benefits to the child. What are you waiting for?

If you or your partner does speak a foreign language

If you or your partner speaks a second language, you are at a significant advantage. Whether you are a native speaker or learned the language as a second language yourself, you can use your linguistic abilities to pass the language on to your children. There are a number of different approaches that you can use:

  • One parent, one language: With one parent, one language, each of the parents will choose a language and speak that language consistently with the children. If only one of the parents speaks a foreign language, the choice is easy. If both parents do, either one can speak the foreign language but ideally it should be the parent who spends the most time with the children (i.e. speaking Chinese with mom all day long would be more beneficial than speaking Chinese for an hour with dad in the evening). This is a great technique when the parents want to teach the children two different foreign languages (e.g. community language is English, one parent speaks Polish, the other one speaks Spanish).


  • One place, one language: With this technique, different languages would be spoken in different places. For example, the family might choose to always speak English at home and always speak Spanish when outside the home. This can be a good technique for expat families living in a foreign country where they might be ostracized for speaking their home language in public. They can safely teach their home language to their children at home, but speak the language that they are expected to speak when out in public. It can also be useful when you are trying to institute the foreign language as the home language to not have multiple languages circulating in the home environment.


  • Parents speak foreign language only: If the parents do not speak the community language or if they really want to ensure that their children become fluent in the foreign language, it may be useful to have both parents exclusively speak the foreign language. This happens often in immigrant families where the parents have not mastered the language of their new home. While we opted for one parent, one language, I now wish we had used this technique instead (i.e. both my husband and I speaking German exclusively with the children). They would have still learned English from my mom and in the community, but this may have made them more willing and more comfortable speaking German.


  • Mix: Some families mix things up. Each person speaks whatever language they want, whenever they want. Popular opinion used to be that this would be way too confusing for children and they would never sort out their languages. However, more recent research shows that as long as you are not mixing within a sentence, then mixing might not be that bad after all. In reality, this is probably where we have fallen. My husband does end up speaking a lot of English to our children. I try to make up for that by speaking some German to the kids. We also throw in some French and a bit of Spanish here and there for good measure.

Children will have a strong tendency to favour the community language wherever you live. So no matter how much language immersion you give them at home, they may not actively choose to speak the foreign language with you. Don't see this as a failure. It is reality. Even if your child never speaks a word of the other language, if you have spoken it frequently at home, your child will have been exposed to it enough to take away some of the benefits of second language acquisition. That said, there are things you can do to encourage them to speak the foreign language, but I wouldn't advise forcing them to do it.

If you don't speak a second language

If you do not speak a foreign language, that does not mean that all is lost. There are plenty of ways that you can give your child (and yourself!) the opportunity to learn. These ideas can also be used to reinforce language learning in cases where one of the parents does speak a second language, especially if that parent is not the primary caregiver of the child. Not all of these will necessarily be right for all families or all children. You can pick and choose what will work for you, depending on your preferences, finances and school situation.

  • Foreign language school: If you are fortunate enough to live in an area where there are schools in different languages (where we live there are French school boards and English school boards), you could consider sending your child to a school with children who speak another mother tongue. Plenty of children enter kindergarten at schools where they do not speak a word of the language their peers speak and they quickly learn the other language.

  • Immersion programs: You can choose a school that has a second language immersion program or at least foreign language classes that your child can participate in. The disadvantage with this type of program is usually the lack of access to native speakers. Instead of learning French in a French environment and playing with French speaking children, your child would be learning French in French class with a bunch of other English speaking children. Immersion programs are better than nothing, but certainly not as advantageous as being completely immersed.

  • Weekend or evening classes: A lot of immigrant communities that want to preserve their language will have Saturday classes that their children go to. This can range from play groups to more formal learning. Another opportunity would be for you to attend evening classes and then bring home what you learned and share it with your child. Teaching what you have learned to your child will benefit your child and also reinforce your learning.

  • Learning with your child: You can choose to learn a language along with your child.  This is a great option for home schooling families. I used to be on a message board about raising bilingual children and there was one woman who let her son choose the languages they were going to learn and then they learned them together.This can either be a very big investment or an extremely frugal activity. You can invest in buying DVDs with movies and language lessons, CDs with songs and lessons, books and magazines, dictionaries, and so on. Or you can use a combination of the library and the Internet to build your own materials. Online you can find pronunciation guides, You Tube videos, dictionaries, and much much more. There are even websites where you can hear the sounds animals make in different languages! You can also combine arts and crafts with language learning by doing things like making a language Bingo game. I just discovered a blog called Bilingual for Fun that looks like it may have some good ideas and experience on it.

  • Vacations: Try to travel somewhere with your child where the second language is spoken. If you are in the United States, some obvious easy options are Quebec, Canada (to the North) and Mexico (to the South). Try to get out of the touristy areas where people are likely to speak English and find spots where your child will be exposed to more of the native language. Staying at small bed and breakfasts and visiting local playgrounds can be good ways to hear the language being spoken. You can also use the opportunity to pick up some materials (books, DVDs, etc. in the foreign language).

  • Nanny or babysitter: If you need to hire someone to take care of your children, consider hiring someone who speaks another language. This will give your children significant exposure to a third language. We know one family where the children learned French and English from their parents and Turkish from the nanny. When the family traveled in Turkey without the nanny, their five year old was the one who communicated for the family at hotels, restaurants, tourist information, etc.

  • Play dates, play groups and playgrounds: A great way to reinforce language learning is through play. If you can find native speaking families to have play dates with, find language oriented play groups, or find playgrounds where children speak another language (e.g. the playground in China Town in your city), this is a great opportunity for your children to hear real people speaking the language they are learning at home.

Regardless of the approach or the tools that you take, keep it fun and mix things up. Using a mix of different techniques will keep your child interested and reinforce what has been learned.

Your experience? Your questions?

Have you learned a second language or taught one to your children? What was your experience like? What challenges did you face? What resources or techniques would you suggest?

Are you interested in exposing your children to a second language? What is holding you back? What questions do you have?

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Reader Comments (110)

We are razing our girls bilingual, my husband is Chilean and I am Colombian, we now live in Michigan. We speak only Spanish at home and have gotten more strict about it as the girls get more comfortable speaking English, we now put their movies on in Spanish, we only have books in Spanish available and if they speak in English we ask them to do Spanish since that's what we speak in our family.
Also Chileans and Colombians use different words, and we each use what is used in our countries and I can really see how they understand that and use the appropriate word according to the situation they are in.
I have recently started reading a blog www.spanglishbaby.com and have found great ideas there.
Yesterday I started taking care of a little girl one day a week, her parents what her to learn Spanish. By the end of the day she was already using a couple of words in Spanish and my oldest was very happy about teaching her! I really think this will be a great experience for all of us.
Now going back, I also wanted to mention that even if I did have English lessons at school, I learned English by watching TV. When I was growing up we could only watch TV in English, the only thing any one could put in Spanish was the news.

September 22, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterCatalina

@Catalina: Thank you for your comment. My husband also "learned" English by watching TV. He spoke it quite well when he came to Canada, but he became fluent by sitting on the couch watching The Simpsons for 6 months while he waited for his immigration papers to arrive so that he could get a job!.

September 22, 2009 | Unregistered Commenterphdinparenting

Great post! Very thorough and love your ideas.

My wife and I grew up speaking different languages - I grew up with Hindi and she with Turkish. So English is a common language for us. We do try to speak to our twins in different languages as much as possible. And they are picking them up - a little at a time, but English remains their preferred language because of obvious reasons.

I did hear the same advice from many people that one parent should always speak in one language and the other always in a second language to be most effective. It has not been very practical for us at all!

I guess, you have to set your expectations so that you don't force the children to do more than what they need to. For us, our hope is that they will be able to have a conversation with Grandparents and their cousins! I am not expecting them to become fluent in both reading and writing just like a native speaker!

I don't put any pressure on my twins to speak in a certain language with me. But when my daughter picks up the Hindi book for me to read to her at bed time, I do feel great. And I know that she enjoys listening to the sounds. That is enough for now.

September 22, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterTwinToddlersDad

My husband speaks German and he has been reading to our Birdie auf Deutsche. He wants her to be fluent at an early age. I would like to do the "one parent, one language" but we end up just mixing it up. She hears alot of German in the house and she gets plenty of play in German. I'm no where near fluent in the language but I'm learning. I grew up hearing it spoken (English was my grandmother's second language), so I understand quite a bit, but my grammar is horrid. So far Birdie doesn't really recognize the word "nose" as in "Where is your nose?" but if you say "Wo ist deine Nase?" she lights up. I figure with enough exposure and a father that teaches the language, she'll figure it out alright.

September 22, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterShotgun Mary

I almost fell over when I read this entry. From the first time I read your blog I felt like it was the blog I would write in my more organized and articulate life and never imagined you were also a dual language household. We use OPOL with our three kids with me speaking only Spanish and my husband English. We are in the US so as the kids get older (18m 4 and 6) it has become increasingly difficult to keep them inspired to speak Spanish, definitely true that the community language has a way of taking over. So far we continue (and have always) read, and listen to music mostly in Spanish with dad reading a few books in English now and then. And, they are getting old enough that we also tell them why we are doing it, and why its important which they semi understand at this point. Mostly I feel like it is getting easier to do as when I started 6+ years ago it was almost impossible to find materials and many people thought I was a nut, so it going mainstream is a plus in that regard. What do you find your challenges to be?

September 23, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterMaria

We began as an English/Spanish family in the US where we did one language one person very effectively. My husband began talking to the children from birth in Spanish and that is their language of communication with him. Period. He's been very firm with that expectation because it is unacceptable to him (and for us) that the kids not speak Spanish as this would cut them off from 1/2 of their extended family. Learning Spanish was a firm priority since we'd seen friends bungle the issue and the resulting hurt when grandparents couldn't communicate with their grandkids.

We are now in Mexico and still doing one language one person but the community language has changed. We do homeschool in English with a Spanish language tutor coming 2 hours a week to move the girls from bilingual to biliterate (and me to fluency). They are making great strides and I'm going to have to go on the hunt for more curriculum for their teacher when we visit the In-Laws to supplement what is available to us here.

One thing that we did with our youngest when she went on a "Spanish strike" was to bump a vacation to the In-Laws forward and extend it so that we could immerse her in Spanish before the refusal to speak Spanish became entrenched. Within a week she had gotten the message that she needed to use her Spanish words to make her world work the way she wanted to and we've not had that issue again.

Two books that helped us before our oldest was born were (I'm not linking them anywhere because there are a couple of other titles I want to share too) -

Growing Up with Two Languages by Una Cunningham-Andersson and Staffan Andersson (I preferred this one)
The Bilingual Family - A Handbook for Parents by Edith Harding and Philip Riley

Since then I've noticed a lot more books available and these looked interesting -

Language Strategies for Bilingual Families: The One-Parent-One-Language Approach (Parents' and Teachers' Guides, No. 7) by Suzanne Barron-Hauwaert (Paperback - Jul 2004)

Language Processing in Bilingual Children by Ellen Bialystok


It has been very interesting to me to hear, over and over, that learning two languages delays language development and slows the learner down. That has definitely not been our experience and the data shared in the books I read showed no delay outside of the normal range of language acquisition for kids. When I run into the attitude that kids cannot and should not be learning two languages simultaneously I remember the tour guide we met in St. Maarten who spoke 4-5 languages daily. Then I laugh privately to myself at the silliness.

September 23, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterCarol

I'm excited to have Peanut grow up learning different languages. My grandmother is from Japan and I am disappointed that I didn't grow up knowing more Japanese. I feel like it would have brought my grandmother and I closer (we are not close at all currently). It is important to me that Peanut learns other languages very early so it will be easier for her. There are some charter schools around here that focus on languages. I think we'll look into those when she's older.

September 23, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterClaire Lindstrom

So great that you posted this as I'm agonizing over our second language!

My parents are from El Salvador, I was born here but am fluent in Spanish (can also read and write). My hubby speaks English but is learning Spanish and incorporates what he can in his daily activities with our DD who is 2.5. I've dropped the ball, as I've been speaking mostly English to her with the exception of at least one Spanish book per day. So now I'm trying to incorporate more Spanish and she's actually rejecting it! Like she tells me she can't say a word in Spanish or gets cranky when I try to read to her in Spanish. She understands it perfectly though, and she can say many many words and can even sing a couple of songs.

Luckily we see my Mom about twice a week and there is ONLY Spanish spoken with her. I'm also looking into Spanish preschools and hoping to find a Spanish playgroup. I think Spanish will be much more appealing to her if it's part of social time.

I'm glad to see there was the "mix" option included here...as that's what we're doing while trying to increase her exposure to Spanish.

September 23, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterLizette

I love the notion of becoming fluent in English from watching the Simpsons! Does your husband say "DOH!!" a lot?
We are doing the "both parents speak foreign language" method, because we are recent immigrants from USA to Israel. When we moved this summer, we enrolled our almost 3 year old son in an all-day nursery school where the spoken language is Hebrew (though there are many other kids there from English speaking homes). It's fascinating to watch him pick up the language; right now he speaks beautiful, articulate English sentences at home, and at school he speaks enthusiastic sentences in gibberish, which he believes to be Hebrew. But every once in a while he comes up with a coherent Hebrew sentence. I guess that will just start happening more and more often as time passes. It's really amazing how differently children learn languages from adults.

September 23, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterChanna

Kein wunder hab ich dich gern! :)

Another great, thorough post helping us all to be better parents . . . thank you!

September 23, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterBettina

i've watched how my 3.5 year old quickly started to prefer spanish over english after we moved to argentina 9 months ago. and my 1 year old just started with his first word in spanish. the preference for the community language is so strong!

i always speak to the kids in english and my husband always speaks to them in spanish, so they will both always understand both. but i speak to my husband in spanish, so i guess the spanish ends up winning out. though i know that they will always understand english perfectly, it would be so easy for us to slip into me speaking in english and them always responding in spanish, which i don't want.

i also find that whenever inlaws or neighbours or friends are around i speak more spanish so that the others will understand me. the english is getting less and less space. we're looking forward to some english-speaking visitors over the next few months, so hopefully that will help.

it's definitely a big topic around here...

September 23, 2009 | Unregistered Commentermacondo mama

thank you so much for mentioning Bilingual For Fun . I think all the points raised are very valid, and I'd like to add a couple of considerations.

First, set realistic expactions. Most people have this idea that a bilingual person is like two monolingual in one body, someone who speaks two languages with precisely the same skills and competency. Well, these are the exceptions, not the rule. In fact there so many degrees of bilingualism that it is impossible to define what bilingual means. For instance a person who undertsands a language but doesn't speak it is bilingual, passive bilingual, and if your child happens to fall in this group, or in general is not as bilingual as you'd like him to be, don't get frustrated because it really doesn't matter. Even a passive bilingual can become active bilingual in no time, when the right conditions arise, for instance because of a long holiday abroad. So just keep going, no matter what. Even if it looks like your children are not bilingual, if you keep giving them plenty of exposure they will be bilingual.

The second point is that parents, normally mothers, tend to take too much ownership for the success of their children's bilingual education. If the child doesn't speak the language they start wondering where did I go wrong? Oh dear! In fact we often forget that language is a communication tool and it needs a social environment to develop. The family is a social environment, but by no means the only one a child interacts with, in fact as children grow the family becomes less and less influential. So the bottom line is don't take all the responsibility on you. Try to give your child opportunities to meet other children who speak the minority language, be aware that playgroups are really important and do your reasonable best to make sure he or she attends one.

Finally, together with other bloggers we are launching a Blogging Carnival on Bilingualism,I think you'll find it interesting and here you'll find some info, or if you have any questions feel free to contact me at bilinguepergioco AT yahoo DOT com.

That was a long comment...


September 23, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterBilingual For Fun

We are both anglo. I moved here from Scotland when I was 8, so had to wait for Late French Immersion in grade 7. It worked out and I continued with French through high school and university. I've also worked in Montreal for a while. By Ottawa standards I'm bilingual (although when I'm in Quebec, I'm not so sure... ).

Our daughter just started JK two weeks ago and she's already picking up French words, so my plan is to reinforce that at home. I'm really pleased that it's so easy to get that opportunity in Ottawa - other places it's far more of a challenge.

September 23, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterJuliette

sorry, I forgot the link to the Blogging Carnival on Bilingualism, here it is: http://www.bilingualforfun.com/about/blogging-carnival-on-bilingualism/


September 23, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterBilingual For Fun

What a timely post as we have just enrolled our son in a weekend Spanish Immersion class. I wrote on this subject on Monday. I can read some Spanish and my husband knows a little, but we are native English speakers. I think it is very advantageous esp. in the US to be bilingual in Spanish and I want my son to grow up knowing it and not waiting until he's in Jr. High or High School like myself to learn it. I plan on using Spanish Immersion software so I can learn at the rate he learns (or faster) so he can communicate with me at home. I will also try to find opportunities for him to learn/practice Spanish outside the home as well. We have a large Spanish speaking community in my state, but it's not very integrated as far as neighborhoods go, so we have no Spanish speaking neighbors.

September 23, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterThe Baby Head Diarist

Thank you so much for this post. My husband is European (former Yugoslavia) and he speaks about 5 different languages. His main languages are Serbo/Croatian, Slovenian, and English, but he also speaks some German and French, and can understand Bulagrian and Polish. He is a fluent English speaker, but obviously speaks with a heavy accent. We have a 16 month old who is starting to speak and I am ALWAYS telling my husband that he should be speaking to our son in his languages. Living in the States my son is exposed ALL THE TIME to english, and the ONLY times he is exposed to my husband's languages are either when he speaks with the family overseas through a web-cam, or when my husband speaks to him in the languges. The problem is, my husband doesn't always speak his language to our son, and I would argue (although my husband would disagree) that he speaks more english to our son then the foreign languages. I keep saying to my husband that if he wants our son to be able to speak to his foreign family, he'd better start speaking more of the language. My husband keeps saying, "Oh, he'll learn my language. It'll be fine". But I desperately want my son to learn my husband's languages and I worry constantly that that won't happen, unless we move over-seas.

I am always looking for articles and studies to show my husband on the subject, so that maybe he'll decide it's a good idea to start speaking more often in his languages, and this is a fantastic post to serve that purpose. I would love more information on this subject.

Thank you again.

September 23, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterKatie

I'm so glad you wrote this post! We have been trying to teach our daughter two languages, but face many challenges. My husband and I were both born in the US, but he was raised speaking serbian in his household so he is fluent in both english and serbian. He tries to speak serbian to our kids (2.5 and 3 months) as much as possible, but often forgets and ends up speaking english anyway, since that is the language he is comfortable with. What's more is for some reason we can't get his mom to speak serbian to our kids! She speaks very broken english but for some reason feels more comfortable trying to speak english to them.

My daughter understands serbian but we have a really hard time getting her to speak it. So, I fear that they will never really pick it up if we don't do something more. I would love to learn with them, but I've had a very hard time finding any materials in serbian other than the typical "teach yourself a new language" books and cds which are hardly engaging enough for a two year old. I would love to find some fun educational cartoons in serbian to help her learn, but have come up empty handed. Do you have any suggestions on where I might look?

September 23, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterRhyah

I was having the same issue with finding stuff in the Balkan languages (ie. children's books, dvds, etc). I finally had to have my husband's sister send a bunch of Serbo/croatian/slovenian children's books and dvd's from overseas. My son loves them, but my husband hardly ever sits down and reads them to him, and if I try to I tend to butcher the language. But at least we can sit and watch the dvds. I know if you do a google search for serbian children's books, some options come up in which you can order serbian language children's books. Or, if your husband still has family in that area, you could always try to get in touch with them to send over some materials.

I want to learn the language as well, and had really wanted to use Rosetta Stone, but they don't have any of the Balkan languages which is very frustrating.

September 23, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterKatie

Lizette, Are you speaking to her consistently in Spanish? It sounds like you are now but she's responding in English? If you'd like I can share some of my husband's methods of getting our girls to speak to him in Spanish when they are favoring the English.

September 23, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterCarol

@Carol: I'd love to hear some of them and I'm sure others would benefit too! We are looking for more gentle ways to encourage our kids to use their other languages.

September 23, 2009 | Unregistered Commenterphdinparenting

anglophone father, francophone mother. mom insisted that the three boys go to french school until high school was done then we could do what we wanted. as a result her three boys speak french/english fluently. in my travels i was also able to pick up italian and spanish quickly due to the french foundation and have richer experiences with other francophones around the world and in francophone countries.

to this day i still thank my mother for sticking to her convictions. now it's my turn to pass that on to my daughter.

September 23, 2009 | Unregistered Commenterdustyz

Nice roundup of the issues, Annie! I just would like to make one point about immersion school programs - depending on where you live in the US (my only frame of reference for immersion programs) and what language is being taught, you could easily end up with about 1/2 the class being native speakers. My daughter attended a Spanish immersion school for kinder and 1st grade in VA, and the school had a policy of balancing each class with 1/2 native English speakers, 1/2 native Spanish speakers, and most of the teachers were native Spanish teachers, too. The high concentration of Spanish speakers in that area made that good mix possible. Interestingly, though, all the kids, regardless of which language was spoken at home, played together in English on the playground - the pull of the community language and wanting to fit in is quite strong!

In our family, both parents are native English speakers who learned Spanish as adults. The two older kids (now 5 and 8) are bilingual English/Spanish to varying degrees, having spoken Spanish before English, since we spent 5 years living in Uruguay and Mexico. It was very easy to maintain bilingualism overseas, and the kids moved easily and fluently back and forth between the two languages, with me speaking mostly Spanish to them and my husband speaking mostly English. After moving back to the US, keeping up the Spanish became a little harder, although we still had a lot of resources - the immersion school, many bilingual friends, local library, religious, and theater resources in Spanish, etc. So our skills dropped a little, but we more or less maintained.

Now we're back overseas, in a mostly English-speaking African country. I've made peace with the fact that I can only do so much to maintain the Spanish, as a non-native speaker myself. I do still try to speak to the kids in Spanish, especially the baby who has no basis like the other kids do, but I'm only managing abotut 40% of the time. I also have found that in this area, I will try parenting tactics that I wouldn't normally do. Trying to force my kids to speak Spanish was only creating tension and even more resistance, so I ended up essentially bribing them to create some positive associations. For example, when it's a dessert night in our house, people who speak Spanish at dinner can have a sweet. Or, speaking 2 hours of Spanish on Saturday might be rewarded with an extra movie. I'm not really pleased about doing this, but it was a moment of desperation and seems to be working well without creating reward expectations in other areas....

We're still hoping to make it back to the Spanish speaking world in the next few years, so we'll keep it up for practical reasons, aside from the general benefits you mentioned. I'm energized by just having hosted a Spanish-only dinner for the 15 people we've found here who also speak it, and your post is adding to my momentum - thanks!

September 23, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterElizabeth

Thank you for your thoughts Elizabeth! I'm counting on that pull of the community language and wanting to fit in to help my kids learn French at school. While it is an English immersion program, they are in the minority as English speakers. Our son has appointed himself the role of class translator and translates what the teacher is saying for the kids who don't understand English. Not sure that will help with their immersion, but it works for improving his French.

September 23, 2009 | Unregistered Commenterphdinparenting

I wish I had continued in a bilingual/immersion French/English program but didn't (although, I can get by now). My kids certainly will be learning 2 languages (we start with my toddler with books).

There is an organization called Canadian Parents for French that helps unilingual parents ensure while their children learn French (including in Francophone programs). www.cpf.ca

September 23, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterRebecca

I'm English, my partner Fredrik (who is not my son's father) is Norwegian. Orion (my son) is four years old now, and I'd really like him to learn Norwegian as a second language. However Fredrik has lived here ten months now and has always spoken English to Orion. Do you think Orion is too old now for this to work, or that Fredrik suddenly switching from English to Norwegian might confuse him?

September 23, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterAnji

We speak to our children in both Greek and English. Mostly in English, but they do speak Greek, as well, and they understand the language. We'll send them to Greek School, too. And my oldest son, who just started kindergarten, is in French Immersion - which I sort of just found out accidentally yesterday - my mom, who was picking up my son from school, was told by another lady picking up her child: "This is their French week. It's neat how they do one week in English and one week in French, isn't it?" Um... okay... bad mommy over here didn't even know this! BUT I'm happy. It's a great thing, considering where we live! I struggle to this day because I'm not fluent in French. And I was wondering why he was going around saying Bonjour, comma ca va all day yesterday!

September 23, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterLoukia

@Anji: I don't think it would confuse him, but he might get indignant and insist on English. It may help to have Fredrik find a fun way to introduce it initially and then gradually work up to speaking it regularly. Maybe start with some games (like the language Bingo I linked to), picture books and that type of thing. Then once he has some basic ideas down, Fredrik could start reserving certain times/occasions for speaking Norwegian. Then he can increase that over time. A lot of it depends on your child's personality and interest level too. I would say get started and then play it by ear with regards to how far, how fast.

September 23, 2009 | Unregistered Commenterphdinparenting

I love the idea of speaking to my son (he's 9 months) in 2 languages. I'm nearly fluent in Spanish and speak it daily in my job. What has held me back from using it more with my son is the fear that my sometimes-poor grammar will hinder his language learning skills. Is it still beneficial to teach them another language if it isn't always spoken properly?

September 23, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterChristina

Absolutely it is still beneficial! He may end up making the same mistakes as you, but that is an awful lot better than not speaking it at all. He will be able to correct those mistakes later too by speaking with others.

September 23, 2009 | Unregistered Commenterphdinparenting

I have to say, your blog is rapidly becoming one of my favorites. ; )

I keep struggling with this very issue-- I am Chilean but have been living in the US since I was 11 years old. I am still "bilingual" but my Spanish is very rusty. I would love to do the "one parent one language" model but I just don't have the proficiency or vocabulary to do my son (19months) justice, so I am trying to instead just use Spanish whenever I think of it, which unfortunately is not that often... I have such a hard time getting into the habit ad being consistent. BUT it is so helpful to come across posts like this one, to encourage me once again. We are also hoping we can eventually enroll our children in an immersion program, or maybe live abroad when they're a little older.

September 23, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterMarcy

OK Annie. =) (Wow - there were more ideas than I thought there were)

1. My husband has made a diligent effort to speak Spanish to the girls from the time they were born because he knew it would be that much harder to begin as they grew older. He said it felt really, really strange to speak consistently to our oldest in Spanish since he spent most of his day speaking English. It got a lot easier and by the time our second was born he was old hat.

2. I remind them all when they have slipped into English rather than Spanish. This is important since the common language for my husband and I is English.

3. DH often responds to conversations begun by one of the kids with "No te entiendo." (I don't understand you) which is shorthand within the family for "Speak to me in Spanish."

4. DH tries to always respond in Spanish even if the kids have begun the conversation in English.

5. When the kids were little and spoke to DH in English he would acknowledge the correctness of what they were saying while propelling them into also saying the same thing in Spanish. Ex. "Yes, that is a bird. Como se dice 'bird' en Espanol?" (sorry - I'm on the computer with the English keyboard - Assume everything in my husband's voice is being said in Spanish even when I'm switching back and forth between languages).

6. When the kids were doing a mashup of Spanglish he would pull it apart for them and acknowledge the Spanish and ask them how to say the whole phrase in Spanish. "Yes, that's a 'white' casa (house). Como se dice 'white' en Espanol? Si, Blanco! La casa blanca....."

7. If they stumbled over words or pronunciation he would help them along. "I don't know hoooooooow to say ________." is normally met with descriptive prompts or beginning sounds to help get them started or over a bump in the middle of the words. He also does a lot of "If you say this word this way how do you think you might say this other word?"

8. It has been very gratifying to see the girls internalizing that it is not OK for them to be unable to speak to their family. Both of them will now tell you, if we are having a general conversation, that it would be unacceptable for them not to be able to speak to Mamita, Titi Yiya, etc. Sharing that expectation with them from before they were old enough to really understand has been one of the key underpinnings of their language acquisition.

9. The vast majority of TV and video in their lives until we moved to Mexico was in Spanish. The videos and DVDs had to have a Spanish language track and we had my SIL and MIL tape the Discovery Kids channel on 8-10 video tapes a year and the kids watched those along with the educational channels I had available in Spanish at home. The only times we watched in English is when I was involved and did not want to read captioning.

10. He has tried in all things to watch carefully when they are being cranky to be sure that when he needs me to back him up and present the united front I do. They are not allowed to play us off one another or ask me for something if they have approached their father first and then refused to speak in Spanish. We have never had to evaluate/reevaluate this because we've never had them dig in their heels and flat out refuse to speak in Spanish to him. If that became an issue and we were unable to arrange an extended vacation into a Spanish-speaking community we would have to look at this in a different way.

11. There have been many times he's refused a request from a kid because it was not made in Spanish. Depending on the importance of the request I may or may not be drafted to reinforce the language framework of our family. If you want dessert and begin by asking dad but won't ask for it in Spanish you will not be getting it from mom either. On the other hand there are conversations where the needs of the kid override the language expectation. This is pretty flexible from day to day and situation to situation as well as between the kids.

12. When our youngest was on her short-lived strike I spoke as much as I possibly could in Spanish to the kids and DH.

13. One language one person means exactly that. When we are out in public my husband continued to speak to the girls in Spanish. This meant there was some retraining and explaining that went on with my family and our friends. It was explained that we would not allow other people's misplaced worry that they were being "talked about" to interfere with our goal. Now that we are in Mexico I don't really have to explain since everyone in our lives understands I'm not fluent. I will flow back and forth between the languages as much as possible but spend the majority of my day speaking to them in English.

OK - That's all I can think of for right now. Phew!

September 23, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterCarol

One more quick thing. I've noticed that many of the points I make are really about our firm belief that speaking these two languages (at a minimum) is necessary and that DH and I need to work as a team on this. It would have been EXTREMELY easy for me to undermine my husband had I chosen to rather than presenting the kids with two parents equally valuing both languages.

September 23, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterCarol

Just want to thank you again for posting this, your blog and many of the responses here have inspired me to get back on the Spanish wagon. Gracias!

September 23, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterLizette

Just want to say these are EXCELLENT tips. I especially like the part about people worrying that they're being "talked about" when we go to playgroup I speak to DD in English because I'm afraid I'd seem rude if I spoke to her and one of the staff in Spanish. I love that you just met this head on and explained your family goals. This is definitely something I'd like to do!

September 23, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterLizette

Anji - I'd also recommend learning alongside your son. You can make it a great game just taking some of the fun things you guys do and tagging it with a little Norwegian. My girls learned "Ikke hopp" from playing with my husband's Norwegian host brother's daughters the last time we went for a visit.

September 23, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterCarol

It's definitely beneficial to speak, even if your skills are less than perfect! I'm not a native speaker either, but my kids learned the basics from me and have refined their Spanish skills by exposure to native speakers and good Spanish language materials.

September 23, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterElizabeth

Thank you for all of the tips Carol. I haven't had a chance to read/absorb in full yet. I was working all evening and now must head off to bed. But I will look at them in more detail and maybe print them off for someone else in my house. ;)

September 24, 2009 | Unregistered Commenterphdinparenting

i find #13 really hard. my inlaws and others understand, but when we're around little friends and cousins i feel like i need to speak spanish so they'll understand too. same goes for being around people we don't know in our small town - nobody speaks english here and sometimes my son really doesn't like all the attention he gets when he speaks... i try to speak in english and slip in some spanish translations sometimes, but it allows him to answer me in spanish - which is a slippery slope...

September 24, 2009 | Unregistered Commentermacondo mama

I am bilingual (first language is Spanish). My husband is monolingual (English). We decided that we would do our part to help my daughter learn both languages. Originally, the plan was for me to only speak Spanish to her. But, to be honest, I am not very good at it. I switch to English often. I think I will stick with whole sentences in one language. I will also gently remind my relatives to do the same. For some reason, they insist in speaking English, but they do not speak it well, so they mix languages lots. May I link to this on my blog? Great post, as usual! Thank you for sharing.

September 24, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterJohanna S

@Johanna S: Absolutely - feel free to link to it.

September 24, 2009 | Unregistered Commenterphdinparenting

May I ask where you find your movies in Spanish? I just did a search for Disney movies in Spanish and am not having much luck. Plus being in Canada it won't allow me to go to the Spanish Disney site....

September 24, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterLizette

@Lizette: Sorry...just realized you were looking for Disney. What about:
http://www.amazon.ca/gp/product/B000VFH5Z2?ie=UTF8&tag=phdinpar0f-20&linkCode=as2&camp=15121&creative=390961&creativeASIN=B000VFH5Z2" rel="nofollow">Ratatouille

September 24, 2009 | Unregistered Commenterphdinparenting

Thanks guys!

September 24, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterLizette

I really want to send Nolan to a French Immersion school. Matt and I only speak English, and I would have loved to learn French but my school was HORRIBLE for it. You were only required to take one year of French in grade nine, and my teacher handed out crossword puzzles and I felt I didn't learn anything. I was embarrassed that I couldn't even string one French sentence together.

I want Nolan to have the opportunity to be bilingual. I want him to learn French for sure (since Canada is mostly English and French) and whatever else he feels like learning. I hope to take him on many trips and I also want to encourage traveling before going to college. I want Nolan to see the world (or all of Canada at least lol) and really THINK about what he wants to do for the rest of his life before he jumps into a career.

I think I've already set too many goals and he's five months lol.

But ya, I plan on learning French (and any other languages) with Nolan. I'm going to take a few bilingual beginners courses at college so he won't be able to lip me back because I will KNOW lol. ;)

September 25, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterSarcastica

I'm proficient (but not fluent) in Spanish and I know a little Russian. I was very good with my first about listening to a lot of Spanish music and reading books in Spanish. In my area, it is tough to find bilingual programs which is unfortunate. And finding tutors or babysitters who speak another language and are able to work legally is also tough.

We keep our LeapFrog Table on Spanish and I have a Language Littles Russian Doll. I'd like to have playgroups in other languages but then I think everyone needs to actually speak the language and stay committed to speaking it while there--even if there are different levels of proficiency. There are several Spanish-speaking moms in my playgroup so maybe that will work out.

Did you read the bilingual edge? It is a great resource for parents looking at raising bilingual children.

September 25, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterCandace

Lizette, Have a look at the back of the DVD cases when you go into the stores. Often they will show the extra language tracks back there. A lot of our DVDs have English, Spanish and French soundtracks on them. It's the only way we would buy them.

BTW - My oldest LOVED Fiesta!

September 25, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterCarol

macondo mama - I hear you. I tend to do that myself when we are at the In-Laws. I have to say that my DH prioritized his needs and then went to work making sure he did what he needed to do to support the kids. I remember listening to him explain it once to a friend. For him it boiled down to this - his finish line is bilingual (now we're aiming for biliterate) kids. The people around him right now, in the moment (and the ones who had the highest probability of getting bent) are going to be nowhere around tomorrow, next week, next year, a decade from now. He's gotten very clear about who he needs to educate and who he can safely "ignore".

September 25, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterCarol

My DH had to really be clear with our friends and family that this was important and we were absolutely going to do it. We were also clear about how I (the partner speaking the then dominant language) had to help reinforce to the girls and the others in our life that this was OUR priority.

He was unapologetic about what he was doing and I backed him all the way. Do you have that kind of support set up with your partner?

September 25, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterCarol

My DH said the best thing he did, prior to kids, was to watch about 30 minutes of Spanish language TV before calling home. He also recommended to be that I get hooked on one of the novelas that we could get on the Spanish language channels we had available on cable. Is this possible for you?

September 25, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterCarol

@Carol: Most of them in Canada have only English and French, but if you look carefully you can find Spanish too.

September 25, 2009 | Unregistered Commenterphdinparenting

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